Seeing the Same Things Differently


by Paul Balles

People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome. — George Orwell

One of my favourite short poems, The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams, is easy reading. Or is it? Try.

So much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


You might ask why Williams wrote a poem with such simple language. Is there anything in it that most readers would fail to understand?

If you listened to Ezra Pound, another mid-20th century poet, you might hear him say “No ideas but in things”.

Aha, you think, I can see the things; they’re simple: a red wheelbarrow covered with rain water and white chickens.

But what are the ideas? Two different people will see different ideas in that poem. Twenty people will see at least twenty different ideas in the same poem.

I’m not going to spoil the fun or the reward of making your own interpretation and then seeing how others interpret it.

After you’ve extracted your own ideas from the things, Google the title to see how others have interpreted the same things. But not before you’ve tried your own!

Seeing the same things differently is something we all do. Interpretation reflects an event, object or personality in a merger with one’s biases.

Understanding those differences, allowing for them, and even reconciling them is where understanding interpretation comes in.

Now, move from interpreting a poem to interpreting events in the international arena.

Something that many Americans seem not to understand is the gravity of different interpretations when it comes to politics or foreign affairs. For example:

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, drones have been bombing whole wedding parties, killing women and children while the media dismisses whatever news gets out by labelling these incidents collateral damage.

Chris Hedges points to “The war in Afghanistan — where the enemy is elusive and rarely seen, where the cultural and linguistic disconnect makes every trip outside the wire a visit to hostile territory, where it is clear that you are losing despite the vast industrial killing machine at your disposal — feeds the culture of atrocity.”

Alluding to different interpretations of the same events, Hedges concludes “The fear and stress, the anger and hatred, reduce all Afghans to the enemy, and this includes women, children and the elderly. Civilians and combatants merge into one detested nameless, faceless mass.”

Author/journalist Tom Engelhardt says “For Americans, the value of an Afghan life (or more often Afghan lives) obliterated in the backlands of the planet, thousands of miles from home, is next to nil and of no meaning whatsoever.”

According to Hedges, “The violent subjugation of the Palestinians, Iraqis, and Afghans will only ensure that those who oppose us will increasingly speak to us in the language we speak to them—violence.”

Perhaps most frightening for Americans is the threat of reactions against them at home in America.

However, most Americans cannot make the connection between what we’re doing in Afghanistan or Pakistan and how that translates into a threat of retaliation.

To cite Chris Hedges again, “If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of school children killed in Afghanistan and listen to the wails of their parents, we would not be able to repeat clichés we use to justify war.”

One might be tempted to dismiss such an obvious difference in interpreting the idea from the events. However, until those in control can discern the potential increase in blowback from American military action, it’s utter nonsense to dismiss the interpretation.

Return, momentarily to my earlier comment about personality in a merger with one’s own biases. Connect that idea with Orwell’s comment about how “grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.”

Politicians from different parties provide striking examples of interpretation gone awry.

They provide obvious examples of different interpretations in party politics. Biased politicians seem incapable of understanding their differences, allowing for them, or reconciling them.

In American politics, Democrats fault President Obama for not doing enough. Republicans fault him for doing too much.

Sometimes, interpretations of the same thing or person change.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow once wrote, “America needs the electrifyingly charismatic candidate Barack Obama once was, not the eerily inhuman robot of a president that he has become.”

We need to understand and allow for such differences as matters of interpretation. Keep in mind how events, objects or personalities merge with one’s biases to fit into our interpretations.


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