The Long Way Round

Long way to goThere are two ways I come upon new ideas. The first, the short way, is when I seek out interesting things that other people have shared, or written about, or told me about. The second, the long way, is when something I do is critiqued by someone else.

My first instinct upon being critiqued is to resist or explain. That isn’t what I intended. That isn’t quite what I did. There was context. There were other factors.

That isn’t me, please don’t think it is.

But I also believe that the core of a person is much smaller than we often allow it to be, and the rest of a person is much more malleable that we like to admit. Circumstance, society, desire, stress, unmet needs, intentions—all these things change “who we are” from moment to moment. It may be that we always express some of our core, but there is so much noise in that signal.

Is it any surprise that sometimes a critique feels like an indictment?

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Another Turn of the Wheel

Wheel_viaAlexBergerSome years ago, I got feedback from some of my colleagues that, on occasion, they needed me to “grab hold of the wheel instead of constantly reinventing it on the fly.” It was brilliant, pithy, and I’ve never forgotten it. I also judiciously ignore it. But the spirit of that piece of feedback, and thing that sticks with me, is the tension between two ways of approaching the world.

No matter what I do, I find myself compelled to find ways to do it better. Seeking and finding those things is one of the most fulfilling things I do in life, professionally and personally both.

I also happen to think that an ideal of recursive improvement is a fundamental necessity. If we don’t make seeking improvement a habit, we get pulled in the opposite direction and reject it even when it is sorely needed.

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Shifting Baselines

On a system scale, human beings are short-lived creatures with even shorter memories, so I suppose I shouldn’t find it so surprising that we usually fail to notice change. In a sense, we actively ignore changes by resetting our baselines as we go, comparing the present to the recent past and ignoring what may have happened before.

“Baseline creep” refers to slow changes, even in our individual lives, that are generally invisible. Visit family you haven’t seen in years and someone may comment “how much you’ve changed,” even if, from your perspective, nothing much has. Your baseline changes as you grow and age, but they are still comparing you to who you were a few years before.

Baseline creep also affects our social memory, especially from generation to generation. Things that fall out of our immediate experience also often fall out of our awareness. Few human beings now alive can recall when flocks of millions of passenger pigeons darkened the sky for hours at a stretch, or when the giant American Chestnut was the most common forest tree east of the Mississippi. Few of us who do not remember have any idea that these things were true. Their absence is human-caused and dramatic, but we scarcely notice.

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The Difficulty of Offering Solutions

bandaids_viaLenaMany writers take the time to carefully delineate some problem or other in society, spending huge chunks of books, papers, or theses to do so.  Certainly the description of a problem is important, and a critical first step in understanding and addressing any issue. And I do this myself—in many ways, writing is a way to wrestle with ideas and refine them.

Yet once a problem is understood, I become hungry for more than platitudes. Many authors have held my full attention as they explained the complexities of a major problem, but then have ended these otherwise compelling pieces of writing with trite clichés. Use compact fluorescents, recycle, buy sustainably, vote—as if those things alone, or even all of them together, could be enough.

I give them credit for the effort, but I wonder if they, and I, miss the mark. Even though I want elegant single solutions, I am never sure they really exist. Social problems are complex structures with long feedbacks and a diversity of inputs and outputs. Societies are ponderous entities that lag far behind their most progressive members. So I think no individual inner journey, no matter how compelling, will change a society. No amount of careful shopping will make change; even if a majority of people changed their shopping habits, they would still be a minor force compared to the structural forces controlling our economic system. And no amount of careful voting will solve big problems; even if problems like climate change could wait for the next election, or the one after that, top-down efforts can change only a small part of any social structure.

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Racism, Sexism, and the Fundamental Attribution Error

Lookingout_viaAllenLaiWe all know racism, sexism, and similar –isms are things we shouldn’t admit to; even those who embrace them ideologically would rather express them in different words. The disclaimer mad lib is simple: “I’m not _____, it’s just that _____.” Islamophobia? No, no, it’s just that there really are Muslim terrorists, so my fear is justified! Sexism? Are you kidding? Women just choose lower-paying jobs than men do. Racism? Don’t make me laugh. Black people just commit more crimes, so of course the police need to pay more attention to them. For Americans, for white people, for men, for those on the inside, an –ism is easily explained away by external factors.

From the outside, it looks a bit different.

If you’re a woman in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from men who didn’t want to take no for an answer.

If you’re black in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from police who assumed you were guilty of something.

And you’ll notice that what these things have in common is not, necessarily, some internal core quality (which is how many white people think about racism, how many men think about sexism, etc.). Instead, what they have in common is behavior, and a system that says that behavior is okay.

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The Longest Levers

It’s hard to figure out the best ways to effect change. There is no shortage of causes, and no shortage of causes I agree with, but on closer inspection, the strategic elements of many of those causes are lacking. Not everyone needs a clear strategy to motivate them, but, for me, the absence of strategy looks too much like the absence of effectiveness.

So I spend a lot of time thinking about leverage, and where it makes sense to focus my limited time. I haven’t found the best places, but, through lots of discussion, I have ended up with a useful way to think about it:

SocietyOverlap1

The basic form is just the society I want is juxtaposed with the society I have. There are points of overlap: things that are functional in both societies that I should happily support. There are also points of divergence: things that do not exist yet, but which I would like, and things that do exist now but which directly conflict with the society I want. Finally, there are two different classes of idea: core issues and structures, and emergent effects.

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Memories of Change

sunset_viaIanBarbourThe echo-chambers are echoing loudly of late. Crisis and fear always seem to pick off the scabs of history. In our media and our minds, a slurry of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and islamophobic ideas ooze back to the surface and spill out into the world around us.

I want to write people off when they say such things, and certainly it becomes harder to believe that people can change. I want to write them off because enemies are simple. But people are complicated; we can change, and we do. We just tend to forget that we have, and thus to judge that other people can’t. Simplifying ourselves encourages us to simplify others, reducing them slowly and surely to enemies.

I think a part of the way forward is to look back: to remember our own changes. To talk about them. To wear changing our minds as a badge of honor rather than shame.

So.

I used to be anti-abortion.

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Heroes

MLK“Do you think heroes are born, or made?”

I was asked this question in 2005 while riding a bus through China. The bus trip was one leg of a journey to the oasis town of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert, and we had been passing through a desolate rocky landscape punctuated by both abandoned structures and new construction. The striking juxtaposition of society ancient and new left me feeling like a tightrope walker between eras.

Feeling the precariousness of modernity, a professor and I had fallen into a discussion of social change across societies. We were in the process of considering such well-known historical figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Susan B. Anthony, but the discussion had shifted into the question of how these heroes of our society became heroes in the first place. At that question, though, I had to pause. I could not help feeling that there was something wrong with our framing—that it ought not to be about how some individuals became heroes of social change so much as about the context for the change itself. Mythological heroes are people with power and vision beyond the average person, people who do for a society what society cannot do for itself.

I thought then, as I do now, that the reality of a hero is something quite different.

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