Wilson's 'Reality Tunnels'
I made reference to "reality tunnels" in a sermon several years ago after I discovered Robert Anton Wilson's book, The New Inquisition. Some of you may recall the term "Sumbunall" he proposed as a corrective to what I termed our "illiberal liberalism." Rather than saying "All conservatives believe..." or "all popular music is..." or "all men are..." he suggests that we say "Some, but not all..."
Central to Wilson's understanding of the world is his belief that all of us construct realities with which we live - except that we assume that they are given - that they are "real" - rather than constructed. And so we make judgements about how the world works, and who other people are, and about who we are. The problem is that we live in what he calls "reality tunnels" which are focused in such a way as to exclude inputs and experiences that may challenge what we believe, that may help us see the errors in our limited or erroneous constructions of reality.
Wilson maintains that many people who claim to faithfully follow the scientific method do so unfaithfully - continually excluding evidence that does not fit within the parameters of their expectations.
"We make facts by organizing appearances into reality-tunnels that suit our present needs, our problems-to-be-solved, our fears and fantasies, and our prejudices.And we should add, the Fundamentalist Unitarian Universalist Liberal reality tunnel.
And just as the Fundamentalist Materialist classifies as "fact" that which fits its model, and dismisses as "mere appearance" that which does not fit, so, too, the Fundamentalist Thomist mechanically accepts that which fits the Thomist model... - and similar mechanisms perpetuate the Fundamentalist Samoan tiki-worship reality tunnel, and the Fundamentalist racist reality-tunnel, and the Fundamentalist male chauvinist reality-tunnel, and the Fundamentalist Ohio Presbyterian Republican reality-tunnel, and the Fundamentalist Iranian Islamic reality-tunnel..."
Our culture has been based on the belief that the basic reality tunnel created by White European males over the past 300 years is the only "real" way to look at the world - what could Asians, Africans, women, Native Americans, possibly have to offer us? Including them in a course of study wastes time and dilutes our knowledge. "Our culture succeeded and theirs failed! What could we gain from them?"
I am fascinated by a book that Jim Spelman called to my attention: This Thing of Darkness : A Sociology of the Enemy by James Aho. Listen to Aho's orientation to reality:
"...even a moment's reflection reveals that what I see as trash some other person might well see as food, what I experience as pleasure someone else may see as pain, what I call a duty may in reality be a choice; and thus the social institutions we commonly hold to be inexorable, necessary and unavoidable are in fact our own collective creations, hence not inevitable at all. In other words, human beings reside in worlds they themselves have fashioned. Our worlds are cultural "art-facts," not natural affairs. However we tend to forget this truth, attributing responsibility for our world to some other thing, event or Person independent of us: our genes, Fate, the Will of God, "the way I was raised," and so forth."What Aho is talking about, in other words, is the reality tunnels we create and live in.
I thought for a while Aho was going to be poignantly relevant today because one of the examples he uses of our creation of enemies is Saddam Hussein. Consider this:
"As difficult it is for us to hear them, Iraqi ravings about Western "imperialism," American "duplicity," and the "violations" of Muslim women and sanctuaries are in a pragmatic sense probably as realistic to Iraqis as is the following creed expressed so baldly by American officials and repeated like cant by the American public: Saddam is the "greatest peril" today to freedom, security, and the American way of life, a "ruthless tyrant" who has committed "outrageous acts of genocidal barbarism" that "surpass" even those of Hitler in their brutality."That, friends, is a propaganda reality tunnel which is being used on us to unite us against a common foe, to distract us from our own problems. If you think about it outside of the popular reality tunnel, Saddam is right in saying that the American led sanctions are killing his people and there is no end to them in sight. To acknowledge this is not to say that Saddam is a "good guy," but as I suggested last year, we created him, we armed him, we backed him when he served our purposes. If you want to see reality tunnels, look at the headline of this morning's paper.
Levenson and 'Understanding'
Beyond those grand socially created reality tunnels are the individual ones we create to make sense of our own lives. Every individual has individual reality tunnels that are unique from every one else's. They are constructed from our own experiences.
One of the books I have found most influential on my thought over the years is one recommended to me by a therapist 25 years ago called The Fallacy of Understanding. In it, Edgar Levenson, with a perspective not unlike Wilson and Aho, maintains that we can never really understand another person - we try to fit their experience into our perception of what is real, but it is a Procrustean bed - we chop off parts that don't fit our perceptions and experiences. To say to someone else, "I understand you" is really a lie or a delusion. We can know what we know only in terms of our own experience and that is never universal.
What Wilson and Aho and Levenson are stressing, is something that I consider a central theme of my ministry, namely: seeking to make us more aware of the limits of our understanding, the limits imposed by our reality tunnels, the awareness that what we think we see objectively is always subjective at its core. It is only when we can see the greater truth beyond our limited versions of it, that we can be open to wisdom and relationship.
Political Reality Tunnels
Monday morning I sat in front of my TV watching on C-Span the testimony of constitutional scholars - liberal and conservative, debating the merits of impeachment of President Clinton. Their conclusions had so little in common that it was easy to label those with whom I disagreed as ideologues. It was obvious that they were trapped by a reality tunnel that muddled their minds. The problem was that some of what they said made sense. They were not fools - none of them. Their reality tunnels were no more confining than were the reality tunnels of those with whom I found myself agreeing. The difference was that I shared the reality tunnel of some and not of others. Where was the middle ground? None of the Representatives appeared able to go beyond their own partisan perspectives, any more than did the speakers. They did not disagree on facts, only on their interpretation, but what a gap, what a conflict that left. It was easier to divide them into good and bad than to wrestle with the conflict.
Personal Reality Tunnels
In a congregation I previously served, there was a woman whom I believe I have mentioned before. She had nine children. There was one who was giving her trouble and she told me she took him to twenty-some child psychiatrists until she found one who was willing to tell her what she wanted to hear - that her kid was mentally ill. That was before I got there.
After I became minister, there was another problem. She had an affair with another member of the church and decided that her husband no longer met her needs. She kicked him out of the house, and he was willing to go. Her affair fell through and she was alone. Her ex-husband ended up moving in with a divorced woman in the church. The ex-wife was furious. According to her reality tunnel, the divorcee, who had been a friend of hers, was betraying her, as was her ex-husband. He had no right to live with someone else and be happy while she was alone. She was indignant and wanted me to tell him how wrong he was. Her reality tunnel told her that it was not fair that she was lonely and he was not. The "victim" had become the perpetrator. I did not share her tunnel, even though I believed she was sincere in her belief. I declined to play the role in which she sought to cast me. She left the church because people were too accepting of what showed up in her reality tunnel as her husband's immorality.
Closer to Home
One of the things that Aho said particularly rang a bell for me personally. "My violation of you grows from my yearning to rectify the wrong I sense you have done me. Violence emerges from my quest for good and my experience of you as the opponent of good."
There are some good people whose reality tunnels see me as the "opponent of good" for this church. I continue to be cast by some as "the enemy," and I get mail and receive reports of rumors about how I am destroying this church. Everything I say and do is subject to interpretation by some people in the worst possible light in order to maintain their reality tunnel. It is also true that there are those who have constructed equally inaccurate reality tunnels in which my screw-ups are interpreted in the best possible light. It is not easy to live as either an enemy or a hero when you know neither shoe fits. And it takes considerable effort not to reciprocate by defining those who vilify me, as evil enemies.