To understand another culture it is necessary for an ethnographic investigator to suspend or temporarily suppress their own reflexive cultural judgments, at least long enough to get a sense of how life looks and feels from within the other culture’s lifeworld. If the investigator carries their own convictions and habitual judgments into the investigation, they will objectify and misunderstand that culture. What does it mean to objectify and misunderstand? To understand the distinction we must contrast it with a form of understanding that avoids objectification, a “subjectifying” understanding.

In subjectifying understanding — what I prefer to call synetic understanding, or synesis — one continues to understand objectively, but this objectivity is developed from a shifted subjectivity. This subjectivity is the true “objective” of the effort.

This absolutely does not mean objective fact is made secondary to feelings and tastes. On the contrary, objective rigor is required to discover the subjective truth upon which the objectivity stands (thus the term under-standing). Success means learning how another subjectivity makes coherent objective and subjective sense of the world. As Geertz eloquently observed, this does not entail some kind of empathic miracle involving soul transplants or mystical unions. It involves deep learning that permanently changes how we see.

But, then… maybe it is mystical. The kind of change of mind that result from synesis can have very strange effects that resemble religious conversion. In fact, I believe religious conversion is the same phenomenon, one where the shifted understanding is so comprehensive it overwhelms all prior understanding. After experiencing this firsthand myself, and I find it impossible to read about religious conversions and not recognize my own experiences in them. So what if their shift resulted in convictions about the nature of reality that I find non-credible: I think the medium is the message, and the ostensible “good news” is an artifact of the change.

This is why I care little about the theological content of a person’s belief.


One reason I dislike the word empathy is it overstates the importance of feeling-with. We think we have empathized with an angry person if we get angry with them about the things they are angry about. This does not lead to understanding. No synesis results. We just adopt someone else’s beliefs in an effort to share their feelings.

The popular left appears to have no concept of understanding apart from this sentimental counterfeit of understanding. Refusal to participate in it is viewed as hard-hearted or self-interested uncaring ignorance.


Ethnocentrism can also be temporal. To understand our own culture’s past (in order to learn from it) we must suspend our own time’s value judgments. If we fail to do this, we are exactly like the colonists who judged native populations to be “savages” and due to this failure became savages themselves.

To look at the history of this country from the moral standards of today, and to reverse cherry-pick examples of wickedness in order to condemn it and cast doubt on its present worth and legitimacy is an egregious example of temporal ethnocentrism, not to mention historically inaccurate. To judge the USA we must compare it to what preceded it, because that gives us a much better idea of what life might be like today had it never existed.

Today’s “wokeness” (a misnomer of unparalleled proportions) is an effect of the abundant liberty produced by the very institutions that it condemns. That liberty allows us to see for ourselves and judge for ourselves, however incorrect and illiberal our conclusions may be.


To overcome a male tendency to “objectify” women, one thing is needful: Learn from the one you love, be transformed in the learning, and then, as a transformed self, love even better. Learn willingly, actively, objectively, transformatively. Do not settle for sympathetic agreement.


Synesis — subjective understanding — is not the same thing as sympathetic agreement. Sympathetic agreement obstructs understanding by giving you a sentimental counterfeit to genuine, transformative shared knowing.


I’m going to re-re-re-post one of my better aphorisms, spelled out a little more explicitly:

The bartender who patiently listens to your sad story is not interested in who you are. The brawler who picks a fight with you wants to know what you are made of.

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