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Incomprehension in personal experience


Living with Incomprehension and Uncertainty (Part #5)


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Rather than explore the possibility of inherently abstract (and potentially incomprehensible) frameworks of explanation regarding incomprehension, there is a case for highlighting the various forms and contexts of actual experience of it. Although these forms may enable and encourage "intolerance", the concern here is with the incomprehension which may be a prelude to intolerance, especially since the latter may well be engendered by a problematic sense of comprehension rather than of incomprehension -- of which all have had a "taste".

Suffering: Incomprehension is most evident in relation to suffering, as detailed separately below (Experiencing incomprehension personally).

Strange places: The sense of the strangeness of places is intimately related to lack of comprehension of them. This is most immediately evident when visiting an unfamiliar area, another neighbourhood or a different town. In it there is the possibility of being "lost"-- of losing any comprehension of location and orientation. This is even more evident in visiting other countries, where the sense of strangeness may be augmented by the style of architecture or even the topography.

The sense of strangeness may of course be explored for pleasure and curiosity through tourism. The process of becoming familiar, and attenuating the sense of incomprehension, may then be valued in contrast to what is conventionally understood.

Strange technology: Exposure to new technology is characteristic of rapidly developing societies and their impact on other societies. This may necessarily give rise to a sense of incomprehension, confusion and anxiety -- most obviously with the exposure to escalators and elevators of people from rural areas. The experience is also evident with exposure to new generations of electronic and other devices requiring insight into the manner by which they may be used, controlled, repaired and upgraded. The experience may engender confusion, if not panic, as exemplified by the interaction of older generations with ATM devices, ticketing machines, and online payment systems. The sense of incomprehension may be exacerbated by the complexity of the device (as with remote control devices) and issues of aptitude and preference (notably for those who prefer face-to-face contact).

Again new technology may be a focus of fascination and appreciation, most especially for the young, as widely remarked. Curiosity then readily triumphs over confusion.

Strange language: People are increasingly exposed to languages other than their own, possibly provoking a sense of incomprehension and uncertainty in situations where adequate comprehension may appear vital. The notion of "language" may extend to dialects or jargons, evoking incomprehension even in relation to a language with which it might be supposed they are familiar. This can be especially problematic when such variants are associated with cultural or class differences -- namely where other challenges underlie the lack of comprehension. The situation is further complicated in the case of exposure to a more "global" language with which familiarity is lacking. Conversely, incomprehension takes another form in the encounter by the speaker of a "global" language with a "local" language, especially where this may evoke a degree of resentment on either side -- or where incomprehension may be denied and comprehension mistakenly assumed (as noted above).

As with strange places, the encounter with languages experienced as strange may be appreciated as a contrast to modes of communication where comprehension is readily assumed. It may enrich the experience of tourism or the quality of life in a multilingual society.

Strange people and behaviour: Multicultural societies increasingly ensure encounters with people with behaviours readily experienced as strange and incomprehensible. However, with the development of alternative lifestyles and cultures within a society, such strangeness may also be experienced in the encounter between those of different generations, ideologies, or modes of life -- and most notably those of "sects". The behaviour may be readily experienced as inexplicable. Such reactions can easily lead to xenophobia.

Again, the experience of strange people and behaviour may be a valued feature of tourism, framed as broadening horizons and learning "how others live".

Strange belief system: Irrespective of the strangeness of people, some seemingly "ordinary people" may be experienced as having incomprehensible beliefs -- again notably those in sects or associated with "other" religions. Such incomprehension may be experienced with respect to those holding alternative political views. For those of intellectual persuasion, the worldviews of others with whom they disagree may be considered incomprehensibly gullible or misguided -- or "just plain wrong".

Strange administrative procedures: The required procedures for interaction with officialdom for administrative purposes (licences, taxation, etc) may well be experienced as incomprehensible -- especially as they increase in complexity and become intertwined, through rationalization, with advances in technology. They may be especially challenging for the elderly or those variously handicapped when special provisions are not envisaged.

Injustice: A deep sense of  incomprehension is readily experienced as a consequence of exposure to some forms of injustice and unfairness, especially when no remedial action is evident or even considered -- and when the guilty are either not convicted or merely receive derisory punishment. This amy well undermine any faith in the system of governance, the police, and the judiciary -- and even possibly in fellow human beings.

Inter-gender perplexity: The incomprehension associated with the experience of those of one sex for those of another has long been the subject of humour and commentary, exemplified by the arguments of John Gray (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, 1992). It may engender misogyny, misandry, other aberrations (Edward Ross Dickinson, "A Dark, Impenetrable Wall of Complete Incomprehension": the Impossibility of Heterosexual Love in Imperial Germany, Central European History, 40,  3, 2007, pp. 467-497). Incomprehension may extend to homosexual relationships, which may in turn engender homophobia and discriminatory practices (United Nations Human Rights Council, Discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity; Homophobia, stigma and incomprehension, Melbourne Age, 9 January 2012).


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