08 April 2015

Ignorance is not a merit badge

This isn't a complaint about any one in particular. I've become frustrated by an increasing number of discussions and debates and political topics where I observe that one or both sides, or a variety of their participants appear to not understand the topic. But still wish to fan their ill-considered opinion into the fray. Much of this is, I think, that most of us do not know very much about either the other side, or the people about whom such fights are being waged. It's also very cheap to air an opinion into the fray and there's often very few interlocutors who will know enough to push back.

An example: abortion. Most of us probably do know someone who has had an abortion, or someone who has had a partner/spouse who did. But most of us don't discuss it, either if it occurs, or go about indiscreetly inquiring about it. It's not exactly a topic that comes up and isn't liable to be a very comfortable topic to discuss. Many women or families that have them are likely to not want to discuss it on the (reasonable) fear that some number of people will be extremely judgmental. They will prefer to remain friends or have quiet family dinners than to discuss this activity and decision with others on the risk that they will decide this is some unforgivable behavior. Or it will have happened so long ago as to be seen as immaterial. Similarly, it is a comfortable assumption to believe that abortion is something that "other people, not like myself" do, and probably seen as impolite to presume that it is occurring among the circle of associates we have collected and ask about it.

All of that means that abortion politics and debates about abortion center largely on these vague assumptions about who is getting abortions, vague assumptions about why they occur, and the various preconceptions one has about those decisions, how they are made, who makes them, and what we should do about it. In fact, these would be much simpler discourses if we know or could conceive of someone we know who did in fact get an abortion. Instead of these amorphous characters upon which we may pile our assumptions made from ignorance. We can, in the absence of this personal experience, rely on data that is collected. A composite may be made. But that will still be a stranger that we imagine. Not a friend. Or a former classmate. A former teacher. A former lover. And so on through the range of possibilities.

Throughout discussions over the last several years, I have noticed this ignorance of the topic becoming a serious problem for how people are informing their political decisions or activism, or how they are discussing issues therein with others. People are unaware of how often police shoot or assault suspects (part of this is that US police forces do not keep proper statistics of course). How often they raid people's homes in full tactical military gear (again, most states don't keep or report this information). How often those raids find not only few or no illegal drugs (the most common basis for such acts), but no weapons either (the most common basis for why they needed the aggressive military raid). How often police are killed or assaulted by suspects (this is tracked, it's been going down). Whether the crime rate is going down (most cities it has, by a lot). People are unaware of why abortions happen or who gets them. Or who has miscarriages and how common those are and whether laws intended to punish and restrict abortions might not also punish women who have had miscarriages with criminal investigations. People are unaware that women in lower class or lower income jobs probably won't get the ability or time from their employers to use a breast pump to aid in breastfeeding while at work. Or that they don't have access to basic family leave policies and sufficient income that will allow women to recover mentally or physically from pregnancy if needed and for new parents to spend time with a new child and the time and energy that requires and must return to work very soon after giving birth if they wish to continue to pay bills or keep their job. People are unaware of how Muslims behave. Or atheists. Or even (other) Christians. Or are unaware that their own grandparents might be in favor of gay weddings. Or that they are not. People are unaware of what gun owners are like and why they want to have and keep guns (or unaware of why other people might have some reasonable fear of guns). People are unaware that putting calorie counts on fast food doesn't make most people order healthier; it might work the opposite way even. Or that paying for health care more easily doesn't make people go to an actual doctor for their health needs; they still go to the emergency room instead, maybe because they don't have time to schedule appointments during working hours. People are unaware of the actual time and energy involved in being working poor in our society and the impact this has on decision making or the ability to do ordinary "middle class" things, or the moral and ethical decisions that may be altered because of the need to rely on others for basic status and survival purposes. People are unaware of others in many contexts.

And yet we all presume to know a great deal and presume that other people should not only know these things that we think we know, but that they should behave as we do, with our different incentives and experiences left unexamined.

From observing and talking to other people, I think there are two basic roots to this problem

1) The belief that other people are fundamentally "like me". I do not generally share this problem. It exists for me, but it is not as infectious an idea as I can easily find and deliberately push forward things that make me "different" and will challenge this assumption when others care to look at it. I admit and sometimes revel in the fact that I am an odd ball outsider observing other people. My politics are often more radical. I won't vote for candidates I can't support in good conscience (most people vote for the lesser of two weevils. Or it is evils. I'm not really sure what they're implying I should be doing). I don't practice any religious or spiritual traditions. Consequently from this "outsider" perch, my perspective shows me that there isn't as much of a difference between Christians and Muslims (or Scientologists even). Or from Democrats or Republicans (or libertarians). From heterosexuals and homosexuals. Or from Bob and Linda. Most people are pretty depressingly normal once you get to know them, even if they believe or say wacky things sometimes. They have to be very strange indeed to be surprising. Maybe some things or people are worse and more destructive than others or other things are better and more apt to form a prosperous and pleasant environment in which to live and work, but they're not so fundamentally distinct to be unrecognizable. (That in itself is depressing, in that these supposedly very distinct worlds can collide and destroy very easily what is built because they aren't coming from places that are very far apart most of the time).

Most of humanity seems instead to assume that other people they know and associate with fundamentally agree with them on many things rather than admit this possibility that they might be "weirdos". Sure maybe Bob likes the Yankees or sometimes votes for Democrats. Or maybe Linda has a better job. Or whatever. Basic worldviews are in alignment. Basic outlooks and perspectives. Basic status and welfare is generally similar. So we assume they're like us and that they think and agree with us on many points. On many points, that's maybe true. We do have friends that are often more like us than not. Our families are usually like us. But we aren't clones. We don't spend the time to investigate these distinctions. We do not listen, and we do not ask. We've assumed we already know all we need to and that what we don't know won't be that shocking.

Note: This doesn't mean that all people are similar and same in their quirks and oddness, rather that our odd quirks aren't usually that distressing or that weird to isolate us. The key is that most of us don't bother to consider they are there at all in other people despite that we may spend a lot of our time concealing or otherwise dealing with our own quirks.

2) The lack of networks for most of us for accessing people who are "others". If we are white, we don't have many black friends. If we are rich, we do not have many poor friends. If we are Christian, we probably have few atheist friends. And so on into less pleasant circumstances for some of us (these aren't equivalent categories but rather examples of things we don't like to consider: we don't know of the women who have had an abortion, we don't know any Scientologists, we don't know any Neo-Nazis, we don't know Young Earth Creationists). And we lack the imagination to perceive how that may (or whether it should) change. There is little or no percentage or gain perceived. There is more to be gained by more tightly winding our way up. Not by looking around at the people around us that are "in the way" and aren't part of the group.

Some of those "others" may actually be distasteful and unpleasant. That's to be expected. We are also encouraged, in order to keep and earn some respectability, not to know and associate with of many of these unpleasant groups where they are in public disfavor. Knowing someone who is explicitly racist or sexist is uncomfortable (for some people, even implicit expression of biases is uncomfortable and worthy of challenge). It probably should be, or at least be pushed back upon and challenged where it is encountered, as there seems to be little benefit to such practices and demands made by racists or sexists if enacted where they are made widely and openly without any social consequence. Knowing a woman who has had an abortion is also probably uncomfortable for many people. Maybe it should not be. Knowing someone who has been arrested? Knowing people who are serving in the military? Knowing politicians trying to get elected? Cops trying to uphold law and order? And so on. We should not pretend that these are people totally alien to us, any more than they should toward us. Often this is the framework that emerges. Christians versus atheists. Cops versus the general public. Politicians toward the public and each other. These frameworks of intense opposition are not obviously and necessarily helpful. They are easy ways of discussing a debate that we know little about because we probably know little about the relatively small number people on the other end of it, or the many more people who are observing this debate with only partial interest and investment of time and attention, or even and most importantly the people whose actual lives are going to be impacted by what, if anything, comes out of our discourse and elegant arguments and shouting matches.

Perhaps a different approach would help. If a state wants to pass a law that might be seen as permitting discrimination, maybe it would be useful to have the voices of people who might be discriminated against involved in the discussion and formation of such laws to be heard and discussed even if in opposition to their crafting and language. Or a state wants to pass a law that might restrict access to abortion, perhaps women, families, and doctors should be consulted. Or perhaps if we're going to form a set of international sanctions upon a country, we could then talk to them to see if we can find ways to accommodate both sides demands in a reasonable manner. These are not complicated steps but they are apparently difficult to achieve. We would benefit by having to interact more with actual people once in a while.

The world isn't a zero sum game. One of the prices of living in a pluralistic and highly elastic (and thereby unequal society) is that eventually and sometimes the various disparate parts start clawing at each other. Sometimes these disagreements become fundamental and impossible to work around. But one of the benefits of living in such a society is that there are opportunities to find ways to prevent that, for people to all prosper and get what they want or need. They don't even need to get along or like each other that much at all for that to happen. A very modest level of respect of the identity and intentions of others suffices.

An exercise perhaps to help. Start with the assumption that you do not know what they are thinking, what they have done, and what they wish to do and why, and that maybe you should investigate that more before doing things that might effect them. Or if that's too much, try to imagine that someone you know closely is like this person. How might that impact your thinking? Or your friendship or work relationship or marriage? A little humility and a little awareness of ignorance in some of these debates might open the floor to more opinions and more knowledge.
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