Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On not being able to see the forest... and other lost wisdom

I teach Sociology classes. My favorite, no offense to those of you out there taking other classes with me, is still and will always be SO 101. The Introduction to Sociology.

One of the very first things we go over in that class is the difference between being subjective and objective. The idea is that all sociologists must remain objective (or value free as Weber asserted) at all costs. The only way to tell students that they have to remain objective is to define the word for them. I know it sounds crazy, but for some reason those words do not get defined in high school. And so I tell them "To be subjective is to be too close to something, and to be objective is to take a step back and look at the whole picture." I get blank stares. My next, and best, example is to use an old saying that my grandmother used to use. I bring it into the discussion for two reasons: the first is what I just said, it is a good example of the concept, definition and comparison of the two terms. Secondly, I know they won't know the saying and I use it as a teachable moment.

Subjectivity is the word that defines the old saying "you can't see the forest for the trees."

I get another blank stare. "Haven't you ever heard that?"I say to more blank stares. I then continue with an example I know they will get. "A new born baby is really very ugly, but because parents and family are so close to the infant, they can't see anything but transcendent beauty." When I use that, I can feel the collective Ahhhhhhh, in the room. They get it. But I am not done.

The question I pose is an important one. Why is it we have forgotten the wisdom of old sayings? Why can't I simply use the terrific analogy of being inside of the forest and therefore unable to see the forest? We have been robbed, robbed I tell you of easy communication. We lose these things and we lose part of our collective history. Not good. Not good at all.

It is the same thing with fairy tales. Damnable Disney. Those stories were warnings, they were meaningful folklore passed down carefully through the ages to warn us and keep us safe. All they do now is tell our young girls that everyone seems to find their one true love at sixteen. Bah humbug to Disney Princesses. I do buy the crap, it must be noted, I have three girls and am not a boycotting kind of person, but at least I can see the hypocrisy. I can remain objective about my own flaws. I can see my own forest, the path in... and the path out.

I am beginning to believe that the lost saying itself created a group of people in our society that have completely forgotten about the power of objectivity. The 'stepping outside of ourselves' to view the whole situation. We are not the most important people. Think about it:

A married couple is arguing. Both feel wronged, both feel they have the most compelling side to argue, both are hurt. Is there a right or wrong side here? Yes, probably. Someone is probably much righter than someone else. The thing is, it doesn't matter. You can be right all you want and in the end the person is still hurt and angry. How is that a win?

The trick is to levitate. Bring yourself out of yourself and see the whole situation. Why are you hurt? Why is the other hurt? What role, if any did you play(and you did... trust me)? Why did you do that? If you can see where you went wrong in arguing your own case, even if you are right, and you can calmly explain how you think you are adding to the escalation of the argument, the argument ends and rational discussion begins. Good old objectivity.

It can be used on a micro level, like in the example above and can extend into any sort of interpersonal relationships. It has been of tremendous help to my teenager who has gracefully side stepped sticky social situations using this objective technique, and I think it keeps her feelings from getting too bruised. It can also be used in macro situations, at a societal level. Think about war. Wouldn't it be better to figure out how the other side fights before ramming our rules of war down their throats and then becoming upset when they don't follow them?

On a personal level it helps with loss and rejection. As most of you know I am going through the process of trying to get my book published. I thought the biggest hurdle would be writing the actual book, but getting people to read it is harder. Some have read the whole thing, and nicely rejected it. Some have read parts and wanted to see more. Some have requested parts and complimented my query. Some don't like my query. There was one agent who thought the pace of my story was not fast enough, there was another who thought it felt rushed.

Here is what I know. I will get the thing published. And not in a vanity press sort of way, electronic or otherwise. It may happen soon, it may happen after I sell book number two or even book number three. I just know it. I can see the forest for the trees and I know that each agent is different and each has a life of their own. They have new babies or old parents or are going through a divorce. They are having a good day or a bad day. It really doesn't matter what I think about my own work. I could scream from the top of my house that I know the book would be a bestseller and that I was born to write. And I could be right... but so what? Again, it doesn't matter how right I am. Actually, being subjective can be exhausting, being objective on the other hand lets us sit back and think of all the other reasons we are in the predicament we are in. It allows us to rationalize, which is both good and bad.

The truth is objectivity does tend to suck the passion out of many things. It sucks the fun out of politics and deep seeded, one sided opinion. Objectivity is really quite boring, and in many cases, sideless... but I like it that way. It allows us to "stay on the fence" whatever that means.

I think I might make this a series. Lost sayings. Next week it will be "Sleeping the sleep of the just." What do you think?


  1. Personally I feel it is a lot easier to stay subjective. Not many people are open to the opinions and views of those around them, especially when they are in disagreement. Being objective is a little more difficult. It does opens the door to multiple perspectives but many people are closed minded and are not willing to see the situation in any other view but their own. Like I learned in English this past semester, I believe that even if we don't agree with the views of someone else we should still be able to see and understand where they are coming from, only then will progress be made.

  2. You are right. It is the hardest thing. I hope this class can give you all a few pointers because if you all get good at being objective, you will be good at so many other things!

  3. I definitely think that, while being objective is hard, it is important to train our minds to think that way. I can see how being objective has helped you to not get discouraged about your book getting published- you were able to view all different points of view instead of simply looking at your own. People need to be more objective-- they'd be a lot happier and freer!