classic optical illusion: how old is this woman?

classic optical illusion: how old is this woman?

We live in a world where there are as many perspectives as there are people. These perspectives are often only a mouse click away. Now more than even we have the opportunity to learn about the many different ways people interpret events, relationships, politics etc. Yet, despite the overwhelming amount of information, people seem to be just as alienated from different perspectives as they were before the internet hit the masses. Democrats hate republicans, and vice versa, Arabs dislike Jews, and vice versa, Europeans don’t understand the Muslims in their midst, the Muslims don’t understand the Europeans, Americans dislike Hugo Chavez, Hugo Chavez dislikes Americans. The French and the Americans, The Turks and the Kurds, the Shii and the Sunni, the Hutu’s and the Tutsi, This list goes on and on.


One would assume that the enormous increases of information at the tips of our fingers would be instrumental in bridging those differences. Not so. One only has to browse through different blogs, articles, message boards, chartrooms, newspapers etc to find out that the wealth of information is being used to reinforce one’s own perspective instead of trying to understand the perspective of the other. Information is being selected, processed and redistributed in such a way that nothing ever changes, and instead of seeing each other as more human, we end up dehumanizing each other further. In conflicts in which lives are on the line, these differences in perspectives matter. As the ability to see something from the perspective of the other goes hand in hand with the ability to have empathy for the other, both necessary and interdependent prerequisites that allow human beings to see other as human. Perspective, empathy and humanity are the three pillars in creating a more human, more peaceful world. Vice versa, conflict resolution and peace negotiations can’t take place in an environment where people no longer see the perspective and therefore the humanity of the other.

In my previous blogs I have written a little about differences in perspectives. They play a role in the Israel-Palestine conflict where two different perspectives on the conflict clash as hard as the people having the perspectives. The Israelis sees the Arabs as the modern day Hitlers, bent on their destruction, while the Arabs see the Israelis as colonizers and land robbers. Differences in perspectives play a role in the rising islamophobia in Europe’s capital where the western mind for example can’t understand the eastern demand for Sharia laws and the eastern mind for example can’t grasp what it sees as western decadence. (see https://owlminerva.wordpress.com/2009/04/15/a-few-thoughts-on-dunbar-ii-and-the-clash-of-civilizations/)

So what is going on?

Perspectives are stranger than we think. They are mental habits, as comfortable to our brain as an old pair of shoes is to our feet. They are mental layers that protect us from too much difference, without telling us however that the price we pay for this comfort is less of the truth instead of more. Perspectives are self-perpetuating. Once they are there they find ways of reinforcing themselves as if they have an existence of their own. Existing perspectives resist competing perspectives by influencing the individual to perceive the world selectively, to process information erroneously and to remember information selectively or worse, wrongly. We can call these the defense mechanisms of narrative perspectives. We think we are in control over the way we judge things. We believe we have chosen our perspectives freely and we believe that we judge fairly. But we don’t own our perspectives. They own us. And to the extent that we are dominated by our perspective, we are incapable of judging anything fairly. For the comfort, safety and stability that perspectives offer us, most of us accept the prison they impose on our minds.

I like to compare perspectives to optical illusions. For example, look at the picture of the young woman above. If you look long enough, you will see a very old woman appear in the same picture. Once you see the old woman, it is very hard to see the young woman. And vice versa. I believe our perspectives of the world around us are like that. Even though these differences in perspective are narrative and not optical in nature, the same dynamic holds. It is possible to see the same event from different narrative angles. There are many reasons why something in us decides upon a certain angle to begin with. The angle can be taught to us, it can fit in with a pre-existing cognitive scheme, it might complement our religious, political, ethical values, or it might be the most convenient angle or most self-serving one. However, once we have decided upon an angle, it becomes nearly impossible to shift and see a different angle. Most of us are not even aware that we have these perspectives to begin with. Our brain resists such awareness. If we are that lucky to be aware of our angle we try our hardest to justify that angle, making it into a matter of right and wrong, thereby decreasing the chances that we would try to shift our perspective. Perspectives are tyrannical in the sense that once they have a hold over us they have strategies to maintain that hold and bar other perspectives from flooding our consciousness.

One might ask: “what if my perspective is the right one? What do I have to gain then from seeing something from a different perspective?” And to that one might answer, that first of all there is no perspective that is 100% correct, as nobody up to this point in history knows everything there is to know. So everybody can learn something from another perceptive. Narrative Perspective Blindness, as I like to call the inability to switch perspectives, deprives ones brain of the information it needs to formulate more appropriate conclusions. Second of all, how can we know whether or not our perspective is right or wrong if we are locked in the perspective to begin with? We have no point of reference in deciding how right or wrong our point of view is. One needs to be able to be outside perspectives in order to be able to judge them. Since we can’t look at anything without a perspective to begin with such outside reference point is in principle impossible. Thirdly, even in the impossible case that our perspective was 100% correct, not understanding the perspective of the other will still prevent us from understanding the humanity of the other. Perspective and empathy are mutually dependent upon each other. Unless one has no interest in creating a more peaceful and just world, there is nothing more important than understanding the perspective of the other so that once can remain in touch with the humanity of the other. Not only is this ability to see different narratives a moral necessity, (one simply can’t be a good person without the capacity of seeing different perspectives); it is also a matter of intelligent strategy. One can’t be a good statesman, a good lobbyist, a good peace activist, a good lawyer or a good humanitarian without this capacity to see something from another human being’s point of view.

The good news is that it is possible to break the oppression of our perspectives. Just like we can practice and we can get better in optical illusions to the point that it is possible to switch perspectives in the blink of an eye, even up to the point that it is possible to see the young woman and the old woman at the same time, and extend this ease to new optical illusions, it is also possible to train our brain in understanding different narrative angles. The more open, flexible and wider we train our brain to be, the less our ‘orthodox’ perspective controls us. Part of this training is getting used to the uncertainty and the anxiety that accompanies seeing different angles at first. Entering a different narrative perspective is as scary as entering a foreign land of which one doesn’t know the rules, the language and the customs. It is leaving behind certainty and opening oneself up to the possibility that what one believed before could have been wrong. It is learning to live with uncertainty and vulnerability. It requires mental strength and moral courage. Not something a lot of us have; but something that a lot of us can learn to cultivate. We don’t have to be the victim of our own mindsets. We can learn to juggle perspectives, learn to hold them in suspension in the air so that we can examine them, study them and learn to understand them. What seems like a miracle now can become a mental habit as familiar to us as brushing our teeth. Surfing the internet and reading the articles, essays and blogs of a lot of smart, well intentioned bunch of people, I am getting the impression that no matter how smart and well intentioned one is, without this capacity for shifting perspectives and empathy, nothing will ever be gained. No matter how well intentioned one is, without the ability to ultimately see the other as human, one will always do more damage than good.

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Israel’s conscience: The weekly column of Uri Avnery

Can Two Walk Together?

I AM not saying that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an agent of the Mossad.Absolutely not. I don’t want to be sued for libel.

I am only saying that were he an agent of the Mossad, he would not behave any differently.

And also: If he did not exist, the Mossad would have had to invent him.

Either way, the assistance he is giving to the government of Israel is invaluable.

LET’S LOOK at last week’s scandal.

Years ago, a conference against racism was convened by the UN in Durban, South Africa. It was natural that such a forum would denounce, among others, the Israeli government for its policy towards the Palestinians – the occupation, the settlements, the wall.

But the conference was not content with this. It turned into a platform for wild incitement against the State of Israel – and only against it. No other state in the world was denounced for violating human rights – and among the denouncers were some of the most obnoxious tyrants in the world.

When preparations were made for a second “Durban Conference”, this time in Geneva, the Israeli government did everything in its power to convince at least the countries of North America and Europe to boycott it. That was not so easy. Well before the start of the conference, the US succeeded in eliminating the reference to Israel in the draft of its final document (leaving only a reference to the resolutions of the first conference), and in the end it decided to boycott the conference anyway. But the European countries agreed to attend.

The Israeli government was anticipating the conference with great apprehension. The atrocities of the Gaza War have turned public opinion in many countries against Israel. The conference could become an outlet for these emotions. The brightest minds in Jerusalem were trying to find ways to prevent this.

And then along came Ahmadinejad. Since he was the only head of state to attend, the organizers could not prevent him from speaking first. He delivered a provocative speech – not being satisfied with criticizing Israel, his words dripped with unbridled hatred. That was a welcome pretext for the European representatives to get up and walk out in an impressive pro-Israeli demonstration. The conference became ridiculous.

If the “Elders of Zion” had planned the conference, it could not have ended better as far as the Israeli government is concerned.

ALL THIS happened on Holocaust Day, when Jews in Israel and all over the world commemorate the millions of victims of the genocide.

The memory of the Holocaust unites all the Jews in the world. Every Jew knows that if the Nazis had reached him, he, too, would have gone to the death camps. We, who were then living in Palestine, knew that if the German general Erwin Rommel had broken through the British lines at El Alamein, our fate would have been that of the Warsaw Ghetto.

All Jews feel that it is their moral duty to keep the memory of the victims alive. To this profound feeling there is added a political consideration: the memory of the Holocaust causes most Jews everywhere to support the State of Israel, which defines itself as the “State of the Shoa Survivors”.

But time passes and memories fade. There is a recurrent need for a present, actual enemy, a “Second Hitler”, who arouses all the latent fears lurking in the Jewish soul. Once it was Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, the “Egyptian Tyrant”. Then Yasser Arafat played this role. Nowadays there is Hamas, but that is hardly sufficient. No way to convince anyone that Hamas could possibly annihilate Israel.

Ahmadinejad is the ideal candidate. He is a consistent Holocaust denier. He declares that the “Zionist entity” must disappear from the map. He is working on the production of a nuclear bomb. This is serious – a few nuclear bombs on Israeli population centers can indeed wipe out Israel.

So we have a “Second Hitler”, who is planning a ”Second Holocaust”. Against him, all the Jews of the world can unite. What would we do without him?

THE PUTATIVE Iranian nuclear bomb fulfills another very important role. It is serving now as an instrument for the obliteration of the Palestinian problem.

Next month Netanyahu will present himself at the White House. That might turn out to be a fateful meeting. President Barack Obama may demand a clear commitment to start a peace process that will lead towards the creation of the Palestinian state. Netanyahu will make a desperate effort to avoid this, since peace would mean the evacuation of the settlements. If he agreed to this, his coalition would fall apart.

What to do? Thank God for the Iranian bomb! It constitutes an existential threat against Israel. It is self-evident that the Israeli Prime Minister should not be bothered with bagatelles like peace with the Palestinians when the Iranian nuclear sword is dangling above his head!

Netanyahu’s predecessors also used this ploy. Whenever somebody raises the matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and demands that our government start real negotiations, freeze the settlements, dismantle the outposts, release prisoners, end the blockade on the population of the Gaza Strip, remove the roadblocks – the Iranian bomb appears ex machina. No time to think about anything else. The bomb heads our agenda. The bomb is our agenda.

There is a lot of irony in this. Iran has never been the least bit interested in the plight of the Palestinians. Ahmadinejad, too, doesn’t give a damn. Like all other Middle East governments he uses the Palestinian cause to further his own interests. Now he wants to penetrate the Sunni Arab world in order to turn Iran into the dominant regional power. For this purpose, he raises the banner of the Palestinian resistance. But for the time being, he has only succeeded in pushing the Sunni Arab regimes into the arms of Israel.

AHMADINEJAD’S MOST enthusiastic fans sit in the Ministry of Defense in Tel-Aviv. What would they do without him?

Every year, the struggle over the defense budget breaks out anew. This year, with the economic crisis, the debate will be even more acrimonious. Little Israel maintains one of the largest and most expensive military establishments in the world. Relative to the GNP (gross national product), we easily trump the United States, not to mention Europe.

Must one ask why? Israel is surrounded by enemies who are plotting to destroy us! True, Egypt is now the most loyal collaborator of Israel, Iraq has quit the game for the time being, Syria has long since ceased to be a threat. Jordan is humble, the Palestinian Authority dances to our tune. It is hard to justify a giant defense budget for fighting little Hizbullah and tiny Hamas.

But there is Iran, thank God. And there is the fearsome Iranian bomb. Here you have an honest to God existential danger. Our Air Force declares that it is ready to take off any day – no, any minute – and eradicate all the many Iranian nuclear installations.

For that they need money, lots of money. They need the most advanced airplanes in the world, each of which costs many, many millions. They need suitable equipment for reaching the targets and fulfilling the task. That is more important than education, health or welfare. After all, the Iranian bomb will kill all of us – including the children, the sick and the underprivileged. (The tycoons may perhaps succeed in getting out in time.)

The budget will be approved, but the flyers will not fly. It is not clear whether such an attack is at all feasible. Neither is it clear if it would significantly postpone the production of the bomb. But it is clear that such an attack is not possible politically: it cannot be executed without the express confirmation of the US, and there is no chance that this will be forthcoming. The attack would almost automatically cause the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, through which all the Gulf oil is shipped. That would be catastrophic, especially during a world-wide economic crisis, when a huge rise in the price of oil can cripple the already weakened economies. No, our valiant pilots will have to content themselves with bombing residential neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip.

IT COULD be argued: if Ahmadinejad behaves like a Mossad agent, Avigdor Lieberman behaves like an agent of Iranian intelligence.

I don’t say so, God forbid. I really don’t want to be sued for libel.

But Lieberman’s behavior is indeed – how to put it – slightly bizarre.

True, for a moment he looked like a winner. After he sent Hosny Mubarak to hell, the Israeli media reported that the most important Egyptian minister had met with him, shaken his hand and invited him to Egypt. Perhaps he wanted to show him around the Aswan dam, which Lieberman once wanted to bomb. But the next day a furious Mubarak reacted by denying the story and declaring that Lieberman will not be allowed to set foot on Egyptian soil.

In the meantime, an important newspaper in Russia published an interview with Lieberman, in which he asserted that “the US will accept all our decisions.” Meaning: we rule America, Obama will do as we tell him.

Such talk will not increase Israel’s popularity in the White House, to say the least. Especially just now, after it was disclosed that the Israeli Lobby, AIPAC, has asked a congresswoman to intervene in favor of two American Jews indicted for spying for Israel. In return, AIPAC promised to get the Congresswoman appointed as chairwoman of a very important committee. How? Simple: AIPAC will tell the majority leader of the House that if she does not comply. a Jewish billionaire will stop contributing to her election fund. Not a very savory disclosure.

In brief, the Iranian Ahmadinejad and the Israeli Lieberman are Siamese twins. The one needs the other. Lieberman rides on the Iranian bomb, Ahmadinejad rides on Israeli threats.

“Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” asked the prophet Amos (3:3). The answer is: Yes, indeed. These two can very well walk hand in hand without agreeing on anything.

http://www.avnery-news.co.il/english/

palestineimagesThe story of the Palestinian children’s orchestra (Strings for Peace, see previous blog entry) has kept me occupied. My mind keeps returning to the fact that the Palestinian children had never heard of the Holocaust. We know that Palestinians prefer not to talk about the Holocaust, because they fear that the Holocaust will be used to legitimize their own dispossession. We also know that seeing the other as the victim of something so horrendous would imply seeing the other as human, which people who are at war with each other avoid at all cost. And finally we know that some of the most hateful extremists deny the Holocaust out of pure spite against Israel and the West. However, whole generations growing up alongside Israel’s borders without even the most basic knowledge of this ultimate evil is very scary. The names of the death camps (Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmno), should be engraved in the memory of all of us as places where people were send for the sole purpose of being slaughtered by the millions in an industrialized fashion. They have to be engraved in our memories because part of being human is to be aware of the evil we are capable of, and there is no bigger evil than the evil that was committed in these camps. It is the responsibility of all of us to remember and be aware. Not knowing is inexcusable and unacceptable. Palestinians should know first of all because they are human. However, they should also know because they are involved in struggle with the people that were the victim of this. How can one make peace with an enemy one does not understand?

Vice versa, it has also become more clear to me that Israelis don’t understand Palestinians much better. It seems to me that Israelis have settled upon their own version and interpretation of their history in the Arab world and base their policies upon this interpretation. This interpretation often involves the denial of the unique identity of the Palestinians as Palestinians, the denial of the right of the Palestinians to a piece of land that can be the foundation of a sustainable state, and all sorts of opinions on the responsibilities of surrounding Arab nations. There is very little compassion for the circumstances the Palestinians in the occupied territories. On the contrary, these circumstances are often being denied, even the occupation itself is often being denied.

It is hard to understand how Israel and Palestine will be able to make peace with each other without recognizing either the history or the identity of the other. What seems to be desperately lacking in years and years of ‘peace processing’ is some form of openness to the story of the other and the willingness to see each the other as human. Not much dialogue is needed to understand another human being. All that is needed to have empathy is openness, a little imagination, and the capacity to see the other as a human being with the same desires and fears as ourselves. Without compassion for the other, there can be no wisdom, and without wisdom, conflict can never progress into a lasting peace.

In conjunction with all of the above, I have thought about my own problems debating this issue with people that hold different positions from myself. I am wondering whether or not the same problems people face debating this issue on a micro level aren’t exactly the same problems, maybe to different degrees, that occur on a macro level between Israel and Palestine.

A couple of the things I have learned:

1) Anybody entering this conflict narrative should be aware of the fact that this debate is very old and positions have hardened. This does not mean however that emotions have cooled down. On the contrary. When it comes to this conflict, the most reasonable people are capable of the most unreasonable reactions. The fierceness of the debate, combined with the fact that the arguments pro and against are so old, makes it very hard for a ‘novice’ to enter it. There are standard responses for standard criticisms and standard attacks for the same criticisms. More often than not an attack constitutes the response.

2) Trust is very hard to build. One has to remember at all times that one is debating a people that has faced the worst. A people cannot face the worst and comes out of it unscathed. The fear of anti-Semitism is real and justified. So it is important to exercise restraint. This is one of the responses I received by somebody who believes I do not exercise enough restrain in debating Israel:

“Feelings about the Holocaust is something that runs extremely deep in many of us. In me, it’s a gnawing pain. My mother very nearly lost her life and her father did. When you love somebody who experienced such rabid racism first-hand – you kind of get upset when your friends can’t see how hurt you are. Maybe we are too sensitive to criticisms of Israel, but you should try to be a little more sensitive to your friends. You know, bite your tongue from time to time. Realize that however incensed you are by the treatment of the Palestinians, that your friends may get really truly hurt by your opinions.” (Kate)

I am no diplomat. And I have a lot more to learn. My perspectives need to widen. Wisdom doesn’t only come from compassion, but from perspective as well. I hope to be as open as possible to anything that can help me understand something.

HOWEVER,

After one has taken into account a very long history of anti-Semitism culminating in a Holocaust and all the fear and pain associated with this history.

After one has taken into account the long history of the Jewish people in the lands that are being disputed.

After one has taken into account the many contributions of the Jews to our own history and current material prosperity, richness of ideas etc,

After one has reassured as much as one can that the existence of Israel is not at stake, that it should not be at stake, and if it is at stake then the whole world should come to its defense,

And finally, after one has made sure that anti-Semitism is not an option,

One should be able to express that what is happening in the occupied territories is wrong. That a country should not have ‘occupied territories’ to begin with. One can and should argue that all of the above factors make Israel’s predicament understandable. It places it within a context. However, it doesn’t justify anything or even makes it tolerable. Understanding the behavior of a country or being sympathetic to this country does not mean we should tolerate the behavior. In other words, while the past, the present and fears about the future might make the irresponsible behavior of a country comprehensible, it doesn’t make it defensible. The actions of Israel in West bank, Gaza and East-Jerusalem are deeply wrong, to say the least. Israel is to a large extend responsible for the fact that a few million Palestinians are either living as second class citizens within Israel (threatened at the very moment by a foreign minister that wants to expel them) or without any nationality and rights in either refugee camps in other Arab countries or in West bank and Gaza. If Israel itself cannot fix this situation, that it is the responsibility of the rest of the world to intervene. One has to be able to say this much. Silence cannot have the last word, as silence creates complicity.

I keep thinking about the concept of a no-mans-land. There should be a zone where people can exchange stories, thoughts, sentiments and even opinions without being ‘blasted’ viciously by the other. In a land that is claimed by two people, maybe a zone that doesn’t belong to any of them is necessary to make such a dialogue possible.

To end this essay on a happier note. Thinking about the terrible fact that there is so much Holocaust taboo and straight out anti-Semitism in the Arab world, I was browsing the web and found this project: Project Aladin. It is a multilingual website (in Arabic, Persian, French, English, and soon in Turkish) supported by over a 100 muslim intellectuals and a lot of western politicians and thinkers (among them Chirac, Simone Weil, etc) which provides information in a simple fashion on the Holocaust, on the Jews and on the relationship between Jews and Muslims throughout history. Accompanying the website is an online library where members are able to download freely reference books on the Holocaust translated into Arabic and Persian. They include such classics as Anne Frank’s “Diary”, “If This Is a Man” by Primo Levi, “Hitler and the Jews “by the Swiss historian Philippe Burrin, and” Sonderkommando “by Shlomo Venezia. Please check it out. Such initiatives deserve a little attention in a world that seems hell bend on more conflict and more war.

http://www.projetaladin.org/en/homepage.html