I want to understand people. I want to understand why people—all people—are who they are, why they think the way they think, why they believe what they believe, why they say what they say, and why they do what they do. What would such understanding require?
It would require that I be Muslim.
It would require that I be an immigrant.
It would require that I be a woman.
It would require that I be poor.
It would require that I be black.
It would require that I be Russian.
It would require that I be Jewish.
It would require that I be unemployed.
It would require that I be a high school dropout.
It would require that I be a factory worker.
It would require that I be an inner city resident.
I’m not any of those things. I’m a Christian, native-born, male, middle-class, white, American, educated, employed, white-collar worker who lives in the rural South. And I’m happy to be what I am. I don’t want to give those things up.
But if I am really to understand all people, it would require that I be everything I’m not, in addition to what I am.
And if I really want to understand everybody, I guess it would even require that I be a bigoted, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, jingoistic science-denier—you know, things I really, really, really don’t want to be.
I really do want to understand people. I want to understand them fully, completely, and totally. I want to understand them comprehensively.
When I started thinking about this, I thought about saying it would be helpful to be a Muslim for a day, an immigrant for a day, and so forth. But that wouldn’t go far enough. You know the old saying, “Walk a mile in my shoes”? A mile-long walk isn’t an adequate experience. I’d have to live someone’s entire life, have their entire background, and their entire experience if I’m really going to understand them.
And I couldn’t do it by groups or by categories. I’d have to do it person-by-person. I’d have to share the experience of every individual in the world. After all, every person’s experience is different. For example, there are different branches of Islam, one could be born a Muslim in a large number of differing contexts, and it matters what family you’re part of. And there are all sorts of genetic, developmental, cultural, and social factors that could influence you. Each Muslim, like each Christian or Buddhist or atheist, is different from each other one.
Everybody’s unique. So to truly understand humanity in its totality, I’d have to have the life experiences of every person in the world. Since there are about 7.4 billion people in the world, it would be hard to do. And since there are around 250 births per minute world-wide (or about 360,000 per day), it would also be pretty hard to keep up.
See, here’s the thing: experience produces perspectives and assumptions. Because of who I am, what I’ve done, where I’ve been, what I’ve studied, and who has influenced me, I have certain ways of looking at and thinking about things. Because of who I am, I tend to respond in particular ways to situations, issues, and people.
I wish I could have everybody else’s experiences, perspectives, and assumptions. But I can’t, so I will go through life being very limited in my ability to really understand other people. So what can I do?
I can do the next best things: I can learn all I can about what makes other people who they are. I can refuse to dismiss other people’s experience. I can study history. I can read literature from other cultures. I can view films made from other points of view. And I can get to know people other than those who share most of my defining characteristics.
If I can’t have everybody else’s experiences and see things from their point of view, at least I can try to move beyond my default setting that prompts me to value my experiences and perspectives above all others.