I was speaking with an older MSW student, now on an internship here, about attitudes and prejudices. We have had only brief conversations before – he has no experiences of me not accepting a set of commonly-believed premises right out of the gate. He doesn’t seem to have experienced this with anyone else, either. The conversation was frustrating to me, but it was shocking to him (and I didn’t even go to bad places).
What he is used to is indeed the way that most learning, good and bad, takes place. A number of statements both parties agree on are stacked like blocks, leading to a new conclusion that the learner feels must be true. Behold, I have taught you something new, based on pieces you already knew or partly knew.
The example: his graduate thesis was on prejudice against the homeless in American society. He likely knows a great deal about the topic, including much that I would agree with. But he started off with how it is related to the Protestant Work Ethic, then without pausing for breath - and the English Poor Law.
Well, there’s a problem with the history right there, so I said “Oh, I don’t think so.” Well, not entirely from the English Poor Law of course, but the expectation that everyone should work was there from that time. It was pretty much just transferred as an expectation to all the English colonies after that.
There are just so many things wrong with that that I couldn’t decide where to go next (hold that thought). 1. The Poor Law circa 1600(?) was based on earlier laws, gradually back to just after the Black Death; because of few workers there was land going unused and everyone who could work was required to. A bit different emphasis, that. Subsequent laws backed off from this work-obsession a bit, the Poor Law didn’t initiate it. 2. We are therefore back into the mid-14th C, before there were any Protestants, working or no. The roots of capitalism and self-reliance owe at least as much to Renaissance Italy. 3. “English colonies” is a wide net, covering North American places with very different attitudes to work in the 16th -17th C’s and extending to Australia 1800 and New Zealand 1850. 4. Homelessness and not working are not the same thing. I had other, vaguer ideas of how to respond, but those will do for openers.
Where I did go in response was “I don’t think that’s just England and America. All cultures have an expectation that people should work.” No, not all cultures. He said. Europeans have a gentler approach to people who can’t work.
Again, there are just so many things wrong with that that I couldn’t decide where to go next. 1. But you started this conversation as being Protestant Work Ethic, i.e. Northwest Europe starting from the 16th C and now are suddenly moving to late 20th C. 2. There is a subset of European elites who are admired by a class of Americans, who think of them as being “Europe,” but are only a part. 3. European countries are enormously homogeneous compared to America, so there’s an apples-to-oranges comparison here. 4. There are countries in the world other than NW Europe. 5. You slipped in “can’t work,” rather than “doesn’t work,” or “homeless.”
Where I did go in response was “Gypsies.”
He had said only three sentences, but I was completely at sea. Where the hell do you go with this? There is no intelligent discussion that can be had. I’m not any kind of an expert in this subject. I know more history than most people, but I can list you a dozen people I know personally who know more than I do – those who might say of me “there are just so many things wrong with this that I couldn’t decide where to go next.” But that just makes it worse, not better.
This is why the cultural bias of institutions is pernicious. There is set of building blocks, ready to hand, that each culture relies on. Like some giant game of Jenga, removing any one of them does no good. Certainly, if one could only stay long enough and hold attention (not to mention good will), one might theoretically remove blocks until the structure crumbled. But more likely, if you succeed in removing any at all, when you come back in a week more blocks have been stacked up even higher. We are farther behind than ever. Plus, people get tired of having ideas challenged and blocks removed. They start to avoid you or keep you away from fearful topics.
Later in my example conversation, the intern explained I was raised that the ideal was to be color-blind, and when I entered graduate school I kept defending that to people. But one of my professors explained it to me in a way that I understand you can’t have that. No one is completely color-blind. So if you try to be you won’t see the prejudices that other people have to go through.
To which I wanted to say “Prove that. Give me any evidence that it’s true. You are claiming that because no one does it perfectly, no one should do it at all – that any imperfection is enough to blind us to the truth; and therefore, we should accept instead your interpretation without evidence.” I didn’t say that, of course. People tire of that sort of intellectual adventure quickly.
We can never get away from it, it seems. In current events, people have their sources and are deeply antagonistic to other sources that report with a different emphasis. If you can get some single idea to penetrate – that Senator X’s corruption is not just run-of-the-mill and being seized upon by his opponents unfairly – it quickly fades, as it is treated as a one-off event, not representative of a whole. In discussing the Bible, people know what verses, themes, and emphases are their Top Cliches. You can’t get around them very easily.
Just after finishing the above I had a hallway discussion (unrelated subject) with a smart but irritating person. We agreed on some quick points but not on others, and I rolled my eyes as I walked away at her repeated and unnecessarily critical manner of disagreeing. I did have to acknowledge that she was quite right about part of it, however. This left me wondering how much of my irritation was based on her being right, and how much on her poor handling. While pondering this, I came alongside another smart and irritating person who I have known much longer. His general take is that it is annoying when people are right, even when we agree with them, unless there is some nod to humility. Which is absolutely true, and quite ironic that he should know this so immediately, as he practices it less than others.