Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Culture War As A Game of Jenga

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.


james said...

If my experience is any guide, pieces removed don't stay removed. Somehow a week or so later, the old claim is back again.

jaed said...

Hmmm. I'm thinking that ideologies are the mind's way of defending itself from change.

Making them impenetrable actually makes some sense, in survival terms. Having all the support blocks pulled out from under you can be a terrible thing. At best, you'll be lost at sea for a while, unable to interpret much of life. Even crude ideologies may be preferable to having to think in detail about each individual event or new idea.

You'll use much less mental energy reaching for "Europeans are gentle, socially responsible; Americans are harsh, selfish" and translating that underlying concept into whatever you happen to be thinking about. These sorts of shortcuts tell you what to think, and in a way that's invaluable: it frees up your mental energy for other things. Stimulus and response loops are easy and everyone has many of them set up, for convenience.

And more specific to our time, I think a lot of people are not so much committed to the "liberal" ideas as they are afraid of falling into the "conservative" ones. Conservatism is seen as a character flaw, not a competing ideology, so maintaining your ideology is maintaining your virtue. Plus, allowing oneself to be heard saying something conservative can be career-damaging, particularly in fields such as social work, so maintaining mindset is a very practical consideration as well. (If your colleague allowed himself to think about whether he is or should be "color-blind" in respect of eye color, and what that might imply concerning his constant, intent awareness of skin color, what might pop out of his mouth the next time the topic comes up? And in front of whom? Much safer to disgorge the accepted response and put the matter out of his mind.)

All this has a certain ugliness to it, of course, but you can see where the tendency is both socially and personally adaptive.

Texan99 said...

I find it surprisingly hard to swallow the need to admit that someone is right about something I thought I disagreed with. I should be reveling in the chance to find a point of disagreement, but instead I strongly resist--which should tell me something about how to convince others.

Anyway, all I'll say about this notion that Europeans are "more relaxed" about people who "don't work" is that anyone can be all relaxed about it as long as they don't perceive that it's costing them anything immediate and personal. I'd be surprised if Europeans were any happier than Americans to have their shiftless brother in law displace them from the master bedroom, make them sleep on the couch, eat up their groceries, and not bother to look for a job. Conceivably they're more generous and "relaxed" about supporting said BIL if he's really looking for work, can't find it, and camps out on a cot above the garage while doing odd-jobs around the house to show his gratitude.

Sam L. said...

I recall a conversation of 40 years ago that was heating up to the argument level when I suddenly heard him saying essentially what I'd been saying. Then I told him I thought we were agreeing with each other but using different words. I remember where we were, but not his name.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

jaed, excellent points.