Saturday, April 7, 2018

The perfect is the enemy of the good

It's April, which means Autism Awareness Month.  Most people who observe it follow campaigns put out by Autism Speaks -- "Light It Up Blue," the puzzle-piece ribbon, and so on.

Problem is, Autism Speaks isn't a great charity.  A lot of autistic people hate it because its marketing material dehumanizes them, and because they spend their money on advertising and "awareness" rather than helping autistic people.  When they do spend money, it's on research.  Sounds nice, but since autism itself is probably incurable, people are concerned it's going to end up where Downs research is -- prenatal testing and eugenic abortion.

So, I find myself in a dilemma.  Do I "light it up blue" and possibly offend autistic people who feel marginalized by Autism Speaks?  Or do I do nothing, and let people think I don't care?  It would help if people could agree on what color is supposed to mean autism acceptance, but I've heard colors from red to beige.

Of course what I've chosen to do is write 1000 very nuanced words on the topic, because blue-or-some-other-color-or-nothing is a very brief and easily-misunderstood message.  But yesterday, at school, I saw a lady with some blue streaks in her hair.  I complimented it, of course (it looked fab) and she told me it was for Autism Awareness Month.  What should I say?  Should I try to explain the complex reasons why blue is attached to Autism Speaks, and why AS isn't a great charity?  Or should I just say that it's great, because it is great that she knows and cares about kids like my kid?

Well, I said it was great.  Because I am pretty positive she didn't put blue in her hair because she wants autistic babies to be aborted.  She put blue in her hair because she's worked with autistic students and likes them and wants to start conversations about the topic.

It's the same issue when I see people with disabilities on TV.  Ideally, disabled characters should be written and/or acted by disabled writers and actors.  They should be ordinary characters, neither angels nor villains.  They should be allowed to show their true abilities, and the difficulties of their disabilities should be neither overestimated nor erased.

That's a tall order, guys!  No matter how you do it, someone isn't going to like it.  Some people don't like the autistic character in Parenthood.  Some people don't like the autistic character in The Good Doctor.  Some people don't like Sheldon Cooper (who isn't diagnosed with anything in-show, but who has the signs of autism) on Big Bang Theory.  To which all I can say is, isn't it better that there are autistic characters, rather than having disabilities left out completely?  Friends is a show with 100% white, straight, abled main characters.  Is that better?  Because if every time writers make a show with a disabled character, it causes furious outrage from everyone, they're going to quit doing it.

I'm afraid the internet age kind of contributes to this.  A blog post that says, "I love Sheldon Cooper" doesn't get much traction.  A blog post that says, "Big Bang Theory is nerd blackface" gets a lot more.  Outrage gets clicks, and sometimes what makes most sense to drive traffic is to find ever-smaller things to get outraged about.  And I wonder if this is really seeking after perfection -- will our posts somehow fine-tune everything to get rid of smaller and smaller problems -- or if it's so condemnatory of things that are merely good, that we will soon have no more good things.

Let's broaden this out from the topic of autism, because this is happening everywhere, all the time.  I hear complaints of it mainly directed at progressives, because there definitely is a subculture within progressivism which does this incessantly, but the right does it too.  It's where you define an in-group and an outgroup, and then you tighten the in-group more and more until almost everybody is out.

Take the March for Life.  It was about one issue, abortion.  That works, and it drives a lot of attention.  But if it's about fighting abortion by electing Republicans, or fighting abortion and also the death penalty, or fighting abortion and also contraception, it becomes a much smaller, more niche kind of movement.  If pro-life gays want to march with a rainbow flag, and they are told, "no, we are pro-life AND conservative AND religious," the net result is fewer people marching.  Ditto with the Women's March -- if pro-life women aren't allowed to participate, then suddenly it's not really just about women.  It's about pro-choice women, and that's a smaller group.

It ends up being the cult tactic I've written about before.  I think I'm going to call it "forcing a jump."  This is where groups demand a higher level of commitment than some members are giving, and require them to choose to jump in or out, over this new tightened boundary.  So when Paul says, "If Christ is not raised, then your faith is in vain," we can see he must have been addressing some disciples who believed Christ was not raised.  He wanted them to jump--either believe that Christ was raised, or get out.  The hope is that they will jump his way, but if they don't, that's fine too--let the group be smaller, so long as it is purer.

I've watched a lot of groups expand their causes and tighten their circles, and the net result is that the group gets smaller but the people within get more radical.  The members inside get extremely polarized--you agree with them on every particular, or you aren't really allies.  Hate Nazis, but don't agree with "punch a Nazi"?  You're not really anti-Nazi enough.  In fact you're part of the problem.  You're like those people who sat back and let Hitler get elected.  Perhaps we should punch you next.

Personally, I find it terrifying when one of these internet mobs closes in around someone.  It happened to me when I asked a bunch of pro-vaxxers for good sources to research vaccination.  It also happened when I said, in a crowd of pro-choicers, that abortion is a difficult moral issue which isn't easy to answer.  It happened to Simcha Fisher when she talked about Charlottesville but didn't condemn racism strongly enough--silly her, she thought that, as a Jewish person, her anti-Nazi credentials would speak for themselves.

And I kind of get it, because I've watched threads where someone came in asking an innocent question and 200 comments later, it turned out they were already an expert on the topic and were just trying to draw people into a contradiction.  I've seen the "I'm on your side really but I'm afraid of what other people might think" opener, and the "admirable people on both sides" false equivalance, and these are sneaky little tactics which can look a lot like innocent bystanders.  But.  If the enemy disguises itself as innocent bystanders, we still can't shoot anything that looks like an innocent bystander.  The result winds up being that in some spaces, you have to run in with your hands in the air shouting "ALLY!  ALLY!  100% CONVINCED OF EVERYTHING YOU THINK ALREADY!" or else you're going to get piled on.  Heck, even after years in some of these groups, when everyone "knows" you are an ally of theirs, the second you question anything, you can still get the same treatment.

I guess I'm talking about way too many things in here.  I'm talking about negativity, and about extremism, and about tribalism.  I guess I just dream of a world where baby steps are appreciated, instead of declared Not Good Enough, where a nuanced position is admired rather than demonized as Not Really On Our Side.  I thought when I got out of the right wing, I'd arrive at a land flowing with milk and tolerance.  I have been disappointed.  I still can't find anybody who's willing to take people where they are.  Alas, both the left and the right have serious issues and the center, if there is any such thing, seems to be mostly full of people keeping their heads down and their mouths shut.  Online, of course, these problems are all magnified.  The one place I know of where people are really rational and avoid these fanatical purges . . . is overrun with the alt-right.

I don't know what steps to take.  I guess I would like it if more people would commit to a few basic points:
*appreciate the good in a person or initiative when it agrees with you partially, before nitpicking the places where it doesn't agree;
*found movements based on a few core issues, and encourage people from a wide variety of viewpoints to participate;
*take anything that looks like it might be good faith, as good faith, and wait to be proven wrong before attacking;
*practice nuanced, careful consideration and explanation, rather than polarization, and praise others who do;
*take the time to find people who disagree with you who are willing to reach across the divide in good faith;
*criticize even movements and groups you are part of when they behave badly, instead of only criticizing opponents.

I think if we try to do these things, we might not get any more perfection, but we might encourage a bit more goodness.


The Sojourner said...

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, I frequently see conservative Catholics outright mocking beliefs that don't fall in line with theirs (even if it's not actually something doctrinal). It literally makes me feel sick, yet if you say "I was driven away from the church because people were so nasty" then you get the line about the church being a hospital for sinners. (Apparently it is a hospital only for the kind of sinners whose besetting sin is mockery?) I don't think I know enough people on the liberal end of the bell curve to offer a corresponding error there. :p

On the other hand, I also see (from the same people sometimes!) the idea that this particular politician might mock the disabled, but he promises to fix our pet issue so we can't possibly criticize him! Or this theological personality is a blatant, self-professed racist, but we have to give people the benefit of the doubt!

Where do you draw that line, between "Hey I disagree with you strongly on that but I'll put that aside for our shared cause" vs. "Your views are so repugnant that they make every other cause you support look bad"?

The Sojourner said...

I'm not deliberately trying to vaguebook above either, I'm just too tired to spell people's names.

Sheila said...

Yeah, I see what you mean. I think it's important to make a firm distinction between "things I disagree with, but can engage with" and "things that are just beyond the pale and we should all separate ourselves from." But where exactly DO you draw that line? (I think somewhere before "mocks the disabled" or "marches with white power signs" but beyond that, I couldn't say.)

Cristina said...

Hmmmmm. I see that someone hasn't read A Different Drum yet! I can't remember what outrageous thing I said I would do if you gave it a chance and then didn't like it, but it would have been really crazy, because you're basically reinventing its wheel with posts like this, and I would have had no fear that I'd have to pay up!

A certain alt-right writer said he was more "alt-West" than "alt-white" because non-white people who hear both sides and realize their politics genuinely ally with the alt-right are some of the most logical thinkers one would ever meet. I had never felt so flattered in my life!

On the other hand, an online acquaintance recently tweeted: "An alt-righter is just a disappointed leftist" -- and I had to agree. I'm not a fan of ideological tribes because I'm never 100% in agreement with any political movement and I don't want to be . . . but I do know which House the Sorting Hat would put me in. (By the way, J.K. Rowling's canonical treatment of Slytherin has been shameful. And one of the most memorable HP FanFics I have read had Hermione trying to change Draco's mind about Muggle-born wizards by asking him to read Martin Luther King's autobiography, only for Draco to be appalled that Muggles would discrimate by skin color to the point of enslaving others. Even the strictest pure-blood wizards had never done THAT. So there, Muggles.)

Your thoughts on tribalism also remind me of a YouTube psychology lecture I listened to recently about disgust responses. Disgust isn't necessarily a bad thing. It keeps us away from plants that may be poisonous and environments that may cause outbreaks of disease. But it doesn't stop there. In the same way we might want to protect the "purity" of the physical body, we'd be concerned for the "purity" of the political body. Hence the responses that you have witnessed when someone appears "contaminated" with the wrong ideas. In your description of your own experiences, you even used the word "purge."

The catch is that disgust responses aren't a glitch; we developed them because they keep us alive. And to be fair, the movements you mention here all play for life-and-death stakes: abortion, vaccination, (neo?-)Naziism, population replacement, etc.

Having said all that, I think you make very good points about the dangers of thinking in terms of in-group and out-group. The term that came to mind for me was "scapegoating" -- or as I liked to call it on my old blog, "human sacrifice." It's basically splitting good and evil so that the in-group can identify as good and the out-group can be demonized as evil. And if they're evil, we're justified in doing more than just punching them, right? There's actually another Scott Peck book that deals with this called People of the Lie.

Sheila said...

I believe you were the first one who introduced me to the concept of "splitting." And you don't have to be a narcissist to do it. It's always way easier to sort the world into friends and enemies (who can be switched on a dime!) than to accept people as they are ... flawed, allies on some issues and opponents on others.

I am a Ravenclaw, I'm pretty sure.

Sometimes I think the alt-right may include an awful lot of people exposed to large amounts of leftism, which they didn't like, but never exposed to a normal, healthy conservatism. Though more and more, anything I would call "normal, healthy conservatism" is getting driven out of public life. Politicians who won't support Trump are called nasty names and primaried out of office, conservative journalism switches to parroting Trump talking points or else dies out, and even John is getting out of politics. It's kind of scary, to be honest.

I will TRY to remember to look for that book at the library. I always arrive at the library and can't remember any of the titles of books I am supposed to be looking for.

Cristina said...

The trick with "splitting" is to remember that the "split" between good and evil runs in the human soul. I hope I'm paraphrasing Solzhenitsyn properly . . . and spelling his name correctly!

And now I need to clear up the Sorting Hat comment. What I meant was that if modern political movements were Hogwarts Houses, I'd be in the alt-right House. But I'm actully a Ravenclaw, too! This isn't a correlation, of course. I'd say that Ravenclaws are most likely to have members across the political spectrum, with no hard feelings. (One of my recent German reads was a Hausanalyse which argued that Ravenclaws will study something thoroughly, become convinced based on the strength of the evidence, but avoid taking real risks or making real commitments because they mostly live in their heads. And if actions never really enter the picture, who cares what anyone is thinking?)

As for "conservatism," I've had a problem with that label for years. Admittedly, I come across it mostly in religious contexts. Someone you might call a "Trad" writer helped me articulate my thinking on the matter, when she said that all "conservative" Catholics really wanted to conserve was about fifty years old. And why aren't so-called "conservatives" allied with so-called "traditionalists," which you'd think would be the logical position?

(Here I'll admit that the "Trads" very likely out-grouped the "Cons" in the exact way you describe here. Sometimes deliberately, but sometimes not intending to at all. In particular, I think Archbishop Lefebvre's consecration of the four bishops was never meant to draw a line in the sand, although that's one of the terrible effects it had.)

But now I'm rambling. All I mean to say is that even in the secular sphere, I see a "conservatism" that is mere nostalgia, only wanting to conserve things that are a few decades old. Things that actually dynamited older customs and institutions that were worth preserving, the lack of which hurts us now. But this has been the case for a long time. I think the only ones who can claim to be "normal, healthy conservatives" are those who went to the right, in support of their king, in 1798. But that's my application of the label you're using.

Sheila said...

Hm, I was thinking more of American conservatism -- things like limiting the power of the federal government, attempting to balance the budget, faithfulness to the Constitution opposing the endless progressive agenda which keeps pushing for more and more social change...that kind of thing. It may not actually be "conservative" in the traditional sense, but it's what the Republican Party used to be. But in the past five years, suddenly the Republican Party is now against international trade, against immigration, accepting of racism and not accepting of Hispanics or blacks. The anti-Latino animus is driving John right out of the party.

I have always thought of the Houses more as personalities -- the Slytherins would be sneaky, political people like my husband. But it's true that in the actual books, both Gryffindor and Slytherin end up being political parties instead.

Cristina said...

American conservatism as you describe it sounds like something I might get behind if I lived there. But I also probably share the current view on immigration that you don't like much.

Sheila said...

I find it very strange that you support an immigration policy that keeps you out. You of all people should know that potential immigrants are smart, hardworking people with a lot to offer their new country.

Cristina said...

Well, first of all, I don't see it as being about me. If you do want to focus on that, remember that my own relatives are a mixed set. On the one hand, there are the success stories; on the other hand, there's the aunt who murdered two US citizens while high on drugs. These experiences have definitely influenced my thinking on the matter, but I've also bent over backwards to see the issue from as many sides as possible and also as abstractly as possible. And my conclusion is that limiting the number of immigrants (regardless of the reason) is the best for all parties involved.

One of those parties is the country that gets left behind. Whenever we've discussed this in the past, you've focused on how immigrants can make their new countries richer. But isn't the flipside of that is that they make their old countries poorer? Forgive me for being blunt now, but you don't seem aware that there can be negative consequences to immigration. I feel that I could create a balanced table of its advantages and disadvantages for the immigrants, the new country, and the old country, but that you'd come up blank if you had to fill out the right side of the sheet.

I do admit that the current US policy is a little aggressive for me. I prefer the Swiss model, which makes citizenship really hard to get if you can't prove that you've assimilated into local culture. There have even been some cases in which citizenship was revoked. I think this is very fair and also the most beneficial set up for the immigrants themselves.

It wasn't easy -- in fact, it was quite painful -- to conclude that the common good would be better served if I gave up my dream. (The irony is that my accepting that made me, by my own standards, an excellent candidate for immigration.)

Sheila said...

I certainly wouldn't promote immigration at the cost of the sending countries! But all my research seems to suggest that emigration is a net benefit to nations. See and

Now there is one big issue, which is that when immigration is limited to the most skilled, then the sending country loses its most skilled people. But when the receiving nation welcomes unskilled workers (as I absolutely think we should) then this effect doesn't happen. The sending country reduces unemployment in this way (because if you can't get a job at home, you can go somewhere with jobs) and also makes money on remittances the emigrants send home.

I would, by the way, recommend *not* admitting immigrants who are murderers. Let me not be accused of demanding completely open borders! I feel we should welcome people who are not safety risks.

Cristina said...

The first link almost lost me at "remittances." Sure, it's nice for the families that get more money, because they can buy more things. But when an economy becomes really dependent on remittances from another country, then that other country has a huge edge in negotiations. There was a case in which an American who was accused of raping a Filipina wasn't tried in court, because the US government told the Philippine goverment that if the guy was found guilty and went to a local jail (the likeliest outcome at the time), the US would hire no more Filipino nurses. (This may not sound like a big deal, but repeat this story to a Filipino and there will be a sharp intake of breath.) Anyway, what was one one little rape victim weighed against all those potential remittances?

Full disclosure: What I'm against is one party allowing itself to be so easily manipulated by another. In that particular case, however, I really think that the guy was innocent and the US government just did what it had to do. So you can still argue that the outcome here was a net benefit for everyone concerned! But the country with the power isn't going to be right all the time.

I wonder if the first article mentions that another reason the labor market can relax a little is that when one member of a family gets a high-paying job abroad, other members can afford to quit working. And I don't mean his parents finally getting to retire. What happens is that people who would otherwise be also helping out just lean back for a free ride. It's not such a huge deal, because the family can live quite well anyway, but it's another way the local economy is fragile.

The second link surprised me by acknowledging the destabilization of families, though it skims over it really quickly before making everything about money again. Family is the hugest thing -- so much more important than money. But yes, it's easier to measure money.

At this point, I should say that I'm 100% in favor of keeping families together; so if parents must work abroad, they should be allowed to bring their children. But I think the US goes overboard by letting new citizens bring over their parents and adult siblings (and the families of these siblings) as well. Germany draws a more prudent line at your spouse and your own children.

Finally, I'm not sure whether targeting unskilled immigrants would work, in the sense that it gives skilled people an incentive to compete for those slots. The brain drain lost a lot of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals to jobs as bellhops and janitors in wealthier countries. In an ideal world, sure, there would be better filters. But as far as I can tell, the receiving nations can barely tell security risks from normal people; so how are they to distinguish between skilled and unskilled?

Sheila said...

America doesn't really let in parents and adult siblings. That is, in theory it does, but in practice the waiting period is like 20 years. And that's after the initial immigrant has citizenship, which is also a long time.

America does manage to distinguish between skilled and unskilled, though I'm not sure what means they use. We definitely make it much easier for skilled immigrants to come here and have more spots available for people with degrees or job offers in hand. The net result is that legal immigrants usually have college degrees, and any immigrant doing a menial job winds up being illegal. I'm very against illegal immigration (from the point of view of the government of the country - it is not good to have all these people "off the books," even though for some of the immigrants it's their best or only choice) so I think that allowing this legally would be a much better choice. In other words, we don't have to sort out who is skilled and unskilled at all -- if we allow them all (perhaps limited to a certain number per year, and of course screened as much as we can for safety risks) we'd have a lot more unskilled legal immigrants and less of a brain drain problem.

Sheila said...

As far as the case you mention in the first paragraph, I heard that one at the time and it made me furious too. The obvious solution is: American servicepeople should not rape anybody (which they have a serious problem with, btw) and justice should rely on what is right and not who has the power. Of course that's easier said than done. But I guess as a citizen of this country, I see it more as something that can be changed. America being a jerk to other countries doesn't have to be a constant.

Cristina said...

Now that you mention it, in the cases I know of, it did take almost twenty years for the parents and adult siblings to start coming over! You might be surprised that they still bothered, but the elderly parents wanted to die in their children's care and the adult siblings saw it as an investment for their own children's future. As I've said, I actually do support the reuniting of parents and children; but with adult siblings, we're taking it too far.

Incidentally, the better way to game the system is to marry a citizen so you can get legal residency. (But then there's also Germany's approach to this strategy. The government will look at your visa, and if it says nothing about going there to get married, then you have to leave Germany again, and then reapply for a new visa once you're back in your own country. It doesn't prevent cheating, of course, but it does keep marriage from being a quick fix.)

I've been thinking about immigration in general since we got on this tangent, and I guess what my stance really boils down to is that I see it as an extraordinary measure -- and the worst of the possible choices. And it seems to me (though you can correct me here) that you think it's a great good that should be happening on a fairly regular basis. Other than "enrichment" -- which I confess means little more than better ethnic restaurants to me -- what benefit is there in regularly turning foreigners into citizens? That's what I don't get.

Sheila said...

Well, in the case of most developed nations, it helps correct for a low birthrate. I guess to my mind asking "why allow immigrants in" is like asking "why have a child"? People are the point of the whole operation. If people outside the country want to be here, and people inside the country want to hire those people ... why *wouldn't* you be in favor?

Cristina said...

If everyone inside the country were okay with it, then it wouldn't really be an issue, would it? But isn't the problem here that a sizeable part of the populations of developed nations aren't in favor? Does this group get to be ignored just because a minority that has hiring power can get the government to issue visas? This isn't even democratic.

As for the birthrate question, I guess I'm with Japan. They have both an aging population and a very low birthrate, and they'd rather develop robotics than encourage immigration. The thing is, if the problem is that there aren't enough Japanese people, then importing a whole bunch of non-Japanese people isn't a solution.

Sheila said...

Sorry it took me so long to approve this! I keep forgetting to check.

You're mistaking me if you think I mean that decisions shouldn't be made democratically. Though I really can't see why Joe down the street should care if Fred hires Juan. Joe isn't going to be booted out of his house to make room for Juan. Why should he get any more of a say on this than on whether Fred has a child? But I know you're not a believer in libertarianism of any sort, so the "it neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket" defense is not an argument that convinces you.

Your last paragraph completely loses me. How is preferring a robot coworker to a Pakistani coworker not racist? Why is someone's preference to be surrounded by other Japanese people more important than someone else's right to live and work?

I just don't think you'd be nearly so sympathetic if I announced that I don't like children, so I will have robots instead and would like to demand (democratically!) that all my neighbors raise robots also.

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