Tuesday, January 19, 2016

On The Outside Looking In: The Paradox of Perspective

Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, we're all multicultural, and we all wish to be on the inside of whatever community we happen to be courting at any point in time. Our confirmation bias makes us seek and trust others whose multiculturalism is harmonized with ours, but keeps us watchful for the slightest divergence (an offhand remark or gesture, perhaps) to reconfirm our suspicion about said others.

Being on the outside looking in gives you a valuable perspective for those on the inside, or so you think when you're the one on the outside. Those on the inside are quick to decide that your perspective is not useful, tautologically, because you're on the outside, and vice versa.

I have a small replica of the Rosetta Stone above my desk at school, and used to have a mousepad shaped like one. I thought that my comparative advantage -- professionally, socially, politically, and in every other way -- was in my ability to translate cultures on the inside to those on the outside and the other way around. Now I think that this may be a futile exercise: How can you convince those who want translation that you truly understand the two languages -- ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian on the Rosetta Stone, Economics and its critiques professionally, Islamic scholarship and its critiques professionally and socially, Egyptian and American cultures, and so on?

More difficult still, when they think that they already have a dictionary and good translations (on the inside), how can you convince them that their translators' understanding of the two languages was flawed? Can you convince yourself? Aren't you essentially arguing that you're the one on the inside of this cultural bridge, and that their other translators are the ones outside that bridge looking in?

Rumi famously composed the verses about blind people in a room, each holding a different part of the elephant, and each insisting based on their differential experiences that the elephant is something different from what the others profess it to be. You would think that a sighted person standing at appropriate distance -- for example, Rumi -- shedding a light on the situation, and describing the full elephant and how you can reconcile the varied experiences described by others, would be offering a valuable perspective. Why should those on the inside need Rumi, though: they will say that they are the ones experiencing the elephant directly, and they can aggregate their experiences without his help -- thank you, very much.


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