As you may remember, our daughter and family live in Cambodia. She teaches in a Christian school there, and she recently had occasion to need some rice for a class project. She asked her teaching assistant, a native Khmer woman, to go buy her some rice. “Get the cheapest rice you can, I’m not going to cook it, just use it for class,” she said, as she gave the TA some money to buy it with.
The TA came back with the rice, but almost fell over herself apologizing. “I am so sorry, Mrs. Phifer, I could not get the cheap rice, I looked everywhere, I had to spend 1800 riel to get a kilogram1 of rice.” She was unhappy with having to spend that much of Ashley’s money, and she was expecting Ashley to be unhappy, too.
1800 riel is forty-five cents.
Perspective. A couple of its meanings are “point of view” and “a true understanding of the relative importance of things.” It would be easy to look at that story and conclude that the TA’s perspective was off, that she was assigning importance to a quantity of money that shouldn’t have any (importance).
But for that TA, and much of the rest of the world, forty-five cents is a lot of money. It is our perspective in this case that is off. For us, forty-five cents is the change we put in our pocket and forget and lose in the washer. We can’t even imagine a scenario where forty-five cents would be a lot of money.
The BEITA2 the past year is The Sympathizer. It won the 2016 Pulitzer for fiction, and is a sort of immigrant’s tale about a Vietnamese communist mole who comes to America as part of the evacuation of Saigon. In the book, one of the things the protagonist talks about is the difference between being poor in America vs being poor in Vietnam, of how poor people in the US have refrigerators and TV’s and phones, and only the rich in Vietnam (of the time) had them.3 He had a perspective on poverty that most of us don’t have.
It is for this reason that I believe that every single person in America needs to travel outside of it, to places where forty-five cents is considered a lot of money. It is for this reason that when our church takes short-term teams to some of those places, one of the stated goals of the trip is to “broaden our world view,” which is just another way of saying “give us a different perspective.”
This is one of the problems with political discourse in America (and the UK and France and …) today — we have a very narrow perspective, and have no intention or ability of expanding it to include someone else’s. Just as we can’t imagine that forty-five cents being a lot of money, we can’t imagine a scenario where a Democrat/Republican/Libertarian (whichever one(s) we’re not) is right, or has a point, or could offer something to the conversation.
We need to imagine why someone would want access to healthcare even though they’re in bad health. We need to imagine why a woman would want to have a say over her body. We need to understand why someone would want to restrict immigration. We need to understand why someone wouldn’t.
Most of all, we need to understand that understanding isn’t the same as agreement. If I disagree with you but understand why you have the opinions/feelings/thoughts/positions you have, we can walk away as friends. If I disagree with you and haven’t even made an attempt to understand, then I am treating you as less than human, because I’ve said your perspective isn’t worth hearing. (Having said that, I was part of a conversation this week where someone said that Princess Bride wasn’t a very good movie. I walked out of the room; there are some lines that just can’t be crossed.)
In a competitive debate, you have to know both sides of a subject inside and out, because you aren’t assigned the position you’re going to argue until you get there. If you don’t have both perspectives, if you dismiss one out of hand, or give it short shrift in your discovery, then you’ll lose and lose badly. We need more perspective, not less. We don’t have to agree with everyone, but we should at least try to understand them.
Perspective also has a meaning in art. It’s the thing that causes painters to paint roads so that the two sides of the road move closer together the farther away they get from the focal point. If the road being painted is long enough, the two sides will eventually meet.
In other words, without the proper perspective, we’ll miss the point.