I like to “joke” that I’m always right. It usually gets some appreciative laughs and eye rolls, and I do it to make a point. It’s a point about how ridiculous it really is that I say there’s no alternative except mine. When you say it in that way, everyone tends to agree; we can’t be right all the time. What most people really dislike is when you pose something that is out of the structure that they have arranged in their mind. Fortunately for us, as part of our nature we tend to group and normalize ideas in a given setting; it creates comfort to be part of the group. It is the reason why society, communities, and cultures have their own underlying belief systems and why certain regions generally adhere to a certain religion or political affiliation. It’s a technique that works well because it creates societal stability but it also creates difficulty for those who would go against the grain. So as a society, we agree upon what is right and wrong, but these things also change throughout time, leading it to be more subjective, less universal. This is difficult for many of us who want to believe in a universal right vs. wrong, but it’s more of a collective understanding of what we will accept.
Think about your life. Everything you’ve ever experienced has been experienced uniquely and based upon our prevailing beliefs. We call this our subjective experience. Ever wonder what it is like to see the world out of another person’s mind or try to see something as the person next to you must be seeing it as a result of their own history? It can fry your brain as you start to realize the impossibility of it all. The only world we will ever know is the one that we experience. Even something as simple as color is complicated. Have you ever tried describing a color to someone else? Colors are specific, but the way we view them vary: “no, it’s definitely more of a green than a blue.”, “Are you crazy? That’s turquois.” and “You’re both wrong, see the gray in it?”. Although we can agree that the sky is blue and the grass is green, our own perception of shading based on our general make-up is relatively unknown. To individuals with deficits in their visual ability, they may not see that particular color at all but because of our norms, can appropriately identify it.
As social workers, our job is to place ourselves in another person’s subjective experience. It is why we often have a judgment free zone, because we can never know what it was like for them. The concept of right and wrong might seem so easy from the outside, so simple until you place yourself into a place where every nuance and “what if” comes into play. The more we realize that the more we try to hold on to the absolutes, because we want it to fit. It’s uncomfortable when it doesn’t. We justify, or accept an individual taking another’s life in self-defense if we call it justifiable homicide, because we accept that there are situations that break the norm, but only when we say it is right. We explain away the moral problems of war for our Veterans by explaining that they had no choice, that it was not murder. This is an implicit acknowledgement that in certain cases there are exceptions and gray areas. Our language is designed to have these nuances for just this reason. What if it didn’t. What if there was one word to describe taking another’s life, how would we then explain the difference?
Each person has a story of a situation of complete “wrongness.” It’s something we do to make sense of this world, because the alternative is to realize that the child molester felt that he was in the right, and that’s abhorrent on several scales of justice, but even our right and wrong is subjective. It is an agreed upon subjective that most will accept, and that is a useful thing for humankind as we navigate this complictaed world, but it does not make it a universal truth. Unless I say so…because I’m always right 😉
By: Courtney Kidd, LMSW
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