Monday, November 08, 2010

There Is No Box

A couple of weeks ago, I had my eyes opened wide.
See, I have a friend who was graduated from the same high school that I did, a school that's been awarded perhaps more Nobel Prizes than any other in America. This school is in a liberal bastion of one of the most liberal cities in the country. our extra-curricular activities could include seminars at an Ivy League college or the local "Moss League" college, NYU. the graudation rate is about 93-95%, and most of the people who drop out do so for financial reasons: they need to support their families.
In other words, we were a sharp bunch of students.
This friend is a New Yorker still. He's artistic, intellectual, deeply devoted to science, politically aware (or so I thought), and unfailingly polite, a trait not to be underestimated when dealing with a blowhard like me.
He's also conservative. This aspect is not a problem. I've grown up with conservatives and their offspring all my life, and counted among my correspondents William F. Buckley, among other notable thinkers. I valued their input and while I disagreed with most of the views I heard, I could at least understand the thinking that went into them.
The shocking part of this encounter was how mis- and ill-informed my friend was, especially about the liberal agenda.
This stemmed out of a conversation shortly after the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear, in which I was espousing the liberal agenda thru history. You've read this every day at my blog: "Liberals got women the right to vote..." ad sum. The stock answer, the one I expect from the historically uninformed, is "Well, you know, Republicans actually did most of those things," to which I usually respond along the lines of "I said 'Liberals' not 'Democrats' and yes, there was once a time when the Republican party not only contained liberals, but welcomed them," and then drop names like Roosevelt, Rockefeller and Javits.
Knowledge, it's a good thing to share.
This was raised in the course of our dialogue, which sort of surprised me. Our school was well-known for its history curriculum, and I know the classes he had to pass and the material covered.
What I wasn't prepared for, what was the really spine-tingling moment, was the charge that liberals are a) against evolution and therefore b) beholden to the ignorant religious types in our wing.
My first reaction reading this was to laugh out loud. Literally, I LOL'd. And for once, the barrier of the keyboard probably saved me a friendship. I don't know that he would have appreciated the reaction.
My next reaction was "teachable moment!" I responded on that approach, and I think it was effective. I felt that it was more important to lay out the groundwork that ignorance was bipartisan and while there may be a significant number of liberals who might believe in Creationism over evolution, it could not be as large as the number on the right.
Do a thought experiment here with me and you'll see my point: four in ten Americans believe Darwin was right (myself among those). If conservatives all believe in Creationism, that still leaves 20% of Americans (assuming a 40-40-20 split, which seems reasonable) who believe in Creationism.
And I think it's a safe bet to say Randians do not believe in Creationism, since Rand herself was atheist, brutally so. We can safely say that not every conservative believes in Creationism. Therefore there must be some percentage, however small, of liberals who do, just as Prop 8 in California could not have passed without liberal Christian votes.
Labels suck, in short.
The incident did start me thinking: here's a man who is at least as smart as I am with such a gravely wrong idea.
I think the problem comes in that last sentence: "started me thinking". Now, I'm not accusing him of not thinking, but of thinking wrongly.
I don't think we are taught how to think properly, either in school or in society. Oh, we learn logic, and mathematics and science and A leads to B leads to C, but that's all manipulable.
Let me put it this way: if you know "C", you're going to assume A & B. But C could be wrong, and certainly both A and/or B will be, at least partially. Or C could actually need D to occur or might even really be D, but you wouldn't know that unless you made the connection.
In our school system, we're taught to problem solve, not to think. In our society, we value the path of least resistance to the path that would require work. This is why the rise of talk radio has been so successful: why think of a reason for, say, liberals to outspend conservatives (they don't) when someone will tell you that and either make up statistics proving this, or simply ignore proving it, relying on your gullibility (or good will, depending on how naive you are) to trust their opinion.
After all, they're on the radio or TeeVee and you are not. They MUST have authority, right?
Hm, I wonder. If Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck had to be vetted for their jobs the way a President has to be vetted for his, they would both be back at their day jobs and Bugs Bunny would have his own show on MSNBC. In truth, there's little difference in cartoon characters there.
(Yes, I just called Bugs Bunny a liberal. After all, he cross-dresses, opposes guns, and is a vegan)
We're taught to think linearly, and for most of the work we do in our lives, math and linearality work fine. You know, you know the diagonal dimension of a room and the closest side and that the corner is a right angle, figuring out the far wall is a snap. Or that you need to put paper in a printer before it will work.
Even tho I pick on the right wing here, I've seen it from the left, particularly when I supported Hillary in the primaries over the President. There's a lot of linear thinking and that's something we ought to address on our side, too.
But here's the thing: most of life, most of the really important things in life, are fractal, not linear. The influences on who we fall in love with or marry, what our children turn out to be, whether our lives become better for taking this job over another, are all so widely dispersed as to be meaningless in advance of the choices we make and the turns we take.
I get in an elevator. I meet this ravishing beauty from the subcontinent, and I date her and marry her. She becomes a successful banker, which in turn encourages me to become a successful businessman.
I miss that elevator. While waiting for the next one, a deliveryman walks up to the button, presses it, slips and spills coffee all over my suit. I go home and change, and am late for work. I get fired, and in this economy, I can't find a job. I throw myself off a bridge when the pressure from my creditors, all linear thinkers, becomes too great.
Even more fundamental, I hit the genetic jackpot and am born into a family of great wealth, whereas if Dad pulls out thirty seconds earlier, I'm never even born.
We hear a lot about "thinking outside the box," but if you ask me, there is no box. The box only exists for the low-normals who need that kind of regulation, and even evading that regulation is adhering to it in the abstract. Life doesn't work that way. God laughs at the boxes, and ends up destroying them all eventually.
The key to thinking is to be open to possibilities, to understand that just because your situation demands a logical solution, that logic does not have to abide by the initial conditions that we've perceived. Our perceptions can be grossly wrong.
Think about it this way, in politics: Barack Obama is a Muslim. Therefore, everything that he's done since has been to advance the Muslim agenda in America. It doesn't matter that it might be opposed to, even violently, that agenda (whatever "the agenda" might be). if someone believes he's Muslim, they're going to logically demand a Muslim throughline. Or, he's not a Muslim, in which case we free ourselves to look for other motives to his behavior. If you tie yourself to one initial set of conditions, you force yourself to abide by them, unless you're adept enough to back your way out and rethink the entire thing.
But that requires thought and as I noted above, that's not something Americans do well.