Thursday, July 15, 2010

Know thyself: finding my blind spot

I was raised a Catholic, of the more liberal and friendly Catholicism that was growing after Vatican II, and as a child I took its teachings on morality quite seriously. One such teaching was the fifth Commandment, translated to us as ‘you will not kill’, rather than the ‘thou shalt not murder’ interpreted by other Christians, the latter implying a difference between legitimate and illegitimate killing. For the child Shane, though, this was a simple injunction: you can’t kill people, ever.

Other Catholic teachings on things like contraception and premarital sex I gradually drifted away from, but that one idea about not killing stuck with me and has, I suppose, clouded my judgement in looking at violent world events since.

Spotting the blind spot
A few years ago it occurred to me as a useful exercise to look within myself and see what my blind spots were, what topics was I approaching with a closed mind. This aversion to killing was the most prominent, colouring everything I believed about war and peace. I wanted war to not work, because then I could say that my aversion to killing was a rational, pragmatic one. I interpreted every new suicide bombing in Iraq or Afghanistan as evidence that those wars – as all wars – were doomed to costly failure. I read Irish history and wanted to believe that the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence gave Ireland no more freedom than had already been promised to them through the peaceful politics of the Home Rule movement.

I became interested in martial arts, telling myself that individuals could defend themselves from criminals with nonfatal violence: fists and feet instead of bullets. As absurd as this sounds, I suspect Saturday morning cartoons showing Batman and Spiderman fight but not kill criminals may have reinforced this faith in nonfatal violence. Really killing was a blind spot for me, warping my understanding of world events. (Readers here might spot this, for example in my post on the apparent increase in terrorism after the launch of the war on terror. Again, I want to think war can’t succeed – so be a little wary when you read me discussing violence!)

Reactionary alright
In university I was exposed to a lot of left-wing thought for the first time. In some ways this seemed to suit me with its apparent concern for the poor and opposition to some of the high-profile wars of the early 2000s. For a few years I was steeped in this; we were given little interpretation of world events that came from any but a centre-left consensus.

Partly as a response to that, and partly because I later encountered lots of sensible right-wing argument, I have since swung away from the left to an extent which may also cloud my judgement. Now viewpoints which five years ago would have been familiar and compelling only irritate me. I write off government interventions in the market without bothering to think them through – because they annoy me, not because they don’t make sense.

So this is another, lesser, blind spot: a kneejerk reaction that dismisses left-wing argument without really taking the time to explore it. I find myself automatically opposing striking workers in Greece just as years earlier I was automatically supporting them.

Daft idealism
Part of this comes from an odd idealistic streak: I seem to want the world to make sense so I am vulnerable to ideologies, of any kind. I swing from environmentalism to socialism to anarcho-capitalism. I just don’t like the idea that the world is so complex and contradictory that there is not a simple and self-evident moral template that I can apply to best understand it, so when I read about a new idea for the first time, excitement kicks in. To quote This is Spinal Tap:
I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn't believe anything.
At least I'm aware of this tendency to idealise and I do have a kind of solution, in conservatism. Rather than imagining Utopian societies that might exist, I force myself to demand real world examples of whatever ideology is exciting me at present. In that sense the clumsy and inefficient welfare-state liberal democracy which I am lucky to live in today tends to score pretty well.

Anyway these are some things I need to be aware of and careful of. I imagine everyone has blind spots, but few acknowledge them or seek to avoid them. Readers, feel free to explain your own blind spots if you like: what little biases do you have that tend to warp your world view?


  1. In every Russian, I suppose, much of a Soviet backbone remains. That is some kind of collective thinking - feeling that you are only an element of one big machine and you, personally, can't change anything. This is what makes most Russians so passive.

  2. Interesting RT. I've heard people say something broadly similar about Irish, or rural Irish: a sense of fatalism. But this (supposedly, I'm not sure that it's true) pessimism tends to lead to a fairly stress-free life: if everything is going to fall apart, might as well just have a few drinks and a laugh :P

  3. That's a nice way of tackling the fatalism issue I must say :D Russians would rather sit, drink and whine :)))


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