A Matter of Perspective

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By Mike Cronin

No doubt you know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west once every 24 hours.  It has done so for billions of years and will continue to do so for billions more.

Fact: The sun rises and sets about 16 times per day.

Fact: The sun rises and sets once every two weeks.

Fact: The sun doesn’t rise or set at all.

All of these facts are true.  How can that be?

Each is true from a certain perspective – and false from other perspectives.  The first is true from the perspective of people on the earth’s surface.  The second is true from the perspective of an astronaut onboard the International Space Station.  The third is true from the perspective of an astronaut on the surface of the moon.  The last is true from the perspective of the sun itself.

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that in so-and-so’s world, XYZ is quite different than in your world. Maybe you were taught to think of Western Europe, the US, the British Commonwealth, and Japan as the “first” world, and places like Haiti, Somalia, and Afghanistan as examples of the “third” world. Yet we all live on the same planet, so how can we be living in different worlds?

The first, second, and third worlds aren’t really separate worlds; they just appear that way from certain perspectives.  Sometimes using such metaphors can be useful in helping us frame our understanding of the actual world; sometimes the metaphors become euphemisms and are used to evade harsh truths.

For example: Haiti is the poorest, least-developed country in the western hemisphere.  It occupies part of an island called Hispaniola; the remainder of the island is taken up by the Dominican Republic. Compared to Haiti, the Dominican Republic is doing well. Some folks who call Haiti a failed state and a third-world country may be setting a scene or weaving a narrative (i.e. depicting things from a certain perspective) in order to ask you for donations to help the poor souls that live there.

Such people may mean well, but the solution to Haiti’s troubles probably depends on understanding things from a more difficult perspective.

Consider this: The 2010 earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince (Haiti’s capital) was followed less than a month later by an even more powerful earthquake in Chile.  Both earthquakes caused about the same amount of destruction in terms of the value of the property destroyed, yet the death tolls were staggeringly different.  In the Haiti quake, nearly a quarter of a million people lost their lives.  In the Chilean quake, the death toll was three orders of magnitude smaller. (A little over 500 people died).

Why was there such a vast difference between the two? How can a more powerful earthquake cause far less loss of life, but the same amount of property damage?

In Chile, there are building codes, insurance, robust first response capabilities, adequate hospitals, and property rights. In Haiti there are not. The property damage was the same from the perspective of cost, but vastly different from the perspective of number of buildings destroyed.  In Haiti, a good portion of the buildings in Port-au-Prince collapsed outright, including the president’s palace.  In Chile, many buildings suffered damage that will be expensive to fix…but far fewer buildings actually collapsed – because most were built to code to withstand earthquakes.

haiti palace

The Haitian presidential palace after the 2010 earthquake.

Why did Chile have those benefits and not Haiti?  Because for most of its history, Chile has given at least some recognition to the concept of individual and property rights.  Chileans had incentive to achieve and build and protect their investment.  Haiti, though its existence as a nation is essentially the result of a slave rebellion, never really adopted the concepts of individual freedom or property rights.  It has been ruled by a series of thugs, some worse than others, who would simply take what they wanted.

The harsh truth in the more difficult perspective: Sending aid to Haiti may help some Haitians stave off the reaper a little longer, but no amount of aid can help the Haitians adopt a philosophy of recognizing and respecting rights.

Understanding that a difference in perspective can be trivial (as in the case of knowing astronauts see 16 sunrises per “day”) or pivotal (as in the case of sending aid to Haiti), and how differing perspectives might be compared or judged against each other, is a critical skill to develop – one many of our elected leaders have failed to acquire.

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