Sunday, February 15, 2009

Threshold Phenomena

If you are going 46mph in a 45 zone, you are speeding. That may not be the threshold for getting a ticket - that may be 51 or 53mph - but there's no way around the fact that you are speeding. Whatever the penalty is for speeding, you deserve that. Yet we don't consider it equivalent to going 86mph in a 45 zone. Reaching the threshold for speeding is not the same as the average for speeding. When we think "he's always speeding," we don't think of a person going 1mph over.

Poverty is a threshold phenomenon in America. There is a cutoff number. If you make less than that, you are eligible for whatever the poor are eligible for. But you don't make the average amount of $ as everyone below the poverty line - and in some societies, you might not reach the threshold of poverty at all. When we think "they are living in poverty," we might be imagining people much worse off. It doesn't mean you're not "really" poor. It just means that the threshold is not the same as the median.

Anything that is bad can be made worse. Rape can be more heinous if it is repeated, or involves violence, or the victim is more helpless. There is torture and worse torture - as the current saying is, forcing someone's gag reflex is not the same as cutting their tongue out. There is stealing and worse stealing; lying and worse lying. We do well to remember both pieces: that the threshold has been reached and consequences should follow; that there may still be valuable distinctions to be made.

Political arguments often devolve into threshold versus distinction. I wonder why our minds are constructed this way. To person A, the threshold has been crossed, nothing more need be said - person B wants to make further distinctions. In the next argument, their roles may reverse. We seem remarkably unwilling to grant good faith to our opponents. For example, no matter how much person A protests that he does indeed acknowledge that B is poor, if he makes any statement that C is poorer, B believes his poverty is being denied.

No conclusion here. I am just puzzled. Everyone understands the idea I am driving at here, and has been on both sides of the divide. Yet we feel it very deeply and do not naturally rise out of the conflict despite a lifetime of repetitions. We must make an effort each time.

1 comment:

Terro said...

Is it a case of a distinction searching for a principle?