The Uncertainty Principle Defined

Let’s give a concise formulation of the Uncertainty Principle, based on the above discussion of its three parts.

First, we cannot be absolutely confident that our understanding of inter-cultural interactions is complete since it is inherently variable and subject to (re)interpretation. We can never say that the way we have predicted or interpreted something excludes all other predictions or interpretations, made in the past or to be made in the future. We must acknowledge uncertainty as an avoidable aspect of intercultural communication.

Second, intercultural communication can be presented as a process of dis-closure or simultaneous opening up and closing down the ‘windows’ of awareness. In this process, people from different cultures together construct knowledge of one’s own and one another’s identities and thus how to interact with one another.

And, third, different interpretations of the same experiences form the basis of intercultural communication because shared order is created out of uncertainty.

In a nutshell, the Uncertainty Principle can be formulated as follows:

Intercultural communication is a process whereby people from different groups constantly search for knowledge of how to interact with one another against the background of uncertainty.

Case Study: ‘The Shock of the Other’

The following case study is based on the video ‘The Shock of the Other,’ one of the programs in the series‘Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World,’ produced by Biniman Production Limited in 1992 and distributed

Uncertainty Principle 49 by PBS Video. It is recommended that you watch the video in its entirety; below, you find a summary of the video.

Be ready to identify and then discuss the following topics:

  • 1. The nature of intercultural search.
  • 2. Looking for closure.
  • 3. Uncertainty as a basis for intercultural communication.

The 'Shock of the Other’ program follows its host, David Maybury-Lewis, the head of the Cultural Survival organization, and his crew on their journey into the Peruvian Amazon to learn about the Mashco-Piro tribe, hidden from the outside world.

The video begins with David Maybury-Lewis visiting the chief of the Xavante tribe in Brazil, whom he had met 30 years ago and now considers his ‘brother.’ David Maybury-Lewis looks for his wisdom and encouragement before setting out on his journey to Peru. According to a custom of the Xavante tribe, he and his ‘brother’ lie and talk about their fears and hopes—“two mysteries to the Other,” as David Maybury-Lewis puts it, full of respect for each other.

Another stop David Maybury-Lewis makes before setting out on his journey is the monastery in Spain where Christopher Columbus had planned his journey several hundred years before. David Maybury-Lewis cannot help noting the destruction of the Old World that Columbus’s discovery had brought, and also sees the ugly side of the New World—pollution, ground bereft of life. He faces this dilemma: whether he should set out on his own journey or stay home. He does not understand why, while we learn from the Other, we want the Other to be just like us. For him, the decision whether to travel to Peru is tied right in with solving this paradox. He remembers his Xavante ‘brother’ and decides to set out on his journey.

Next we see him, accompanied by two Peruvians, traveling through the jungle. He sees this jungle, more than one half of which is impenetrable, and feels as if the forest were hiding from the main predators—people. On the boat taking him to his camp, he feels like a stranger to those Peruvians who accompany him, and to himself. But he has a noble goal—to save the Mashco-Piro tribe from extinction—the fate of so many other tribes. The only information he has of that tribe is the photo of three women, along with some stories told by the locals of their contact with the tribe. David Maybury-Lewis looks up and feels as if the whole jungle is watching him. He thinks he sees a distant figure in the river, but then decides it must be just a dream.

He makes a stop at the last settlement before the virgin jungle, known as the ‘Park.’This settlement has an appropriate name, he thinks, ‘Labirinto,’ which looks like a half-way house, a place in limbo, caught between the past and the present. He goes to a saloon; “Where else?” he wryly smiles to himself looking around and wondering how thosepeople see him—“as a monster?” He looks out of the window and sees a funeral procession, finding it to be an omen. What, for those people is loss of a human life, for him is death of a culture, destruction of the web of life.

At his camp, he finds out that the authorities in Lima are reluctant to let them move on and photograph the tribe. Another decision needs to be made. David Maybury-Lewis and his crew talk about this on a cold night, and he feels uncertainty sneaking up on him. “It all used to be so simple,” he thinks. “When did certainty break?” He traces uncertainty back to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century when Nietzsche announced there was no God, Freud and Darwin came up with their theories, and the physicists proved that truth was relative. Yet, David Maybury-Lewis hopes that it is possible to meet the Other and have pluralism of opinions. And so they journey on.

The Peruvians accompanying the crew insist they go up the river.“I think they sensed the tribes closeness,” David Maybury-Lewis says. And they see several women from the Mashco-Piro tribe peering out of the jungle. One of the women seems to call someone. “The rest of the tribe?” wonders David Maybury-Lewis. Even at that distance, he feels, mystery comes across. “I stood at the edge of mystery,” he says. He takes a small boat and sails closer to the northern boundary of the Mashco-Piro territory. At the bank of the river, he sees their footprints, only hours old, and waits. Nobody comes out of the jungle, but he is sure they are watching him. He leaves some gifts for the tribe—pots and a knife. Leaving, he thinks: “Let the mystery be. Someday, we will meet, when we both are ready. And maybe, we will still be brothers, in a thousand years.”

Now let us see how this case can be seen as an illustration of the Uncertainty Principle of intercultural communication.

1. The nature of intercultural search.

This video shows well the very nature of our knowledge, i.e., what happens when we understand our experiences, or think that we do. The theme of intercultural contact as mysterious runs through the whole story. The tape begins with David Maybury-Lewis and his Xavante ‘brother’ lying and talking together—“two mysteries to the Other,” and it ends with David Maybury-Lewis leaving the Mashco-Piro territory, thinking: “Let the mystery be.” “I stood at the edge of the mystery,” he says, and this phrase is a good metaphor for intercultural communication, in general.

Another good metaphor is that of impenetrable jungle. It suggests that there is always something unknowable about it, just like there is something unknowable about people from other cultures. We can view people from other cultures (and ourselves) only up to a point, and there is the Unknown Window present in all our interactions.

David Maybury-Lewis also specifies when certainty broke, and the age of uncertainty was born. The discoveries of Nietzsche, Freud, Darwin, and physicists, seemingly unrelated, all proved that truth was elusive and our knowledge inherently uncertain.

2. Looking for closure.

This video also shows well how people, in their search for knowledge tend to complete incomplete stimuli. Wherever he looks, David Maybury-Lewis tries to put pieces of a puzzle together. He looks at the jungle and sees (or thinks he does) a distant figure. He looks at the funeral procession and sees destruction of the web of life. He looks at a candle and a mosquito net on a cold night and sees the age of uncertainty being born.

The Peruvians who accompany David Maybury-Lewis and his crew, in their turn, sense the closeness of the Mashco-Piro tribe. All these perceptions are based on their previous knowledge; obviously, David Maybury-Lewis draws on his experiences as an anthropologist and the head of the Cultural Survival organization, while the Peruvians draw on their experiences of living in the jungle.

Intercultural interactions shown in the video are difficult because the Mashco-Piro tribe’s self-disclosure is reduced to a minimum; for example, one of the women seems to peer out of the jungle, calling someone. As a result, David Maybury-Lewis and his crew must deal with a lot of missing information as they construct the knowledge of how to interact with the tribe. So, closure in this case is very difficult to achieve, making intercultural interactions very difficult.

3. Uncertainty as a basis for intercultural communication.

This video shows that, in spite of inherent uncertainty of our knowledge. people from different cultures can still communicate and hope for a peaceful pluralism of opinions. The video begins and ends with David Maybury-Lewis visiting his Xavante ‘brother.’ They lie and talk, “two mysteries to the Other,’’yet brothers full of respect for each other. This is the main goal of intercultural communication—to overcome the shock and meet the Other.

Intercultural contact often brings negative consequences, and we see several such examples in the video—both from the New and the Old Worlds. But that should not stop people setting out on their intercultural journeys: they just should remember not to make the Other in their own image. It is just crucial, instead of bringing a destructive light, to make sure the web of life continues—for the Other and for yourself.

In that sense, another metaphor in this story is that of the journey. Perhaps this metaphor is the most important one in the video. David Maybury-Lewis sails down in his boat, searching for the Mashco-Piro tribe and also for his own identity.

52 Uncertainty Principle

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