Putting Objectivity into PracticePosted: March 16, 2015
For the first time in my life, I’m really putting the concept of “objectivity” into practice and deepening my understanding of it every single day.
As a PE teacher for elementary school children in a difficult neighborhood of San Francisco, I’m learning what it means to be an objective (and detached) observer of events, instead of getting emotionally involved in the goings on of games during playtime. Take, for example, the following true story:
It’s a Wednesday morning, and the 5th graders have a 45-minute gym period (which is a long time for almost-middle schoolers to be playing high-adrenaline, high-emotion games on the roof). We’re playing a variation of dodgeball called “Medic Ball”, in which the group splits up into two teams and chooses one “medic” per team. The medic can raise anyone on their team who’s been hit out with a dodgeball by tapping them on the shoulder. There’s no other way for teammates who’ve been eliminated to get back into the game, so it logically follows that if the medic on one team gets eliminated, the rest of his or her team members will be slowly eliminated until everyone is sitting out and his/her team loses the round.
Last week when I was playing this game, I was watching carefully, as the detached, objective observer of all the random chaotic events that were simultaneously occurring. Suddenly, the medic on one team (let’s call them team A) was hit by a dodgeball thrown by a member of the opposing team (team B), although the ball simultaneously hit the ground when it made contact with the medic’s foot. In dodgeball games, it’s universally understood that a ball that hits the ground before making contact with someone is a dead ball, and can no longer eliminate someone. In this situation, both had occurred–the ball hit the ground at the same time it hit the medic, so what action should have been taken?
I anticipated the unfolding of events one step before they occurred: Team B rejoiced loudly, the medic from team A denied being hit in frustration, to which the team B member who threw the ball responded angrily, commanding the medic to sit down. Both players were unable to clearly perceive the truth of the situation because both were attached to the outcome of winning, and both were reacting emotionally as a result. As the detached observer (I favored neither outcome of Team A nor Team B winning), I had to step in to de-escalate both kids and remind them of the golden rule of game time arguments: settle disputes through Ro Sham Bo (Rock Paper Scissors). In the end, the thrower from Team B chose paper and the medic chose scissors, they both momentarily let go of their attachments to the outcome, and the game continued on.
Last week, you joined me on my exploration of the meaning of “truth” and how we can choose truths that help us live in a positive way. This week, I’m contemplating the place of objectivity as a path to the truth, just like I was able to use my position as an objective observer to clearly perceive the truth of what went down that day on the roof during Medic Ball.
I’ll admit that it may have taken me this long to understand the meaning of “objective” because of the negative connotations associated with subjectivity–that objectivity is rational and not influenced by emotions, whereas subjectivity is emotionally influenced and therefore has a limited or biased idea of the truth in any given situation. Society has unfortunately come to associate rational, objective thinking with men, and emotional, irrational (subjective) thinking with women, and as a female, I’ve naturally resisted the value judgment placed on objectivity (and rational thinking) over subjectivity (biased, emotional thinking) in the decision-making process. Now, having understood that society tells us a lot of stupid things that aren’t true, believing that both men and women have equal capabilities of being objective and rational, and understanding that there is a place for emotion and subjectivity in our lives, I’m finally understanding why objectivity, versus subjectivity, is crucial to the quest for truth, and so I’m attempting to detail why that is here.
When I first started therapy, my therapist was smart enough to explain what the process was going to be like. This is crucial for a first-timer because therapy is one of the most difficult things you will ever do, if you choose to. Essentially, you’re going through the construction of your entire worldview with someone, influenced by your life experiences and parenting namely, and breaking it down piece by piece until you conclude what is true about your perspective, and what is not. My therapist used the word “objective” to describe her role, and at the time, I had no idea what she meant. I knew the word, but what did it mean in this context? What could she possibly tell me about myself or the world that I didn’t already know? I was convinced that the way I saw things was true reality, but, as the objective observer, uninvolved in my life, she was able to point out when my perceptions of reality or cynical patterns of thought were just not real. And accepting that maybe her perception of reality was more accurate (because she was looking at my life through an objective lens), and that I’d have to change mine as a result, was one of the most difficult (but most important) things I have ever done.
Similarly, I’ve learned that the work of academics is an exploration of the truth, but in a much less personal way. If there’s anything I learned from my time at Haverford, it’s that there’s always another angle from which you can look at a problem, and to uncover the answers to your questions, you need to think critically about each of those angles and then make a conclusion for yourself. My thesis, for example, answered the question: Did the insular, nationalist policies of Francoist Spain that closed the country to the rest of the world for 40 years and allowed only castellano (Spain’s reigning Spanish dialect–what we know to be “Spanish”) cause the scarcity of English speakers in Spain today? To answer this question, I had to think: Is there even a scarcity of English speakers in Spain, or was that just my perception while studying abroad there? If the scarcity is “true”, who presents another explanation for it? Where are those people coming from (Franco supporters/non-supporters, right-wing/left-wing), and how would it influence their arguments? Even if Francoist Spain did have some kind of an impact, what other factors could have contributed to the phenomenon? My advisor helped me realize that I needed to remove my own experiences in Spain from the equation if I wanted to remove any bias (subjectivity) from my argument (and I was biased towards answering that question with a yes).
If we connect all of this to the age-old concept of detachment found in all ancient wisdom traditions, we understand that detachment is not an uncaring, cold attitude towards the material things and people of the world. Instead, it just means removing oneself from a situation to view the larger picture and become an objective observer. Since we are unattached to a specific outcome, as I was in Medic Ball, we are unbiased and can therefore see what truly is.
There is certainly a place for opinion-related pieces in this world, as well as opinion-driven personal advice. I am certainly biased towards my friends who come to me for advice on choosing careers that are meaningful to them, for example, and doing something for the benefit of the greater good. Since I myself believe that it’s important to contribute something creative and meaningful to the world in our short lifetimes, I will be biased towards those who choose to do the same.
However, I recognize when I am being subjective, and when I am being objective. This is an extremely important skill for us to execute semi-regularly, because it helps you recognize when you don’t know the answer to something, and that’s humbling. Like when my therapist showed me how much I thought I knew about life, but didn’t, I was humbled and therefore freed of my negative thoughts.
Of course, it’s still difficult to differentiate between objectivity and subjectivity sometimes. I liken it to shopping for groceries when you are hungry versus when you’re not hungry. When you’re not hungry, you’re more likely to buy the true amount of groceries you’ll need for the week. Sometimes, you just can’t ignore the fact that you’re hungry! In that case, my advice is to “get a second opinion”, or an outside perspective, on your situation. Don’t work in a vacuum, or a bubble, is another way to put it. For the truths that matter, I like to ask the people I can trust for their rational and objective advice.
And ultimately, maintain a balance of both subjective and objective thinking in your life. Because sometimes, it’s enough to just choose your beliefs, even if you don’t know if they are truths.