On perspective

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: Perspective is a vital and important part of understanding the human condition and making the best decisions in order to thrive in it. Perspective encourages compassion and sympathy; the lack of it, selfishness and callousness. Often we fail to develop or seek out the proper perspective on things because we are too engrossed in our universe, which we see as generally reflective of the experience of everyone. When our personal context becomes the be-all-and-end-all of our perspective, it is not just our analysis that suffers but our ability to relate to others.

On perspective

By: Gareth van Onselen

18 January 2013

Perspective and context go hand in hand: context refers to the nature of one’s surroundings; perspective, an assessment that accounts for those various conditions. It makes sense, then, that without the full or proper context, one’s perspective is easily warped and judgement undermined in turn.

Certain environments lend themselves to this kind of distortion. They create the illusion of a macro-context when, in fact, they constitute no more than a microcosm, particular and by no means representative. By engaging only within them, one comes to assume their relevance universal and so a disproportionate emphasis is placed on what happens in them. And they are highly seductive in engendering this effect. Why?

For one, often they are self-referential. Most people seek out those who share with them a similar outlook. This does wonders for self-confidence – what could be more affirming than having an opinion validated, even celebrated, by the audience to which it is presented – but comes with a lack of scrutiny, criticism and debate. And so ideas and positions are not properly interrogated, merely endorsed or exaggerated.

Indeed, in such circumstance, exaggeration is almost always an outcome; for if disagreement is taboo one can only disaggregate their opinion by shouting it louder and with more force. Sealed off from reality for long enough the members of such parochial forums can become dangerous indeed. Opinion mutates into fundamentalism, which has little if any regard for context or perspective.

You will often find compassionate people immune to this kind of problem; for perspective necessitates such things as sympathy and empathy, based as they are on an understanding that difference defines the human condition, not uniformity.

Beware those who would enter into a discussion the unquestioning praise their isolated opinion received amongst their peers as evidence their insight is both profound and right. Not only have they forgotten how to evaluate argument but mistakenly assumed it is automatically relevant to everyone not trapped in their anti-intellectual prism.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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