Three – How Groups establish Common Frameworks of Perception
Too close for comfort? No, I’ll let you have a little peek view into my neighbourhood, when I’m in Belgrade:
I am trying to get the finishing touches on Part 3 done from a campsite close to Bucharest in Romania. My vanlife has given me the opportunity to meet so many people from different walks of life. I just offered a coffee to a young German man who is traveling in a small van, with his partner, her daughter, and a dog. Have you ever listened to somebody who feels alienated, ostracized, craving for acknowledgement, and trying to make sense of his or her personal life story? The intensity with which they argue, the words they choose for making their cases? His story about a little group of travelers trying to keep life together, seeking a place to live in Romania, dropping out of regular life also as a consequence of the pandemic and personal circumstances, it offered a practical example for how perceptions develop, and how they lead to reinforcement processes. This person, whilst clearly not there yet, is on his path sympathising with “Reichsbuerger” identity, living at the fringes, and I don’t know whether much more has to happen to him before there is a path towards delusionial viewpoints, and radicalisation. All the time I was listening to him, I was thinking how I can interact with his attempt of making sense of the world, instead of myself just apologising, stopping communication, and staying in my worldview. Because this is what happens: A negative self-fulfilling prophecy about all the things which make this world un-just to oneself is leading to less communication outside of the group one feels to belong to. The more extreme the divide in fundamental assumptions, the more likely is that any communication with somebody who does not share a similar narrative of the world will not happen. We feel uncomfortable facing such extreme differences, at least. We may feel being upset, angry. We may react with hypocrisy, cynicism, open verbal confrontation. Or we may just walk away, and then it is about that the perceptions of two people engaging in a conversation were so fundamentally different that they did not fit into the reference framework they each feel comfortable in.
We see this all over more recently. Radicalisation of views is related to narratives that diverge extremely. Either a fringe view is colliding with mainstream views. Or several radically different mainstream views exist: The great divide between Democrats and Republicans which grows ever deeper, or the smaller fringes that we try to address in order to not see them growing into mainstream divergence, it’s all the same. All people on all sides believing in their version of perception, judging, or even condemning those who hold different views.
Wherever my international work and life has taken me, I always made it a habit to live in a local neighbourhood. Not those fancy Expat-areas, rather I feel most comfortable when I am a guest, and a neighbour, in a typical local hood. Sipping a coffee with very local people hosting me as a guest in their country, I learned so much, in Pristina, in Gracanica, in Brussels, Sarajevo, Brooklyn, Naples/Maine, Berlin, Belgrade, or so many other places. Since I started part-time Vanlife, on my campsites in Germany, or roaming the countries in the Western Balkans and around, or anywhere where I stop near the road for the night, I enjoy the same experience.
Not only that my cat friend Tigger is making new acquaintances all over Europe, it happens to me too. So, in that picture above you also see my local grocery store in Belgrade. There is a man inside, very friendly, selling fruits and vegetables, often talking about his love for German soccer clubs. More recently, he looked at me with a scared face and spoke, in broken English and German, about the war in the Ukraine.
When I recently cleaned my van, a very old and fragile neighbour, certainly in his late eighties, stopped by. Turned out to be a very nice and open minded person with a lot of curiosity. After a few comments about my mobile home he asked me about my opinion about what’s going on in the Ukraine. He asked me whether this would have been caused by NATO.
When I walked Tigger on 01 May, neighbours invited me to their open barbecue. Guess what came up? Fear about the war in the Ukraine. “Don’t go there”, one of them told me. “Well”, I replied, “You never know.”
When I’m in Germany, conversations will immediately turn to the developments in the Ukraine, too. As one might imagine, there the question will not be about NATO’s role starting it, but about NATO’s response to actions for which the Russian President will be damned. At least within those circles I relate to. But on campsites I will also meet other people. Like 2020, when a conspiracy theorist took me by surprise. Or as it just happened this morning.
When I’m in Romania, I will hear the local context, which, again, is entirely different from Serbia, and Germany. When I am in Bosnia&Herzegovina, I will get three different versions of the context in which the Ukraine war is being perceived. If I would listen in Albania, Bulgaria, or Hungary, or Poland, everywhere I would get a local and different perception on the same war, and the fears which are related to it. The common denominator is profound fear. The context will be explained differently, with nuances, or starkly. And all people truly live and believe their perceptions, no ordinary person on the streets will tell a fake story truly for manipulative reasons. Those people who do this on intent, they are very different, I feel their malice, and some, if not more than a few, are leaders.
The huge diversity of opinions based on culture and history and belonging, that’s Europe. Literally. It always is so hard to understand for people outside Europe, like those who say “Does the European Union have a telephone number”, those who may call for a strong unified European Union voice. In a true democracy view, the diversity of opinions on this continent is, of course, very hard to capture and to transform into more than the least common denominator. The alternative is autocratic attitude, and we have some of those, too. But believe me, no autocratic Europe would be more homogenous, compared to the Europe holding on to democracy. Rather, autocratic attitude is a recipe for intolerance, violence, and war. Just look back into Europe’s history of the last millennium, and especially the last century, and you will see that coercion into one identity only works temporarily. After Tito’s death we witnessed it again, more recently. The answer can only be tolerance for others and enthusiasm for diversity.
But, back to perception:
Those who I sometimes label “pied pipers”, they can be seen on a global level, and they seem to gain influence. They are those who scare me, because they operate on the opposite to tolerance and diversity. They are responsible for unfathomable suffering of many. And they could not do this without the considerable number of others who willingly buy in into distributing distorted versions of reality, or fake constructs of reality, for many different reasons, all of these reasons being motivated by selfishness.
From there, manipulation of reality permeates into the minds of who I would call, with all respect and compassion, “ordinary people” who try to explain themselves in relation to what life is throwing at them. Everywhere there are these wonderful local neighbours who struggle to make sense of what they see, fear, and are being told.
I am not wishy-washy, I have a very pronounced opinion, including on the war in Ukraine and the larger threats, and my core is torn into pieces because I believe that we need to do what, for example, Germany is participating in. All the way long, cold-blooded, decisive, but with great compassion and with healthy fear about escalation getting out of control. Doing whatever we can to avoid that the cauldron is exploding, but being very clear and very tough in saying “No way that we are going to allow this blatant attack on all values we have fought for since the end of the last World War.” But it is about how these values are being established, and what that then means to the competition of value frameworks.
I can not write this without a heartfelt word to my Ukrainian friends: I am sorry for your suffering beyond words, and you have all rights to be upset with the world, since you need, and deserve, the most decisive and best help possible. I just hope that we keep the balance in finding ways to ease, and to end, your suffering, without creating even more suffering. But your perception of what is going on, it needs to be, and is, at the core of everything we consider. We need to bow in front of you.
I am very privileged by having the opportunity to experience so many different neighbourhoods, cultures, nations, beliefs, countries. That is why I put this at the core of Part 3 of this writing. Because I am allowed to see this diversity in perceptions. People who live an entirely local life, they probably are more challenged by the need to be aware of, and tolerant to, other worldviews. I see very friendly people with great hospitality all over. Whether in Europe, or any of those conflict-ridden countries in Africa I have been spending time in, or Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Haiti, to name but a few. I don’t meet them in that proverbial mediterranean beach resort I was mentioning in Part 2. Not in holiday-mood, not with booze. But just very real, in day-to-day life.
“Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari makes for absolutely fascinating reading. As do his other books. I directly quote from Wikipedia when saying that Harari is dividing “Sapiens” into four main chapters:
- The Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE, when Sapiens evolved imagination).
- The Agricultural Revolution (c. 10,000 BCE, the development of agriculture).
- The unification of humankind (c. 34 CE, the gradual consolidation of human political organisations towards one global empire).
- The Scientific Revolution (c. 1543 CE, the emergence of objective science).
Much of my rambling is influenced by Harari’s explanation about communication between groups, tribes, communities, and especially when large meta-groups comprised of smaller communities come into play. His book is a fascinating journey connecting the evolutionary development including the brain of Homo Sapiens and its ability to form concepts that have no representation in the real world, and to communicate these concepts through language. The book seriously enlarged my appreciation for how we are able to form societal cohesion on a scale above relatively small groups of individuals.
At the beginning, in Part 1, I focused on how a representation of the environment is being put together from sensoric input. That’s the neurophysiological view. But already there perception is the result of an interpretation based on previous experiences through memory, and hugely influenced through emotions that accompany the sensoric input, or have influenced previous situations.
In Part 2 I have referred to neurophysiologist David Eagleman and his statement that brains need other brains for communication. Once communication comes into play, the result of perception becomes different because individual members of a group of living beings who communicate establish a joint, a common, perception. Communication allows for team-work. Orcas hunting as a group, they communicate what their individual group members see, perceive, and do. The same is true for wolf packs, or many other examples of collaboration. One way or the other, collaboration requires communication, and an ability to communicate what I see. Walk with me under a tree with ravens or crows on it, telling all other animals about the presence of my cat friend, and you will agree.
Reading Harari was a revelation for me in my understanding aspects of what he calls the Cognitive Revolution, 70 millenia back in time. I can only be selective in explaining here, but he maps out in detail what we know in relation to the cognitive difference which set us, Homo Sapiens, apart from ancestors, such as the Neanderthals. It is related to brain development, allowing for much more complex perception, and understanding, and more complex language. But the single most defining difference appears to be our ability to imagine things which have not one single reference in the physical world around us, which we see. We can come up with virtual realities since 70.000 years, and not just since Mark Zuckerberg hopped on the metaverse-ideology.
Amongst all living beings on this planet, our communication has evolved into language and other forms of formal representation of concepts (such as mathematics) allowing for highest levels of sophistication in representing the world, describing the world, communicating what we see in the world, doing this in oral and written form, and to establish concepts that have no representation in the physical world. Harari’s example of legal personae within the field of law is brilliantly told. And the same is true for religion, concepts of governance such as democracy, ideas like human rights, the rule of law, so much more. They are extremely relevant and some of them belong to my core values, but the important thing is to understand that we, Sapiens, are able to establish concepts which have no physical representation in the world. Harari is so convincing in explaining that this is the single defining difference which allowed mankind to form means of communication and cohesion that allow to operate on levels far beyond small groups, bands, or tribes. It is this evolutionary step which enabled mankind to form cohesion, and control, on societal level, it allowed for modern States, it allows for identities, like those of faith, which keep billions of people in one framework. Religions serve as means for societal cohesion, including through control. That’s why they also can, despite their mystical core, develop into instruments of brutal suppression, creating suffering. Whether it is about terror from Sunni extremism against Shia, or whether it is about overturning abortion rights by the U.S Supreme Court, in all this there is the ugly face of control, for reasons of enforcing one framework of belief and impressing it on others. With structural force, or physical violence, the motivation is the same.
Thus, these non-physical manifestations of concepts compete, and often don’t go well with each other, they sit behind the clashes of groups, nations, religions.
But when I sit in neighbourhoods and I listen to people, respecting their different frameworks of identity, I see wonderful individuals, all of them with inner beauty.
So what’s my final point?
The diversity of frameworks which ultimately, and inevitably, form the basis for how I perceive the world, it is a fact of our reality. There is no ultimate solution, and sure as hell happiness of people is not a direct function of democracy. Individual life can be fulfilled and happy in East and West, South and North. And whenever I reach a point in my reflections where I try to identify at least a few common denominators that allow all of us to thrive, and not to kill this world, not many core values are needed. Human rights belong to it.
But here is what I feel relevant in the current context: The invasion of the Ukraine has been identified as a fundamental violation of the Charta of the United Nations. This needs to be acknowledged. Then, only, we can also have a discussion about whether others have done the same before. That introspection won’t be easy, because a decade ago we believed that we had found a principle called the “Responsibility to Protect”, overriding under certain conditions the sovereignty of States. It literally hurts to see the Russian President establishing a fake reality of oppression of peoples in the Ukraine to justify and cover up his unprecedented aggression.
If we loose the achievement of the Charta of the United Nations, we are in really big trouble.