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unreasonable expectations

While i’ve conceded good reasons not to identify as a feminist, i’ve taken the position that they don’t outweigh the many good reasons to so identify. The burden falls to me to provide a case in which such reasons do. While i don’t have one for feminism, it is easy to furnish one for another of my own affiliations, and the subtleties segue into a common logical fallacy i’ve been meaning to discuss.

When Occupy was first making a splash, it played directly into my activist sensibilities (i am a radical) and my socioeconomic politics (i am an interventionist), but i relied on several econobloggers to make (more) sense of the web of implications among issues and policies. Foremost among these, of course, was Paul Krugman an economist at Princeton and columnist for The New York Times who spent several of his columns around that time championing OWS and detailing the origins, mechanismspersistence, and precursors of our present grossly inequitable society and dysfunctional political arena, out of which it arose.

Ahem.

Krugman’s platform at the Times requires him to maintain an unaffiliated (which is not at all to say neutral) public persona, for reasons that admittedly are probably pretty good. Hence, he could sound off on the relevant issues and praise the movement’s steering of the public discourse, but he could not proclaim his own affiliation or, for instance, deliver a speech at Liberty Plaza.

One of the weirdest conversations i had about OWS around that time was with someone who flatly denied that Krugman could be considered a supporter, and the reasons they gave serve to illustrate an important point that i’ve seen crop up in several conversations since. These were that Krugman, like anyone else who sacrificed time and risked reputation to appear in Liberty Plaza (or amidst camps and rallies elsewhere), had a clear choice to participate or not, and that this choice alone defined him as a supporter or not.

The essential fallacy here is the unreasonable (or impossible) expectation (a broad category that also includes the classical pseudoscientific tactics of moving the goalposts and special pleading).

As is so often the case, the anti-fluoridation movement provides a tidy example: In the second Fluoride Free NRV brochure, Dan Steinberg asserts that “ingested fluoride has never been tested in a randomized controlled trial” to make the point that the existing research is inadequate to justify claims that water fluoridation is effective at preventing cavities. The problem with Steinberg’s complaint is that it holds a communitywide health measure whose effects accrue over lifetimes to a standard of evidence that is tailored to individualizable treatments for existing maladies over strict and comparably short durations. (His objection mimics another classic denial, that of the link between smoking and lung cancer.)

One’s expectations must instead take different circumstances into account—they must be reasonable. A recent graduate with unexpectedly weak job prospects and a significant burden of debt will have a very different risk assessment concerning Occupy than a high school dropout with three part-time jobs and a family to provide for, though both may come to the question with essentially the same information and understanding, and of course Krugman’s risk assessment will contrast sharply with both. In particular, Krugman must balance the prospect of affiliating with Occupy against that of being let go from the Times, which would greatly diminish his influence on the cultural dialogue and with it his ability to raise Occupy’s profile.

The gist is this: To hold dissimilar cases to suitably different standards is not a double standard.

This has come up in a couple of other interesting ways. One is cycling. It’s obvious that our roads are generally not designed with cyclists in mind: Traffic lanes are just roomy enough for single cars, traffic signals are insensitive to the weight of single riders, and the overabundance of stop signs undermines the personal utility of cycling over driving (among many other shortcomings). These structural problems have structural solutions, like bike lanes, bike-level signal prompts, and roundabouts. Until these solutions are realized, though, it makes sense to adopt different codes of conduct for motorists and cyclists: If a lane is too narrow or its shoulder in disrepair, the cyclist may ride the center of the lane rather than its side; if a traffic signal fails to pick up a cyclist, the cyclist may treat it as a stop sign; and the solutions to problems introduced by motor traffic are not any more effective for hindering cyclists, and by default should not be designed to. These are not double standards; they are standards informed by context.

A richer setting with similar nuances is civility, especially in the blogosphere, and especially on issues of social justice. Dan Fincke in particular has been hammering civility for some time, even to the point of drafting and soliciting signatures for a “civility pledge” intended to make comment threads more welcoming and productive. In the context of standards, the pledge is wrongheaded at a couple of levels.

Foremost, the policing of language on topics central to the social justice discourse by someone who occupies its top tiers plays squarely into the tropes of marginalized group helplessness and dominant group benevolence by which allies routinely sabotage our own efforts. It is certainly my (and Dan’s) business to see that other people in our groups are conscious of their privilege and check their language in the spaces we control; but by asserting control downward along these axes we overstep our bounds as allies.

The pledge also fails in its attempt to recognize and account for these imbalances. I keep pointing people to this comment by MroyalT because i (still) don’t feel up to the task of making it comprehensively myself. The main point is that civility, uniformly applied, is unequally burdensome. “Calming down”, “stepping back”, and other such tactics take effort, and this effort is greater when the perceived offense plays into (and is therethrough reinforced by) pervasive stereotypes and disparities. And, for all its clamor, Fincke’s pledge does not take this into account. Instead it succumbs to a variant of the just world fallacy (a category of fallacies premised on unrealistic expectations about the world itself): that civility is a shared responsibility. All things being equal, sure; all things are not equal.

Moreover, there is as much to be learned (as an ally) from engaging with marginalized people unconstrained by civility as from engaging them in “civil” discourse. It is on us—as allies, but also as skeptics—to welcome the opportunity. For a community and movement premised on the systematic study of cognitive biases, this does not seem like an unreasonable expectation.

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