November 25, 2013

Others Do Not Always Share Our Perspectives

English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for ...
English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of the things I have always noticed about the people with whom I interact regularly, regardless of the context or where I am living, is the difficulty many have in looking beyond their own experiences and realizing that not everyone shares their perspective. I am sure that I have my own blind spots and that I probably am guilty of doing this at times. And yet, I am equally sure that I go out of my way to prevent doing so. I rarely assume that everyone else thinks like I do, shares my experiences, or values what I value. In fact, I am more inclined to assume that they probably do not. But from most of my daily interactions with others, I seem to be an outlier in this regard.

Unfortunately, I do not have the opportunity to have daily offline interactions with other atheists. This means that what I am about to suggest is based on little evidence and is more conjecture than anything. I think that atheists and members of religious minority groups may have a somewhat easier time avoiding the sort of error I mention here than those who belong to the religious majority in a particular area.

The other day at work, the subject of Thanksgiving came up. One individual said something like,
Thanksgiving is the one day a year dedicated to eating as much as possible, so it sure would be awful to be sick that day.
Of course, I wouldn't want to be sick on Thanksgiving (or any other day). Being sick isn't fun no matter when it happens. But for me, Thanksgiving is just another day. The more this person spoke, the clearer it became that he assumes everyone views Thanksgiving precisely as he does and celebrates it just as he does. I don't celebrate it at all. I don't eat more than usual, and I will spend this Thanksgiving grading papers and writing an exam. The day doesn't mean anything to me, and I know I am not alone. I know others who do not celebrate it, and I know others who celebrate it in very different ways than gluttony. I would never assume everyone views the day as I do.

Another individual chimed in about how her family would be visiting this year and what a nice opportunity Thanksgiving was for everyone to be with family. This would have been fine if she had been content to describe her own experience instead of going on to repeatedly express the false belief that this is what everyone does on Thanksgiving. Once again, there seemed to be some real difficulty recognizing that there is more than one way to celebrate Thanksgiving, that some people do not celebrate it at all, that some do not have the opportunity to be with family, and that some would not want to be with family even if they could do so. How is it not obvious that one's own experience is not universal?

A third person shared a few of the things for which she has been thankful this year and made a few references to some sort of god. This is Mississippi, and I have come to expect this sort of superstition here. Thus, I was not terribly surprised by this. What I noted, once again, was the assumption that everyone else shares this silly belief and incorporates them into their Thanksgiving.

It would be possible to attribute this last example to Christian privilege; however, the first two suggest that something else is happening. Christian privilege may indeed be one example of the failure to look beyond one's experience and realize that it is not universal, but it is certainly not the only one. I'm not sure that it makes sense to label what the first two people did as "privilege," but I can imagine that there would be an argument for doing so.

Are atheists and members of various religious minority groups (e.g., a Jew living in a sea of evangelical fundamentalist Christians) less likely to make errors like this? I think so. I think we are less prone to assume that others share our perspective or experiences because we have had so much experience with this not being the case. For example, an atheist living in a particularly religious environment would not be able to fool himself or herself into thinking that everyone else was an atheist. It seems like having experiences where one is reminded of how different others are might inoculate one from this sort of error. And if there is anything to this, I suppose this could be an argument for why it is important to expose ourselves to alternate viewpoints rather than remain in bubbles of our own making.

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