Vonnegut gave us poor Billy Pilgrim for a reason
We know a lot of stuff. And there’s so much more stuff, continuously generated, some of it brilliant, some of it noise. We’re living in a zettabyte era (a zettabyte equals 1 sextillion bytes or 1000 exabytes; an exabyte is 1 billion billion bytes).
We also live in a culture that values knowing ourselves (nod to Socrates), and a need to know others, which gets sticky and even painful when those we thought we knew say and do things outside our expectations. How dare they?
The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge, it’s deeper than that. Too often we conflate knowledge with insight. Too often we mistake knowing more about someone — their age, their tastes and interests, their politics and religion — with insight about the complex person they are.
Insight literally means looking inward, hard enough when it comes to examining ourselves. And impossible to transcend our own container of a body to look inside of another person.
The Internet in all its zettabytes glory cannot help us here.
We cannot — and may never — know what it’s like to experience life as someone else does. With virtual reality and AI in general, more insight may be possible, but it’s hard to imagine swapping brains, chemicals, DNA and neurology. To truly understand what it’s like to be in another’s body, with their wiring and experiences, thinking their thoughts, making their decisions.
If this sounds ridiculously obvious, it is. And it isn’t.
I am bracing myself
Eighteen months until November 3, 2020. I’ve considered barricading myself from the impending shit show that seems likely, given what now passes for news and acceptable decorum among elected leaders.
(As a response, you’ve either nodded in agreement, perhaps smirked, or you’ve decided my bias is shining through.) My point is not to provoke, but to question what we assume we know about each other and every other in our lives.
Although I know better, I frequently presume that everyone who’s rational and has their basic needs met sees the same world and makes decisions as I do. I come at life every day with an expectation that other humans are seeing and hearing and tasting and feeling the same or very similarly. That we are experiencing life in like fashion. So why wouldn’t others, especially those I know, make the same choices or have the same beliefs and attitudes as me?
Loving Science and Accepting its Limitations
Science is one way of knowing how similar and different we humans can be. It aims for an objective truth by getting enough agreement (usually with data) among us to generalize to a wider population.
Think sample size in polling. Getting enough responses or observations (n=?) to generalize leads to more confidence, less inference, in the findings.
My point is not to insult your knowledge of stats or to raise your political blood pressure. It’s a simple reminder that knowledge and insight are different. And if we remember the virtual improbability of gaining insight into another person’s thoughts and actions, we might reframe our expectations, particularly the ones that lead to conflict. And that doesn’t require statistics.
Example: a poll taken six months ago found that 77 percent of all Americans are dissatisfied with their elected leadership. It’s easy to imagine that 887 of 1,152 respondents (total sample size) are totally aligned on being dissatisfied: they like or don’t like, agree or disagree with Congress and/or the President. But this statistic is a deceptively narrow aperture. Why each person responded as they did and how each (n of 1) views and makes sense of their world (i.e., unique insights) are missing.
n = 1 is my reminder that understanding and predicting human behavior (a goal of science) rarely gives us satisfying answers about why individuals don’t or can’t or won’t see things our way. Science can’t do anything about the fact that we’re each strapped to a steel lattice, bolted to a flatcar on rails, restricted to a one- or two-millimeter opening within a vast panoramic view.
Like poor Billy Pilgrim.
We Are Billy Pilgrim
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five has given me some insight. Among them, rich imagery of how much we — individually and as a species — can’t understand about one another. (Note can’t, not don’t or won’t.)
…among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.
This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.
The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped — went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, ‘That’s life.’
Vonnegut reminds us of something very precious, scary, and supremely important: We are each one in 7.5-plus billion. I can only be who I am according to what I am able to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, understand, intuit, feel, and believe. This is true for everyone. We are each, and all, Billy Pilgrim.
What About Others (Who Seem) Like Us?
It can be particularly frustrating when our first and sometimes our strongest identity — family — disagrees with how we see the world. Even more so when they disapprove or disown us.
And while two people can share several identities and common experiences (work, race, gender, religion, politics), none of these shared identities mean that those two people share the same position on the flatcar or that they’re looking down the same tiny pipe opening.
My n = 1 realization hit me in the solar plexus of my political identity. Just last week.
I drove from Athens, Georgia to Anderson, South Carolina for my first Better Angels (BA) workshop. BA is a citizens’ organization that unites red (Republican-leaning) and blue (Democrat-leaning) Americans with an aim to depolarize America. It doesn’t try to change anyone. Just to facilitate dialogue instead of dissension.
BA gives an equal number of reds and blues (five of each) the space, time, and some reasonable structure to try to understand the other side’s point of view; and to engage those we disagree with, looking for common ground and ways to work together.
I’d asked one of my dear friends, a BA organizer, if I could observe, but because there was a shortage of “blues,” I was asked to participate when I arrived.
A fascinating thing happened:
I found myself frequently nodding yes — agreeing with! — two reds and one blue who was a self-proclaimed libertarian (albeit left-leaning on several topics).
It wasn’t that I agreed with all the reds. But I didn’t agree with all the blues, either. One red introduced himself as a fervent believer that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of all time. I was similarly uncomfortable when another red said his biggest concern is that America has shifted to the extreme left; that what was radical 10 years ago is now normal and accepted.
My thoughts: Where is it that you live? What America do you see?
At times, I was uncomfortable with my own “team”. One blue (during a break-out session) said that Bernie had crossed the line. Felons? Able to vote? He threw up his hands and everyone else agreed.
I stayed quiet, memories of canvassing in Raleigh, fall of 2008… several men who answered the door looked down at the porch and said, “Felony, can’t vote.” I now work with a former felon. It pains me to use that label because he’s not that. He paid his debt and transformed into a peace-maker, even in prison, helping people learn how to restore themselves and others to their better selves.
The biggest takeaway for all 10 of us was this: The issues that reds and blues chose to stereotype about their own parties (we were asked to articulate what the other color thinks of us, first, and then articulate our reality) — were virtually identical. For example:
Abortion: Blues said they may be seen as “baby killers” but they wanted women to have some agency over their own bodies; reds said they were all considered pro-life, but this did not apply to a large faction of the party.
Guns: Reds said they imagined blues thought they were “gun nuts” but most were, in fact, in favor of reasonable regulation. Blues thought they were seen as pushing to eradicate the second amendment, but they wanted kids to be safe at school and everyone to be safer in public spaces.
Environment: Blues stated the “tree huggers, anti-business” stereotype but they wanted a sustainable world for future generations with corporations paying fair taxes; reds said they were seen as “non-green” but that most were not climate change deniers.
Immigration: Blues thought reds saw them as no-walls, no restrictions and reds thought blues saw them all as anti-immigration, eager to build walls ‘at any cost’. Both groups saw themselves as more centrist.
Toward the end, someone mentioned how we were more productive in those three hours than Congress had been in years. We all chuckled, but there was a sadness behind it. If there was any truth in the quip, it is that our two-party dysfunction seems unending. Will it ever get better?
Maybe. I visualize Billy Pilgrim wearing an n=1 tee. I imagine him somehow finding the insight he needs to unstrap himself from the railcar and remove the narrow pipe from his one eye. Being human, he’ll still be burdened with another (hopefully wider) pipe to look through. Not perfect, but a few more pixels of color, maybe new movement or shape to consider.
Especially now, it’s important to be better angels. Not out of obligation to others but to responsibly stop ourselves from falling headlong for data, sound bites, polls and posts, influencers and bots, ratings and tweets to describe the whole picture. None of these will give us the insights we need. Having conversations with curiosity will. It takes a bit of dedicated time, like reading a novel, to stop conflating knowledge and insight. To consider that all we know isn’t our entire landscape of possibilities.