Sheep, Geese, Humans and Worldviews

Filed in Episode 3 by on May 16, 2017 0 Comments

There are significant groups of people around the world, whose recent electoral behaviour is, shall we say, hard to understand and generally bad for the rest of the planet. This blog is not about them. It nearly was but they were getting in the way of what I really wanted to say. Even if it had been, I wasn’t calling them geese or sheep. Exactly not, in fact.

Worldviews and Hubris

The geese I’ve been looking after recently, behave at times in a way that I find completely illogical. But I’m looking at it from the perspective of a human interacting with them in a human-constructed scenario. Perhaps their behaviour is completely logical or rational from the point of view of a being who wasn’t involved in framing that scenario. “Logical” or “rational” are contextually loaded terms, so perhaps it’s better to say the behaviour in question may be completely consistent with the state of being a goose. I’m pretty sure the geese see it that way. And are probably at times mystified by my own behaviour.

Our habit of rationalizing everything from our human perspective reflects itself in some rather irrational anthropomorphism. We talk, for example, about people behaving like sheep, if, like sheep, they appear to be following each other thoughtlessly. But that remark just reflects that what is consistent with being a sheep, isn’t consistent with being a human (well maybe it is but that’s not what’s being said). Animals whose way of life includes being prey for hunting animals, often live together in large groups as a means of defence (at least if countless nature programmes are right). This doesn’t always work out to their advantage but it’s consistent with their lives in general.

I’m wondering whether this mis-understanding also applies to relationships between people. When other (groups of) people behave in a way that seems inexplicable and illogical, is that behaviour perhaps comprehensible (no matter how it appalls us) from the perspective of their lives, their worldview and the concrete situation they find themselves in? Is it not hubris to imagine they would look at the world the way I do?

Screenshot from 2015-01-22 10_44_03

Worldviews and Paradigms

A worldview is a person’s understanding of what’s true and not true in the world: how things work and are related; what’s possible and what isn’t; what’s desirable and what not. It may be a property of an individual but it develops in the context of the dominant paradigm* in the society in which that individual is raised. Within that paradigm, people have differing worldviews but we are all influenced to a greater or lesser extent by that paradigm’s determination of the “normal”.

Any argument for a different way of running our world (a different way of being in the world) is therefore outside the normal. Some people are open for that, because (for reasons of upbringing or nature) they’re already thinking outside the paradigm. Most people are not – until something occurs in their own lives to change that. Until then, a “solution” to their problems will need to fit within the bounds of the paradigm. And unfortunately blaming other population groups fits a lot better in the current dominant paradigm than, for example, joining with them to change something fundamental in society.

Worldviews work both ways. I came across a tweet from a Trump supporter, who thought it was completely “illogical” to oppose Trump. Seen from her worldview, this meant opposing economic recovery and job creation and why would anyone do that? I know nothing else about this person. I could sketch out a picture of the kind of place she might have grown up in, how that might have shaped her worldview and of the current circumstances she might encounter in her own life and in her environment. Such a picture might help explain how someone could have such a different attitude to the world than I do. But it would still be a fiction constructed from my own worldview – still hubris.

Changing the Paradigm

Let’s assume that you agree with me that the current dominant paradigm is poisonous for the planet and all its inhabitants – socially, economically and environmentally – and that it has to change. There’s a circular relationship between worldview and paradigm. The more people whose worldview steps outside the paradigm, the more cracks appear in that structure, which in turn makes it more likely that others will also change. So how might we help that to start happening?

It doesn’t matter how well constructed your logic is or how eloquent your rhetoric. If it’s based only on your own worldview, you’re unlikely to reach people with a fundamentally different one. So, if we’re to change the paradigm, we’ll need to find a different approach.

Maybe we can engage with them on the basis of their own experience and needs. Perhaps together we can identify things that would improve their lives without damaging those of others. And those might not be the things we would have thought of ourselves. In the process both we and they may discover what unites rather than separates us – and may all become wiser.

And that’s where I’ll leave it, in the hope of comment and further discussion.


*I’m using the concept of a dominant paradigm in the sense that Kuhn used it for science and that others (e.g. Steven Toulmin and Mary Midgley – and my tutor, Gill Coleman) have extended into a wider societal context.



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