Saturday, April 30, 2022

Starting to Solve a Problem

 As often happens these days, I listen to the first part of "The Glenn Show" and then just stopped, going to "Mark as Played." He had a very nice young woman on who was talking to him about being persuasive rather than declarative about subjects of controversy.  It's not a bad point. He referenced how with his students he is "teacherly" and not confrontative or telling them that they are wrong (they are wrong), but pointing out some things they might consider.  She was inarticulate, seemed to be beating around the bush, and then said that perhaps a concrete example might help.  He agreed. She chose affirmative action, and said that rather than having "one male, then one female, one black one, then one white one" something freer was better and should be the ultimate goal. She chose an analogy of a flock of birds, and noted that there would be some internal factors and some external factors why some birds were not as able to lead the flock as others.  She was losing me here. As it developed, she came to a point of saying "so shouldn't we start by not treating all the birds as if they are the same..." and I thought "Start? Start? What is this start? That's your first problem right there." We have had affirmative action for over fifty years, and it extends back informally before that. Whether it's good or bad, this is not the beginning of it.

I saw immediately that she is young, and for her this is the beginning of her looking at the problem. To her this is the start. "Hey, why don't we try this?" says the thousandth person to come upon the scene, echoing what the previous 999 have said.

We would see it repeatedly in acute mental health with new staff or with students on rotation. Acute psychiatric clients can be dangerously out of control, endangering themselves, staff and other patients, so the unit staff tasked with keeping a unit safe are very aware of cutting situations off at the pass, nipping things in the bud, getting someone who is a problem away from crowded areas.  They do jump the gun at times, their voices sharp, commanding rather than sympathetic or listening. I used to do that job and I was worse than most. Tender-hearted students can be heard saying to their advisors "I just think these people would do better if they were treated with a little more kindness."  Outside speakers come in and say the same thing. (They're not wrong. But no one gets in their face, you will notice.) Six weeks later, as the student nurses are leaving they are saying to the unit nurses "I don't know how you take this abuse and work in this tension day after day." What looked obvious to them at first glance turns out to have more to it.

You can find it all over comment sections, including conservative sites we are all familiar with, when discussing education, or parenting, or policing, or homelessness, or just about anything that is difficult to solve.  You will hear variations on the phrase "Well, all you have to do is..." Yeah everyone's an expert. It is maddening to the people who actually have to accomplish the task to have the obvious pointed out to them for the hundredth time.  I once had a well-connected (FOB*) professional mental health advocate go over our heads to the medical director to arrange a meeting about a client who did not feel he needed to be held in the hospital and wanted to be released. Well, we politically had to do it, so the next day we are in a big room with all sorts of outside (non-)players to put our heads together to see what was holding up young Jason's discharge. After the usual donuts, unfunny humor, political jibes at Republicans, and posturing about previous agency battles they had won by just being right, and insistent, and cleverly rude, we got down to the root of it. "Looking over his chart and talking at length with Jason about the situation, the problem is that he needs an adequate aftercare plan." Please credit me for refraining from slapping my forehead and saying "Oh! Creating aftercare! Why didn't I think of that! Ma'am, what the f--- do you think it is that I do forty hours a week? He's not ready for aftercare because he's still trying to beat the s--- out of anyone who says the word 'no' to him. Landlords and outreach workers don't like that, no matter how many expensive supportive government programs you put in place." 

Well, okay, I sorta did say that, but more politely - which of course means that they didn't understand it and thought I hadn't understood them, so they repeated it more slowly, loudly, and pointedly.**

And people wonder why I lose my temper at fools. Yes, yes, I shouldn't, certainly.  The person challenging my assertion with what they are sure is a fact I have somehow overlooked is new to this and not aware that they are one in a long line. I really am unfair to them, and they are right to feel ill-used. Okay, I am lying.  They aren't right.  It is they who need humility more than me. It should be tough to need humility more than me, but people seem to manage it daily. If you are farther down the humility-needing scale than me, you may be at the mouth of Hell, so be careful.

Eddie Izzard has a routine about not suffering fools gladly.

So also with education.  It's not just having high expectations, or focusing on essentials, or instilling discipline, or whatever your oversimple solution is.  Homelessness is not just places to stay in a rich but selfish country. Even my immediate retort that it is not a housing problem at all but a drug and mental health problem is merely a second-level useless oversimplification. Foreign policy is very simple, you know.  Losing weight... All it takes is...

All it takes is...

We like to pretend these things because...well, I would just be engaging in the same fallacy, wouldn't I?

Confession: this is the rant that lay beneath my recent post Lived Experience.

There are reasons why this persists, and as with all things, they last because they are half-truths. Real experts will sometimes sum up what they have learned at the end of a career, such as Helen Hayes saying "Acting is easy.  All you have to do is say your lines, don't trip over the furniture, and go home." Master teachers will reveal the very few goals they tried to keep ever in mind. Mystics will wisely intone a single phrase they kept returning to.  Preachers, therapists, artists, programmers, writers, researchers, trial lawyers, comedians, all have their accurate observations about how others have gone wrong and become scattered and ineffective, but they chanced upon the key. They aren't wrong, but those are the lessons that need to be hammered home not to beginners, but to other experts

Next, there is a wisdom in first encountering a huge, seemingly insoluble problem and rather than being overwhelmed, identifying some piece that can be bitten off and chewed. That's what parenting in general and especially adopting from Romania or taking a nephew is. The people developing Comprehensive Solutions are insufferable and destructive, but this single thing does need to be done and I'm going to do it.  Such things often don't even need to be done brilliantly, they just need to be done.  By someone. You can't do it all, but pick something.  And if your immediate thought is how your contribution is going to be advocating so that other people will do something, you have missed the point that we are here to be made better, not make others better.

*Friend of Bill, meaning Clinton. There were also Friends of Ted, whose influence extended throughout New England and could destroy any little people in their path.

**Sometimes it "works" in the sense that if you are powerful enough, the agency has to crumble and give you something you can call a victory in their threatening future agencies. We have to grovel and provide some cosmetic solution and pretend we are repentant sinners. (It is not at all accidental that there are so many accounts of people who grew up fundamentalist Christians and ran screaming to become liberals found the same fundamentalism as soon as they got below the fun surface of journalistic liberalism into the actual agency work.) People wonder why I, a good student radical, learned to hate professional liberals - even as I like very much the well-meaning liberals only involved at superficial levels and Just Want a Better World. If you are one of those, my challenge would be that you pick a cause and get in and try to fix it at a micro level before attempting the macro. Only the micros understand the macro.  I have seen new gov't programs that set me on my heels thinking "That was designed by someone who has been there. Limited, targeted, focused. I want to shake that person's hand."


james said...

I didn't get a lot of those "I've proved Einstein/quantum mechanics/thermodynamics wrong" letters since I wasn't a prof or very well-known. There's a similar dynamic at work--"Nobody's ever thought of this before and if you don't recognize my brilliance you must be a bit thick. Or maybe conspiring about something."

Fredrick said...

Suffering fools gladly. Now I'm going to be up late reading your archives....

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Aggie had a comment that came to my email but isn't showing here. He had one at Sing Before Breakfast as well, which I shall also post.

"I didn't listen to the whole thing either. He was very polite and seemed to consider what she was saying, seriously. But her approach was driving me crazy, this tender killing you with kindness for your own good manner, like that New Zealand PM. It rings hollow."