Sunday, August 2, 2015

Ossification

Oh, I've seen the videos, and I guess, to me, they are a sign of a sort of a gradual moral degradation that occurred. Whether you're pro-life or pro-choice, to talk in this way, suggests to me just a hardening of the heart that happens when you, I guess, deal with this on a daily basis and are not - don't remain morally sensitive to the issues involved.
David Brooks. "Week In Politics: 'Black Lives Matter,' Planned Parenthood" NPR.
My first job out of college was working with children who had been taken out of their homes for abuse or neglect. These were children who could tell you some stories. It's been some twenty years since I left that job, and I can still remember many of them. And one thing that surprises some people when I tell those stories is the dispassionate way in which I do it.

One of the things that I've noticed is that there appears to be an expectation that horror never simply shades into everyday experience. That the fiftieth terrible story of abuse of a child should be just as unsettling as the first. But this isn't how people operate - instead, we adapt. It's like anything else that becomes a constant in one's life - eventually, it all fades into the background noise. Or people just don't make it. When I worked with children, a lot of people just didn't make it. One washed out within four days. The average length of time that people stayed on the job was six months. I was there for four and a half years, and a number of my co-workers had been there that entire time. And that meant that we had witnessed a steady stream of young people (this isn't a line of work you go into in your thirties - or at any point after you're making real money) come in the door with high hopes and high ideals, and decide that they couldn't deal with it. The work demanded a heart harder than the norm, because otherwise, the emotion would overwhelm you.

But it made talking with other people about work difficult. "How can you be so cavalier?" people would ask. In my less thoughtful moods, I would reply: "How quaint. You think there is a choice." David Brooks may see a need to remain morally sensitive to the issues involved, but when it's something that you have to do day in and day out, that moral sensitivity isn't an advantage. And so, it fades, so that you can do the job better. Because, on the job, you have to talk to the other people who do the job. And they don't have time for beating around the bush or euphemism.

The Planned Parenthood "sting" videos play on this. Insiders (and supposed insiders) talking business, but in a way that comes across as insensitive to those not in the business. If they are a sign of moral degradation, then it's an occupational hazard.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Character, Pictured

Here is a picture that has been making the rounds on LinkedIn:

And I get it. Reputation, being simply other people's impressions of you, isn't as important as the real person that you are, or strive to be.

But whenever I see that picture, I'm reminded of this one:
Copyright Matthew Lee High. https://www.flickr.com/photos/matthigh/2982698709
George Johnson mistakenly earned a reputation as a horse thief with the people of Tombstone, Arizona. So they hanged him. Later, they learned that he'd purchased the horse, in good faith, from the actual thief. And so the poetic grave marker. I suspect that it brought the late Mister Johnson scant comfort.

So if it's all the same to you, I think that I will be just as concerned with my reputation as I am with my character. Because while it is true that it better to actually be a good person than simply to be thought one, it's better to be thought a good person than to be thought a bad one.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Wrecker

I was reading an article on Politico about political pundits' speculation on Donald Trump, and a couple of things stood out for me.

Paul Begala notes:

When it comes to Mr. Trump, I know this: he reflects the views of today’s Republican Party. Here’s proof: 64 percent of Republicans agree with the broader statement that, “President Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life.” And 34 percent of Republicans go full-on birther: saying of Republicans think it’s likely that president Obama is not a US citizen; that he was not born in America (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. poll, Dec., 2014). This, of course, is an issue Mr. Trump has highlighted.

68 percent of Republicans say Mr. Trump is right on immigration. (Fox News poll, July 17, 2015). This was after he said those rather, umm, controversial things about Mexican immigrants. 22 percent of Republicans even agree with his hateful attack on John McCain—saying McCain was not a war hero (PPP Poll 7/22/15).
And Mary Matalin says this:
[Common Sense] America is, and has been for some time been, so over the incompetent, posturing national politicians as well as their irrelevant agenda issues and their counterproductive policies. They are aching for candidates with authenticity who will address their everyday concerns. AND do not presume a preference for their common sense world makes them redneck philistines.
Taken together, the message is clear - that Trump speaks to a significant portion of the traditional Republican base - those that Mr. Begala describes as "angry, white and male" and Ms. Matalin refers to as Common Sense America. And, assuming that these two are correct, that could present a problem for the GOP.

The biggest danger for the modern Republican party from its reputation of being the party of White male grievance (grievance that a lot of people feel is undeserved) comes from the chance that it energizes the people who fear that they would be the targets of that selfsame angry, white and male demographic. The wave that President Obama rode into the White House turned out for him to check what they felt was a Republican agenda that lead the nation into ruin. Despite calls for a more positive and optimistic political discourse, the fact of the matter remains that the best way to get people to the polls is to play on their fears of, and aversion to, losing what they already have. A Republican agenda that appears to have the rollback of gains by (liberal) women and minorities as its goal will drive those voters to the polls in droves to protect themselves. And while conservative Whites may be angry about their relative loss of status, people tend to be less motivated by potential gain (or, in this care, re-gain) than they are by potential loss. Therefore, the more the GOP seems to focus on punishing non-Republican voters by taking things from them, the more they're likely to prompt a new wave of Democratic votes as those people rush to defend themselves. (I also think that this will manifest itself in fewer votes for left-of-center third-party candidates, especially longshots such as, for example, Jill Stein. To vote for someone who is widely considered to have no realistic hope of winning, one has to either be a True Believer or uninvested/confident in the final outcome, and the latter are likely to be scarcer than normal as fears of Republican base grow.) And in this way, Donald Trump does potentially serious damage to the "Republican Brand," which has already been taking it on the chin. Democrats are already preaching their choir that Mr. Trump accurately represents the GOP, and as his inflammatory rhetoric continues to elevate him in the polls, more and more people are likely coming to that conclusion on their own.

In the end, it's likely a new win situation for the Republican Party. As they become more and more centered around a demographic that's losing ground to faster-growing groups, they'll enter a state, if they haven't already where they can't win with them, but can't win without them. The Republican Party will founder at a national level, as the state and local enclaves that it controls grow smaller and smaller. Aggressive gerrymandering may allow the GOP to hold on to the legislature past the point where their a minority party in a given state, but that won't save them forever, and they'll wind up banished to the political wilderness while they attempt to forge a new core demographic out of the very people their candidates (embraced or not) railed against.

Shuffled

Once upon a time, I was in a business meeting. While there were enough chairs to go around, space at the actual table was limited – most of the chairs were lined up along two walls of the room. It was a long meeting, and as time passed, people would leave the meeting, and other people would enter. After a few rounds of people coming and going (including myself), an interesting situation presented itself - all of the seats around the table were taken by white men. All of the women and minorities in the room were seated in the overflow chairs around the edge of the room.

Watching the process unfold, it made sense - when someone seated at the table excused themselves, someone from one of the other chairs would move into that seat, and whenever someone entered the room, they first thing they would do would be to scan the table for an available seat. So eventually, you hit a particular point in time when the shuffle resulted in all the seats at the table being filled with White men. And it didn't last for the remainder of the meeting. But a look around the room for in that moment seemed to speak to everything that people say is wrong with the technology industry.

But what I realized was that almost all of the people who were seated at table had been in the room when I had first arrived, and didn't appear to have ever left. And there are times when I think that informs a large part of the way industries shuffle themselves. While I'm in technology now, I'm a relative latecomer to it as a career - I started out in social services. And, as a result, I find myself working with people ten years my junior, who, nevertheless have more experience in my career path than I do - simply by virtue of having started out there.

When I talk to people I worked with back then, they're quick to tell me that we were all woefully underpaid. But had you asked me at the time, I would have told you that I was making a phenomenal amount of money - after all, I'd doubled my take-home pay in a job that, that I had no education and little experience for, and was less physically and emotionally demanding than what I'd been doing.

The easy lesson, perhaps, from that conference room is to alter the seating arrangements - set aside a certain number of seats for certain people. But I think that a better lesson might be to add more or larger tables, so that there are enough seats to go around. I was fortunate in that I stumbled into the technology sector during a time of rapid expansion - when employers couldn't afford to be terribly picky about who they hired. When I describe it to people I tell them that the standard wasn't whether or not you knew the work, it was whether or not you could be educated to do it in a reasonable time. And that situation created thousands of opportunities for people - including latecomers and people who needed to step away for a while - which prevented the shuffle from homogenizing things based on experience.

Of course, it's easier to add tables to a conference room than it is to add businesses to an economy. But we've done harder things...

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Opinionated

About a dozen links to a column on opinions landed in my social media feed today. So I read it. and the following line caught my attention:

There’s nothing wrong with an opinion on those things. The problem comes from people whose opinions are actually misconceptions. If you think vaccines cause autism you are expressing something factually wrong, not an opinion.
There's a problem with that. That's not the definition of opinion.
Opinion
noun opin·ion \ə-ˈpin-yən\

1  a:  a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter
    b:  approval, esteem
2  a:  belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge
    b:  a generally held view
3  a:  a formal expression of judgment or advice by an expert
    b:  the formal expression (as by a judge, court, or referee) of the legal reasons and principles upon which a legal decision is based
The author goes on to say: "Nor does the fact that many other share this opinion give it any more validity."

Under this logic, the fact that many people draw a bright-line distinction between facts (correct or incorrect) and opinions does not mean that they have an accurate understanding of any difference, given the dictionary definition of the word "opinion." There is nothing in the dictionary definition of opinion that prevents a misconception - or a correct conception, for that matter - from being a person's opinion. Okay. So allow me to let Mr. Rouner (who, incidentally, gives no reason why he should be regarded as an authority on what constitutes a valid opinion) off the hook for the dictionary definition of the word opinion, and concern ourselves with the connotation of the word.

For many of us, opinions are different from facts. "That cell phone is black," is a fact, while "Black is the best color for cell phones" is an opinion. This jives with Mr. Rouner's statement that opinions are those things that cannot be verified outside of the fact that the holder of the opinion believes them. And that's fine. But it's not the only valid connotation of an opinion. In a culture that seems to have raised arguing (or bickering, if you prefer) into an art form, sometimes you don't want to have the mount a thesis defense of everything you say. And that has given rise to a use of the word "opinion" to mean: "something that I believe to be true, yet I am unwilling, unable and/or unready to mount an in-depth defense of at this time." Or, and this comports with the definition given by Merriam-Webster: "something that I believe, but do not know with certainty."

One of the points that Mr. Rouner makes in his column is that opinions have no bearing on the reality of a situation. Whether someone is of the opinion that the Holocaust is a historical fraud or that the ancient Egyptians were displaced sub-Saharan Africans, these understandings of history don't actually alter history. In fact, they don't alter much of anything. So why bother caring? I noted the opinions called out in the column as things that are actually simply incorrect:
  • "Vaccines cause autism"
  • "Slavery was not the driving cause of the Civil War"
  • "The Holocaust was fake"
  • "Whites face as much discrimination as people of color"
  • "Planned Parenthood is chopping up dead babies and selling them"
It seems to me that the whole point behind this column is to allow people on the Left to feel comfortable attacking wrongthink under the guise of separating out opinions, which are not subject to tests of proof, from facts, which are. Okay. But what useful purpose is served by attacking wrongthink? What is served by browbeating people into either claiming to believe what you believe or admitting that they're foolish or uninformed, other than ego inflation for those doing the browbeating? For a person to whom the Flag of the Arny of Northern Virginia is a symbol of their Southern heritage no amount of telling them "no, that's not an opinion - it's a misconception" is going to convince them that their grandfather or great-grandfather was essentially a proto-Nazi. And being unable to argue that point directly, "it's just an opinion" becomes an attempt to disengage from the debate.

As obnoxious as it may seem to allow people to persist in wrong thoughts, perhaps it's also the wisest course of action.