Some of the times our world, our universe, makes no sense at all. It’s too random, and the random is impossible to grasp. It can be overwhelming when an astronomer welcomes us to their understanding of the universe, but if we take out all the anecdotal information the well-informed astronomer details for us, it can all make sense. There are patterns out there, everywhere, just waiting to be discovered. The universe is built on mathematical equations. It is built on gravitational pulls and weight and near absolute order. Our political system is also built in much the same manner, save for the order, but if we pull out the random thoughts and words of individual politicians, we can understand our political system a little better, if we understand the political platforms and political action committees that drive these individual politicians. Everyone we speak with has motivations and tendencies, and if we study human psychology long enough we can use our past experience to understand future behaviors of people from a specific race, a specific region of the world, and a religious affiliation. If we study these psychological patterns long enough, and hard enough, we may be able to read each other’s minds. We can know what we we’re all thinking and we can assign that mode of thought to the future actions of any speaker. We can figure the world out better if we can just assign it the proper mathematical/psychological equation and pattern. Or can we?
“I think we have cockroaches,” a friend of mine said to a black person in regard to their workplace.
“Why are you telling me this?” the black person asks. “Is it because I’m black? You think I know something more about cockroaches because I’m black? Or do you think that, based on the fact that I’m black, that I should be the one to clean it up?”
“Did I tell her that, because I’m a racist?” this friend asked me. She told me that she hadn’t told anyone else in the firehouse about the cockroaches, and she had no idea why she singled the black woman out about it. My friend was worried. She and the black woman had been good friends prior to the comment, but her comment put a strain on their relationship. My friend worried that they would never be good friends again based on her “racist” comments.
We all think we know what’s going on in another person’s head. We think that past experience dictates what current motivations are. We can know what everyone is thinking based upon our random sampling of the world. Is there a margin of error in our thinking, of course, but margins of error usually rank no higher than five percent in any political poll taken, so studying human behavior in our daily lives can’t be much different. What if we are wrong though? What if we have no idea what other people are thinking? Would we rather make changes in the way we approach people, or does the satisfaction we gain from our understanding of our random sampling provide us such a degree of control over the random that we need it to remain sane?
In his book You are Not so Smart, Gerald McRaney cites a psychology experiment in which one person taps out a song on a desktop, and the listener tries to figure out the song they’re tapping. The tapper is not allowed to hum or signal the listener in anyway. They are to pick out a song that everyone involved is familiar with, say The National Anthem, and they are to tap it over and over, until the listener gets it. In the course of this experiment, some tappers got frustrated with their listeners, and they tapped slower and slower, until their listeners got so frustrated with the process they quit. Were the listeners just plain stupid the tappers being to wonder. How could they not get The National fricking Anthem? Are they unpatriotic, do they simply not know The National Anthem when they hear it, or are they just not paying enough attention? The truth was that these listeners simply didn’t know what the tappers were thinking. We all attempt to communicate to one another in a way that is crystal clear to us, but our listeners don’t get it. It’s frustrating, but it clues us into the fact that most people don’t know what we’re thinking.
Have you ever tried giving directions to a person that is totally unfamiliar with your town? As a hotel front desk clerk, I learned very quickly how difficult it can be to give someone directions. I was born and raised in this town I describe, and I know it like the back of my hand, but I learned very quickly that this was more of a disadvantage than an advantage when giving directions to a person who has never been to my town. After a few unsuccessful and very frustrating trial runs, I learned to try to put myself in their frame of mind and give directions from that point. You don’t know how often you give instructions and directions from your point of view, until you’ve done it hundreds of times, and prepared yourself for incoming calls or questions from people totally unfamiliar with it. What helped me progress to this point, more than anything else, was the refrain these people would give when asking for directions: “Now, you have to treat me like a total idiot here.” These were usually frequent travelers that said this, and they had presumably been given directions hundreds of times. They knew the mentality I was going to have to have if I was going to properly guide them to the hotel. They knew how their mind worked, and they taught me how to deal with them in that context.
A wife tells a husband she knows exactly what he was thinking when he said something that she regarded as a transgression. The husband knows that it was not what he meant at all, but he relents when he considers that she might know him better than he knows himself. An online computer company gives their employees sensitivity training on personal emails sent to other employees. Their primary warning: “Your recipient does not know what’s going on in your head. Every personal email that you send can be read ten different ways by ten different people based on their individual, life experiences.”
Conservatives mount a defense against hate-crime legislation based on the fact that we can’t know what was going on in the assailant’s mind. We can know that the assailant killed the victim based on the evidence put forth, but proving that they did it with a specific motivation is almost impossible to prove in most cases. As much as we intelligent beings hate to admit it, we know very little about what goes on in other human minds, and what we don’t know we make up by assigning them our thoughts.
We see thought patterns and speech patterns everywhere we go and in every person we encounter. When someone fails to follow our pattern, we give them our pattern and predict what they’re going to say based on that. It gives us pleasure to know their pattern, and it gives us some semblance of control over the powerlessness we otherwise feel in the face of the random.
We look up into a night-time sky, and in it we initially see what appears to be a random mess of little lights. It’s overwhelming. It’s too random. We shut down. Why try understanding anything that has no order to it? When it’s pointed out to us that there is a pattern to the little lights, we find pleasure in spotting the big dipper and a little dipper. We suddenly feel the power of categorization and organization at our fingertips, and it is no longer so overwhelming.
When we see a child act in a disorderly fashion, we provide them our knowledge of what we consider the orderly system. One of the reasons we do this is so that their world is not so confusing and random to them. We remember how miserable we were when the world made no sense to us, so we attempt to lessen their misery by presenting them with some of the facts of we learned. When our child proceeds to do something random that might cause them harm, we don’t understand this. “Why would you do that?” we ask genuinely confused by their regression into the random. “I’ve already taught you this,” we say with exhausted frustration. We’ve known this child for so long, and we’ve taught them our order so many times that we’re exhausted with effort. The answer is that it’s not necessarily their progress that we thought we witnessed, it’s ours. We accidentally assigned them our order and our thought patterns in their presumed progress, and we thought they grasped it.
Why would a child purposefully harm themselves when they know better based on what we’ve taught them? The answer is that children don’t understand the ramifications of their actions. They don’t understand our order yet. They’ve heard it a number of times, but they don’t understand it on the level we do. Some studies have suggested that humans don’t fully come to grips with the ramifications of their actions, until they’re roughly eighteen years of age. Impossible, we think. When we were eighteen, we had a full grasp on the consequences of our actions. If we think that, we’re usually assigning our current brains to our young brains. It seems impossible, I know, but science is suggesting that we assign our current brains to our past brains all the time to help us make sense of who we are today. We usually think, based upon our current mindsets, that we’ve been pretty consistent throughout our lives. In truth, we’ve made huge leaps of progress in our understanding of the world and our progress in it, but we accidentally expect children to make the same leaps we thought our young brains made when we were their age. When they go back and do that random thing again, we view them as being purposefully stubborn and rebellious to what we’ve already taught them.
When we see a male penguin have sexual relations with another male penguin, we assign our motivations to them. That penguin must be gay. If a human male has sex with another human male, they’re gay, and one plus one always equals two. We know their motivations, like we know our own motivations. The question of whether or not the idea of gay exists in the penguin world is a concept that doesn’t compute to us. The very idea that penguins would have random sex with other penguins just to have sex, regardless of the other party’s gender, is just too foreign a concept for us to deal with. The order that we require extends downward to our children and outward to the other beings in the animal kingdom. It all has to make sense to us on a certain level. There is no random.
We assign characteristics and thought patterns to groups, because it helps us make some sense of the variations in their psychology, and it helps us make sense of our own psychology. We have an “OH!” moment when we think we spot a pattern. We have a “That makes sense now!” moment, and we feel better about the order of the universe and our understanding of it, regardless if this pattern truly exists or not.
A person randomly comes up to us and says that there are cockroaches in the firehouse. Why did they pick us, in such a seemingly random fashion? If we’re a woman, and they’re a man, it makes sense to us that we should be insulted because past experience with the men of our lives dictates that they want us to clean it up. We know the patterns of most men, and we use it to claim offense. Even if they meant no offense, and they didn’t intend for us to clean up anything, they know the patterns of most men too, and they know that they’re a man, so they think that they may have been thinking that on some level they’re not aware of. If we’re black and they’re white, we’ve been down this road before. We know that they think blacks are more familiar with cockroaches, based on the stereotype that blacks used to live with cockroaches. Otherwise, it would make no sense to us that someone would just walk up to us and say such a random thing, so we categorize and organize them in our brain and project our thoughts into theirs. What doesn’t factor into our equation is that some of the times the world is random, because the random is impossible to grasp.