Decentering Self

In school, we learn two things about Aristotle. First, we learn that he was profoundly influential for millennia, and probably smarter than you. Second, we learn that he was mostly wrong about everything having to do with the real world.

It’s not hard to figure out why. He used a rationalistic methodology rather than an empirical one, meaning that rather than going out to examine and measure firsthand, he mostly explored the universe as a mental exercise. Unfortunately, this means he didn’t have enough information available to challenge his own biases in his worldview. He even believed that women had fewer teeth than men, which is demonstrably false.

There are numerous examples, from Aristotle and afterwards directed by his influence, for which his methodology’s flaws are made manifest as theories in contradiction of available evidence. For example, Ptolemy’s Almagest protected the Aristotelian geocentric worldview, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, by inventing epicycles to explain planetary motions which didn’t make sense otherwise.

I see the same willful ignorance play out today in discussions regarding equality, empathy, and justice. Without giving specific examples or links, I have observed two major problems with arguments I hear from racists, men’s rights activists, and others.

First, their arguments only make sense if they completely deny the evidence they hear which conflicts with their point of view. Men’s rights activists thrive on stories of false rape accusations. Racists need racism to be “over.”

Second, relatedly, they believe they don’t even need to hear others’ points of view to inform their worldview. In other words, it’s not necessary to listen to people of color to learn what they need about racism. They don’t need to listen to women to invalidate their discomfort or fears. They don’t have to listen to disabled people. It all makes sense to them, without the inconvenience of going into the world.

I can forgive Aristotle drawing the wrong conclusions about nature, but I have trouble with those who apply methods of rationality to the people around them. It’s leaping to conclusions. It’s judging a book by its cover. It’s hubris. Aristotle thought the world was the center of the universe because it just seemed that way. Do you feel like the center of your own universe?

We all need to take time to stop and listen. We need to make room for others’ feelings in our world. We need to decenter ourselves sometimes. Not always, but very often, kindness flows from doing so.