Conflicting Realities

In my ongoing explication of the “everybody lives in a different reality” theme, today we’re going to discuss the smart-aleck question that everybody always brings up, which goes something like “Well, in my reality, it’s okay for me just to take whatever I want without paying; how come the police come and arrest me if I get to define my reality?”

The answer is pretty straightforward I think. If your reality does not take into account the overarching principle that other people may live in different realities than your own, you’re going to have problems. Just because your reality lets you steal with impunity does not mean that others’ realities do. And then you stand faced with a situation of conflicting realities.

How does one resolve a conflict between realities? If there are no absolutes to which to appeal, no One True Reality, what possible mechanism can be used to decide which reality is “right”?

One possibility is that force settles the issue. Policemen have guns, and therefore their reality takes precedence in a clash between realities. The same holds true when a mugger demands money. It also held when America claimed that Iraq had WMDs. Do I think it’s “right” that force gets to decide whose reality wins? Not really. But it works. As Heinlein quips in one of his books, those who say that violence never settles anything should consult the Carthaginians.

But what about cases where the two realities are evenly matched forces, or where the use of force would be inappropriate? Then a conflict between realities can only be settled via negotiation. I describe this process of diplomacy in part 3 of the Latour review, e.g. “Only slowly, through preliminary negotiations, pourparlers, will a collective agree to reconsider its own constitution, by differentiating what is essential from what is superfluous”.

However, if one side refuses to accept even the possibility of other realities, it makes diplomacy difficult if not impossible. That side can not “differentiate between what is essential and what is superfluous: it will go to war over anything, because it sees everything as equally necessary.” (ibid.) Unfortunately, refusing to accept different realities is common. Liberals like myself can’t understand what conservatives are thinking, and vice versa. Programmers don’t understand why the eyes of their coworkers glaze over when they start nattering on about the details of their code. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. etc.

I think there’s a lot of work that can be done in this realm. There’s a strong need for “Latour-ian diplomats”, who can negotiate between conflicting realities, who can forget everything that they “know” and come at things with a fresh perspective. I’ve had the outline of a post for over a year on the principle of “cultivated ignorance”, where I try to learn to turn off my expertise in an area long enough to help me communicate with those who don’t have such expertise (e.g. explaining technical coding design decisions to non-programmers such as managers) (this is similar to the role of “techno-cultural translator” that Beemer posited in the comments on this post) . Maybe I’ll dig out my notes on that and try to put it together for tomorrow.

P.S. I also need to catch up on book reviews. I read Freakonomics, which is fast but really shallow, and today I used my BART ride to finish The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, which requires a much more substantive review. Maybe I’ll catch up on those reviews over the weekend.

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