Why the hell did they do that? or How to Understand People and Your Fictional Characters

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This entry applies to writers and general audiences. For writers, you can use this blog to think about how your characters make choices. For the general populous, you can consider how conflict and misunderstanding arises and perhaps consider some of this to help in your daily life.

When I teach anthropology I have a saying that I drill into students heads.

You don’t have to like it, but you do need to try and understand it.

This is the essence of what we call cultural relativity. There is a lot of misunderstanding about this topic. For example, if someone tells me that cultural relativity is postmodernism, or that it’s ‘poison’ or that it means anything goes, I know they have absolutely no clue what they are talking about.

I wrote an answer on cultural relativism on Quora on this question a while back so I am not going to go into detail here but in short, if you want to understand someone’s choices (especially if they are in another culture) then there are three things you need to consider to begin that understanding, context, conditions, and choice.

I am going to tell you something that is really really hard for many us raised in the Western part of the world to understand. You are not an individual. This doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for your choices, but if you want to understand how the world works, put that idea aside for a moment and consider the following.

1. Context

You are contextual. What do I mean? Well, you live in a particular culture at a particular moment in history and you speak a particular language. In some cases even being born a few years earlier or later can radically alter the course of your life. Think of people who were born just in time for the Vietnam War and were then selected in the draft versus someone who missed the war by a year or so.

This body of knowledge (as some of us social scientists call it) is so vast that we spend years growing up and learning all about it. This process is called Enculturation and is largely what institutions like elementary school is all about. Primary school is far less about learning facts, and more about learning how to behave in your given society. Every culture has their version of passing on their culture, though it varies.

Every culture is holistic. Each facet of your context is an integrated whole. Technology, economics, religion, etc. All these things can impact the entire culture. For more on this read my past blog on Worldbuilding Part 2 Anthropology and Key Elements of Culture

Of course, history is a big part of this. What has been happening for the past few decades or even centuries before your birth directly impact your experience. You, as an individual are not free of a cultural and historical context. Change that context, and you also change. Remember, no matter what you do, your culture and history is constantly changing all around you. Life is a dance of constant change and movement. No matter how tightly you clamp down on something, it still changes.

2. Conditions

Embedded within context is your particular experience. Let’s get specific. Let’s assume that two people grew up in or around Denver, Colorado. One grew up in a wealthy area that is heavily Protestant and the other grew up on a poor neighborhood that is heavily Catholic. Their cultural context is pretty much the same. They grew up at a particular time period in a particular culture but the conditions of their lives are different and thus their experience will be different. Their gender, the color of their skin, the religion they subscribe too, even the block they grew up on, changes the conditions of their lives and their experiences within the cultural context.

This is why you get an extraordinary amount of variation within a particular culture in a particular part of history (have I said particular enough for you yet?). Even something as simple as catching the last bus versus missing the last bus to make it on time to work can radically change your conditions. Maybe you got fired from your job as a result or perhaps you got a promotion as a result. Perhaps you are diagnosed with a chronic disease or maybe you won the lottery. Your conditions are constantly changing within the context of your culture. Change really is constant.

3. Choices

Okay, now we can talk about choices and free will. Your ability to make choices (or your agency) is impacted by both your context and your conditions. Your choices are not limitless and you certainly can’t make a choice that you don’t know exists. There are also laws, taboos, and social pressures that influence how we choose and move through the world.

But we certainly aren’t passive actors either. Individuals can cause massive changes to both their own conditions and their cultural/historical context. Even minor figures in the historical records influenced small things in ways that may or may not have had a big effect on that particular cultural moment.

Why should you care?

Well if you are fiction writer, this may help you to flush out character profiles and understand the choices your characters make. I talked about this a lot in my third part of World Building.

If you are just someone trying to get through their day, and your boss is a total asshole, sometimes a little understanding can help to dissolve conflict.

But honestly, the real core of this is this is how we can solve big problems. 

If you can take Context, Conditions, and Choices and use these three to analyze someone or something, you can understand it’s source and how it persists. You can see where big and complex problems arise from and can in turn act to address them. Of course, it’s not always so clear or so simple, but without understanding, you can’t even really begin. Honestly, this is a huge reason why people who, have nothing but good intentions, go out into the world to solve an issue, and it backfires and makes things far worse.

Let’s go an intense route for one moment. What about suicide bombers? Anthroplogist Nasser Abufarha asked this question in his book “The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of the Palestinian Resistance” 

Now this guy has got some guts, he did his research with some pretty scary folks. But in his research what he did was examine context, conditions, and then the individuals (the agents) who carried out some of these attacks. He talked to leaders of these terrorists cells and tried to form a picture of why they do the things they do. Their answers? Well I will let you read for yourself if you want to dive in, but let’s just say quickly that violence begets violence.

You want to understand the rise of Hitler? Context (The history of the interwar period in Germany and of antisemitism) Conditions (The experiences of Hitler’s life that made him such an angry asshole) and Choices (The genocide of six million Jews).

If you can understand some of this stuff, you can solve all manner of problems. Of course, even if you have the answers you still have to contend with political bodies and economic interests who may or may not want things to change, but that is an entirely different topic.

Seeking understanding, and information of the experiences and context of your fellow human beings can change the way you think or behave forever. Sometimes understanding can illuminate our experience and in that light, perhaps you can see an easy way to dissolve conflict.

Look, I get it, you might be thinking right now (if you made it all the way through) that this seems like an awful lot of work. You’re right. It’s a lot of work to be an informed citizen, to know the history of our own country, let alone other’s. But consider this, maybe if you aren’t sure about something, consider withholding judgment. Instead, find an expert or pick up a book on the topic before you decide that one particular group of people is evil, or that a singular event is an anomaly. History and Culture are really messy things, and it’s rare that there are clear black and white answers.

The world really is an amazing place and a little patience can make it all the more beautiful. People are just so damn interesting if you let yourself see it.

Actually, You Probably Don’t Use Your Free Will

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What does Free Will Even Mean?

Do humans have free will? This is one of those great questions of the ages. I am not going to claim here that I have an answer, just some thoughts, and opinions on the topic. You have to make up your own mind about it. Nor am I going to claim that my particular thoughts on the subject are original. They probably aren’t, and certainly, some of them have been heavily influenced by the Eastern Philosophy that I have spent years reading.

So let’s refine this question. Does everyone have free will?

My answer? No.

Now once, when I was a young Catholic teenager I said this to one of my youth group leaders. She came over and punched me in the arm and said, I just expressed my free will, didn’t I? Being a young teenager and not really having the ability to articulate what I was saying, she won the argument. But if I was going to back now, I would argue, that what she did wasn’t an act of free will, but a reaction to a particular kind of external stimuli.

When I say that not everyone has free I am not going to make a claim that particular group is more capable of this than others, I don’t think that could possibly be true. What I mean, is that the majority of people are not present enough, not mindful enough to actually express their free will. They are just mindlessly reacting. That’s not will, that’s cultural programming and instinct.

Most of what we do in life is not of our conscious choice. Most of what we do is a reaction. What does that mean? It means that without the space and presence of mind to stop and actually make a conscious choice, we aren’t acting of our free will. Instead, we’re caught in a net of cause and effect. Someone with a true conscious choice, with true free will, can break free of the old patterns of cause and effect and completely change the game.

What do I a mean? Let’s use a fairly common example of a reactionary situation. I will use this example because even if it has never happened to you, you have certainly heard of a situation like this or seen it on tv or read it somewhere.

Imagine being held at up at gunpoint in the middle of a parking lot. It’s broad daylight. How do you react? I’ll give you a moment to think on it.

You are probably thinking, well I would just give the mugger what they want and they would go away. Maybe you have a background in combat or martial arts and you figure, I’d kick his ass. Maybe you are a gun-toting 2nd amendment stand up and fight kind of person and you would draw your gun the second you had a chance. No matter what you would do, all of those things are reactions, not choices. They feed the same tired old cause and effect. They don’t make things better, they just continue the status quo, the cycle, the pattern.

A rection is something that arises from emotions, from stress, from neurological patterns that you have spent a lifetime building. X input will result in Y reaction. It is why there are all kinds of mental games you can play with people’s thoughts. It’s how cold reading works.

But here is an article with an example of someone who was present in that situation, who did make a conscious choice. NPR A Victim Treats his Mugger Right

I’ll summarize for you real quick so you don’t have to go read it unless you want to. Basically, a mugger threatens a guy with a knife and as the mugger is walking away he offered the mugger his coat. They end up eating dinner together and the Mugger gives back his wallet and leaves his knife behind.

There is a difference here. This person with enough space and presence was not only able to change the course of the game but drastically alter it so that they were creating something entirely new. It is only in a true conscious choice that the space for real change can begin.

Now you might say well hell, what if the guy just killed him? What if it ended badly for both of them? No one said that free will is a safe course or a safe option. In fact, true transcendence of the simple reaction to any situation requires a large degree of courage and fearlessness. It requires that you leap into the unknown and accept that all situations are impermeant, that yes, you may die, but so what?

Your reaction is probably something like, but what about my family? What about the consequences of my death? What about all the things I will miss out on? Maybe I would have more time if I act a certain way? I am sure that you, like most people, fear death. This is a reaction, not a conscious choice.

But death doesn’t give a shit. It can come for you at any moment and in fact, for most of us, it will catch us completely off guard. It will sneak around the corner and end you and you can’t do a damn thing about it. You aren’t invincible. You will die. Playing it safe probably won’t help you. For example, a family member of mine was murdered working third shift at a convenience store when he was only a teenager. What does that mean? Nothing. Rationalize it with any theological argument you want, death is still coming for you.

It is good and right to contemplate this. You cannot truly live, you cannot truly have free will, you cannot be liberated from stagnation without accepting death as a concrete thing.

True free will is risky, it is dangerous, but it also contains in it a true power to remake the world. True free will is also hard work. It is uncomfortable and messy. You make lots of mistakes and you have to own up to them. But the amazing thing is, true free will is also what allows us to experiment, what allows people to come up with amazing solutions to complex and seemingly impossible problems.

It is the unthinking, unfeeling masses that bring upon terrible conditions in the world. Millions of people are starving in the streets and yet, nearly half of all food in the United States is discarded. We waste half our food

War, poverty, homelessness, so many of the ills of our world come from the lack of the exercise of our free will. Most of us just try to get through our day, apathetic to the consequences of our actions, of the things we do or use.

One of my current favorite authors, Anne Leckie, has a fantastic quote in her book Ancillary Justice. “Luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish. You’re free to enjoy its benefits without troubling your conscience.”

So how do you become more conscious? You have to create a space of self-examination. You can do this through various activities. The easiest and most powerful way is meditation. It doesn’t matter which kind of meditation you do but the purpose of meditation is self-reflection. It is creating the space in your brain and in your experience to stop and act consciously. Meditation is training your brain to do just that, to have the focus and the presence of mind to detach from simple reactions and transform them into conscious choices.

The thing is, it doesn’t start happening overnight. It takes a long time for people to transform. Think of this way, if you are 20 years old, you built up 20 years of habits around the way you think and react. You create mental impressions and ideas of how to react based on certain situations. There is also a cultural level to this as well. By the way, this is what Karma is about. The concept of Karma is entirely misunderstood in the West. If you want to read a different piece I wrote over on Quora on Karma you can find it here.

So what does this all mean? Well as I said in my last entry, if you want freedom it requires discipline. Anyone can do this, but few actually embark on it. As humans, we can do better. We need to do better. We will do better. The world is ours to remake, if we can only be a little more conscious.