Friday, December 3, 2010

The Great Debate: Objective v. Subjective Reality


In sociology we discuss objective reality v. subjective reality. In simple terms, objective reality is the fact; subjective reality is our understanding of it.

objective reality is the "what".. subjective reality is the "why"... when everyone and anyone can give a "why" answer ... we'll never understand what "what" really is... and this, I believe, hinders progress.

folks need to figure out which matters more...what is (the truth, facts) ...or our perception of it..

So we know poverty exists (objective reality) but folks have different explanations for why (subjective reality) and because of that, we never come to an agreement that leads to eradicating the "what"...poverty.

In my mind, staying focused on the WHAT we are doing is critical..and "sustainable progress" is what we need to be doing...yes, it matters why things are the way they are, but focusing on why will never lead to progressive change.

The problem is lived experiences are too different to effectively address social problems intellectually or ideologically. People must understand on a personal level. It must be made personal. When people speak of black anger with dismay or disgust, we can tell a history that has never actually been told outside of ethnic studies classes…a story of double consciousness…of being sons/daughters of a country that never loved us but is what it is from our labor…and our morality… of soldiers fighting for freedom abroad to come home to lynchings...or Japanese Americans interned while their sons fought for this country in segregated ranks…or 98% of FHA loans to whites after WWII to suburbanize America and the cumulative advantage in wealth that created for generations...that equality of opportunity means NOTHING without equality of condition...and all our sociological data…

we can tell contemporary stories of the brother just released from jail after doing 20+ years for a crime he was railroaded on…of unequal schools, and prisons for profit, etc… we can say what was so poignantly said at the end of the "Great Debaters" film when debating civil disobedience. The young man recalled the lynch mob they came up on, seeing the black body (strange fruit) hanging and having to run away before they were next, powerless to help that brother..."AMERICA SHOULD BE GRATEFUL THAT WE CHOOSE CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE AS OUR MEANS OF PROTEST"...that's the truth no one is ready for...but the reality of our humanity shines.

As a social activist and analyst, I focus on what we all have in common: reality and humanity. Too often we let ideology inform our understanding of the world instead of looking beyond ideology to see the reality that affects us all and the humanity that defines us all.

I have a number of people that I do not agree with at all ideologically or politically, but I know they are good people that had a different upbringing, socialization, media training than I did. And I can like them….and do. Their humanity is what I see and what I trust. People are more alike and all want the same…to live, love, and be happy.

what they (elites) know you can learn, what you know (working class), they’ll never learn.

Real people living real lives are the answer. When we can be honest about the ideologies that inform us, we can tell the truth more clearly, in all its complexities. In truth, I know I can trust my conservative white neighbor to be there to help us if we need something more than I can trust some of my liberal white and black academic colleagues. I think for ideologues on the left and the right, it is hard to tell these truths although I know all live them.

An example that is relevant to my life is Catholicism. I can be honest that my family faith in Catholicism comes from colonization. The Catholic Church’s empire of history was at times evil and sanctioned slavery and should be condemned for all it has done wrong. I can disagree with its anti-contraception stance and I am personally pro-choice, but I can still applaud it for being one of the only large faith institutions that is more consistent in its pro-life position, not only being against abortion but also war and the death penalty. While an oppressive empire most of its history, it also became the foundation of liberation theology that links the faith to social justice. Priests and nuns have often been on the front lines of many social justice battles...

On the micro-level, Catholicism also nurtured my grandmother, the most peaceful spirit I’ve known on earth. She would walk to church daily and sing or hum all day after. She was not an activist in the way many define it, but she lived her humanity and our family and the world was better for having her bless it. So we miss her but we feel blessed that we loved her and were loved by her. Catholic school taught me respect for others and life, discipline and sacrifice. But it also had textbooks in schools and statues in churches that falsely depicted Jesus with European features.

This is being able to tell the truth about your reality and seeing it as not all good or all bad but all real. Reality would do us all justice. Reality would bring us all justice.

Solutions in a "non-sterile" environment like the world will take first understanding that actions not intentions are what matter.. the road to hell is paved with good intentions... and the road to freedom and salvation is paved with good deeds, acts, and service (action). And those that think they can get to the "promise land" through the actions of others, be it a Leader or their "Savior" ......will find that promise land forever elusive....We can no longer wish for better and act the same, maintaining status quo by default. To get out of the hell that corporate greed, concentrated power, western imperialism, religious fanaticism, and “ideology over reality” have created, we must get specific about what it will take to realize people power. It is not enough to be compassionate, you must act (14th Dalai Lama, 1992). Micro level activism can off set macro level power imbalances.

"History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people." - Martin Luther King Jr.

MLK Jr. understood that the biggest threat to the civil rights movement did not come from those burning crosses, but came from the MANY that stayed safely away engulfed in their own lives, complacent. These are the ones that cry how horrible oppression and inequality are but do nothing to change it. It comes down to choosing to remain comfortable or to agitate..Progress takes sacrifice..and ACTION.

Sustainable change will take more than just vision for a better tomorrow; it will take reconciliation with the past and acceptance of the present reality. The reality is that social structure rules our lives. And like the entire natural world, humans must adapt to survive whatever structural conditions they must bear, and today that entails an uneven distribution of resources where 2% control most and 98% have very little. When we reconcile with this reality, we can move to build solutions, based on “what is” instead of “what ifs”. So while the Panthers tried to build consciousness they also served the community with hot meals and health care. Bob Marley inspired souljahs across the globe, but those in most need in his native country, he gave food and shelter to daily. It is the only way to liberation: people must live before they can grow in consciousness and self determination, and each of us can take these specific actions to help our fellow beings live, learn and grow, both physically and consciously. Through self determination, we can free ourselves from dependency on a system that has never, and will never, serve us well.

Once I show students a history they never learned and they hear horror stories like that of a 9 month pregnant woman being lynched and her full term baby being stomped they no longer can say what are black people complaining about…now they know…and knowing really is half the battle…our problem like James Baldwin says is that the innocence constitutes the crime. When we embrace reality, but do so from our humanity and not ideology, we will achieve what we so desperately want and need: PEACE.

We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is. – James Baldwin

Important links to view:

The Miniature Earth:

War against Working Americans:

What Would You Do?


Note: Parts of an earlier essay I wrote in 2008 called Part Two: Death and Life are included in this post.