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Experiencing incomprehension personally


Living with Incomprehension and Uncertainty (Part #9)


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The experience of incomprehension is most evident in relation to suffering, whether or not occasioned on a larger scale by disaster or deliberate policies -- as with those of a "just war", state-sponsored "targeted killing" or torture. Whilst the causative factor may be "comprehensible", and "explicable", the nature of the experience is quite otherwise. Efforts to "explain" it then demean it and merit systematic challenge.

Incomprehension occasioned by illness: The experience of illness and ill-health, especially when severe, chronic or life-threatening, may well evoke a degree of incomprehension -- whether as victim, or in the case of another, especially a close relative. The focus for the incomprehension may be "why?" -- notably when no particular explanation felt to be meaningful.

Incomprehension occasioned by accident or (imminent) disaster: As with illness, exposure to an accident -- even one reported by the media -- this may well evoke a sense of shocked incomprehension, possibly augmented by the number of victims or the inability to provide assistance. For example, as reported by Paula Hancocks (Pain, incomprehension for tsunami survivors, CNN, 1 November 2010):

The first thing you notice is their eyes. Dark misery and utter incomprehension at the horror they have been through. It's the same intense stare that questions why they survived and others didn't that I saw in the eyes of Sri Lankans after the 2004 tsunami that killed at least 225,000 people.

Incomprehension occasioned by pain and dismemberment: Whether associated with accident, illness or military action, it is the sense of pain and the associated disbelief in the condition experienced which may characterize the quality of incomprehension. This is dramatically evident with the wounded in battle -- exposed to their legs having been blown off, or the guts of another torn out. Such incomprehension has been highlighted worldwide, at the time of writing, by the alleged murder of 16 Afghan women and children by Robert Bales, a soldier of the US who had seen the legs of a friend blown off the previous day. The effect may be deliberately induced through torture. Chronic pain may be associated with illness.

Incomprehension occasioned by disability or progressive diminishment of capacities: Again, as with illness, the condition necessarily evokes the question "why?" or "why me?". Acknowledgement of the tragic condition, however incomprehensible, may evoke a traumatic reframing of identity -- or incomprehension of what this may imply. The existential challenge is attentuated, to a degree, when it manifests progressively rather than as the immediate consequence of some form of accident. Variants include:

  • physical disability, whether from birth, accident, or aging
  • mental disability, whether from birth, accident, or aging (dementia, Alzheimer, etc)
  • disconnection from memories (as notably claimed by Robert Bales)
  • evidence of aging and loss of youth

Where the process, progressively undermines any sense of identity and self-worth, the incomprehension may be exacerbated by the legal and other restrictions on assisted suicide.

Incomprehension in the face of death: This may be most evident in the case of those about to be executed, as notably explored by Arthur Koestler (Dialogue with Death, 1942). It is the experience of being on "death row" for a period, especially for those who are innocent or ignorant of the nature of the crime for which they have been convicted. It includes that of those facing death at their own hands. The situation was traditionally given a ritual framing by Roman gladiators: Nos Morituri Te Salutamus, or the Japanese ritual of seppuku. The incomprehension may be especially evident in the case of observers unable to understand how such acts could be perpetrated.

The more common variant is necessarily that of those in a terminal health condition, knowing that they face imminent death. The anxiety and incomprehension associated with that condition have been extensively explored, whether or not any explanation or belief has been offered or accepted. A corresponding experience is that of those faced with the death of another, most notably a loved one -- and possibly as a consequence of suicide.

As variously foreseen, and frequently explored in movie dramatizations, there is the prospect of exposure to warnings of imminent disaster, whether a tsunami, a colliding asteroid or an epidemic. With what incomprehension can collective imminent destruction be fruitfully met? How does this relate to subtler warnings of disaster emerging over a longer term -- shortage of resources, including water -- whose significance can be all too readily negated for the moment?

Incomprehension  occasioned by discrimination and intimidation: Exposure to victimization and discrimination is the subject of extensive commentary, as exemplified by that against: ethnic groups,  women, the elderly, the young, other classes or castes, those of other sexual orientation, etc. As with bullying, any such commentary can only faintly echo the nature of the experience and the mystery of "why me?".

Incomprehension occasioned by the behaviour of police and prison authorities: Those who engage in democratic protest, or are directly exposed to police action of any kind (possibly leading to incarceration), frequently characterize the behaviour of such authorities as incomprehensible. This extends to the behaviour that such authorities tolerate in prison at the hand of other prisoners, to which authorities may well "turn a blind eye".

Incomprehension occasioned by ignorance and incompetence: Whilst ignorance and incompetence may not be a focus of concern when so recognized by others only, it is the sense of incomprehension associated with the inability to read, write, or calculate which is especially disempowering. There is of course an extensive literature on illiteracy and innumeracy. It is however the experience of incomprehension which merits attention, as with regard to any other form of incompetence inhibiting more fruitful engagement with life (cooking, sewing, driving, etc). The incomprehension with regard to collective incompetence is discussed further below (Incomprehensible inadequacy of collective response). That relating to the experience of administrative procedural absurdities may merely be associated with their unfamiliarity (as indicated above), but may well extend to include variants of the classical Catch-22 situation and those resembling it (double bind etc).

Incomprehension occasioned by betrayal of trust and false accusations: The experience of incomprehension is especially evident in the case of betrayal of trust and abuse of faith (Abuse of Faith in Governance, 2009). Examples include: adultery (especially involving friends), breach of promise, breach of confidence, treason, false accusations by those trusted, abuse by trusted authorities (sexual abuse by clergy, etc). Especially tragic, for those who know themselves to be innocent, is the incomprehension consequent on miscarriage of justice resulting in their incarceration and the possibility of eventual execution.

Incomprehension occasioned by quarrels and disagreements: Family, neighbourhood and community life may be characterized by occasional or continuing disagreements and unpleasantness which defy fruitful explanation. This is particularly evident in the processes whereby the magic evaporates from partnership relationships, typically leading to divorce in the case of magic.

Incomprehension elicited by the mass media: At a time of shocked incomprehension at school shootings and serial killings, together with media dramatizations of the "incomprehensible" experiences above, it is incomprehensible for some that there is no evidence that the daily diet of entertainment containing ever greater levels of violence facilitates such patterns -- other than simply habituating people to them.

It has been readily argued that the mass media are to varying degrees engaged in a process of "dumbing down" the content disseminated (Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent: the political economy of the mass media, Pantheon Books, 1988). This may be understood as ensuring limited, simplistic comprehension of issues calling for more complex insights -- effectively restricting the domain of comprehension, thereby ensuring that it is not "comprehensive". In a commercial marketing context, this may be understood as deliberately "bamboozling" potential clients or those "locked into" the product or service provided.

Induced incomprehension: Of particular relevance is the development of techniques to induce disorientation, given the vulnerability it engenders through incomprehension -- a vulnerability which may then be exploited. This is most evident in mind control techniques (also known as brainwashing, coercive persuasion, mind abuse or thought control), notably as associated with "re-education" and possibly as a means of avoiding the need for physical torture. The techniques have notably been deployed by the USSR, China and the USA, most recently with respect to those detained on suspicion of terrorist activity). New "psychotronic" weapons are under development to induce disorientation on the battlefield and presumably in response to democratic protest (Mojmir Babacek, Electromagnetic and Informational Weapons: the remote manipulation of the human brain, Global Research, 6 August 2004; Timothy L. Thomas, The Mind Has No Firewall, Parameters, Spring 1998, pp. 84-92).


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