Saturday, June 21, 2014

I'll Just Duck Through Here

I still remember an anecdote from one of [Karen DeCrow’s] speeches, meant to illustrate unthinking reliance on tradition. When she got married and started to cook, she would always chop off the ends of a meatloaf before putting it in the oven, as she’d seen her mother do. When her husband asked why, she was at a loss; she had simply assumed that was the proper way to bake meatloaf. Her mother didn’t know either: She had always seen her mother do it the same way. The grandmother’s explanation turned out to be very simple: “Because our oven was so small, that was the only way it could fit in!”

It was a very Karen DeCrow story, not only in its good-natured wit but in its view of traditional roles not as a malevolent system designed to oppress, but as something that had outlived its usefulness and needlessly hemmed people in.
Cathy Young, “The Feminist Leader Who Became a Men's-Rights Activist”
I have a more generous view of history than I had when I was younger, and as such, DeCrow’s view of tradition is now one that speaks to me. This is not to deny that there are oppressive systems and intentionally oppressive people in the world. But I think that a lot of the hostility to attempted changes in societies (especially when they are large-scale changes) is driven by a combination of fear and the belief (accurate or not) that one will lose out in favor of another, less deserving, person. This is likely exacerbated when there is a perceived scarcity of resources, and people are in competition.

Part of it is the primacy of the old saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The implication becomes that experimentation and innovation, meant to improve upon something that may already work pretty well, should be avoided, and thus, making changes is about fixing things that are broken. But when something works for someone, and works well, telling them that you’re going to “fix” it can often be understood to me that the fact that this system works for them is part of the problem. And when there is insistence on removing and replacing something that people find to be workable, it can be hard to convince them that this is being done for their benefit, rather than someone else’s, especially when people they don't have any sort of relationship with are the ones pushing for the change.

Humanity does not scale well, because the amount of time that it takes to understand people as individuals never really changes, regardless of how many individuals one meets. Sure, understanding people is a skill, and that skill can be honed and improved over time, but for any given skill level, understanding five people as individuals is always about five times as time consuming as understanding one person. And so the only way to make that process more efficient is to rely on stereotypes and hearsay, with all of the inaccuracies that entails - especially when dealing with people for whom there is otherwise no frame of reference. Altering these things tends to leave people feeling that they don't understand the world around them, and thus, uncomfortably incompetent at what we understand to be a basic human ability. None of this is to say that the expectation that a particular person today should behave in the way that they were understood to 30 years ago cannot ever be problematic. But I do think that it’s incorrect to say that such an expectation is correctly understood as an act of aggression, which can really be viewed as simply a shortcut of it’s own.

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