Sunday, December 28, 2008

What are you fighting for?

So many people these days have a chip on their shoulder. It’s not always a bad thing – there’s nothing inherently wrong with believing in something and wanting to improve the world. But I can’t help but think they’re missing the bigger picture. The other day, for instance, my neighbor got pissed that I was parking on her public dead-end road. There weren't any houses around, although a bit further down the road branches off into 3 or 4 individual cul-de-sacs. And this was a safety issue because the shoulder across my house, where I usually park, was too prone to side-swiping. Nonetheless, she called me an asshole and drove off before I could process.

It’s not that I was offended, but it piqued by imagination: Does this lady worry about other people’s parking spots all the time? What are you fighting for?, I wanted to ask her, in the double-sense of what’s the object of your fighting and why are you even doing in it. Surely if I’d moved my car, her largest problems in life would remain unresolved. She’d just have some other chip on her shoulder.

But lots of people have chips on their shoulders, and sometimes I almost feel like other people expect the same of me. There are, I suppose, lots of things to be mad about, lots of causes worth fighting for. But there are infinitely more causes not worth fighting for. All too often, the fervor in which people fight for a cause is disproportional to its actual importance. Even people parking by others’ houses is quite a contention area in America, as you can see in this google search.

I savor these times when people can afford to worry about such inconsequential issues. But there is something incredibly ugly about these minor squabbles. And I see it in various people, in the obstacles they unnecessarily make for themselves and others. Up-close they're ugly, but from a distance they’re pretty funny. I’ve begun a small collection:

  • Topping the list is the Topfree Equal Rights Association, their stated mission is to “help women who encounter difficulty going without tops in public places in Canada and the USA.” Laws which require women to wear tops, they claim, are confining. It’s an equal rights issue, they say. Men can go around without shirts, so why can’t women? For them it’s also about comfort, convenience, well-being, and “ownership and control of [women’s] breasts”. (Now, as a guy I kind of support this, but not for stated reasons.) Their argument is completely logical (although there are some holes, such as the fact that, evolutionarily, breasts are a sexual organ), but in light of the billion other issues that people are fighting for, who cares?
  • Lack of bias in language. For the past decade, the American Psychological Association has taken this to new heights by divorcing pathological language from any negative traits. For example, when discussing schizophrenia, you have to write, people with schizophrenia rather than schizophrenics, so as to avoid defining people by a pathological condition. This might be reasonable - ignoring the fact that, left untreated, people’s lives are often defined by such conditions – but then there are other guidelines that further separate pathology from negative consequences. For instance, you’re not supposed to write people suffering from multiple sclerosis, but rather people who have multiple sclerosis, even though everyone who has multiple sclerosis is also suffering from it. More examples can be found here. Taken to the extreme these guidelines devoid words of their meaning because pathological conditions are by definition negative. Currently however they merely make for ugly sentences in the name of political correctness.
  • Handicap parking. A website community, Handicapped Fraud, has been established to report incidents of illegally parking in handicapped spaces. They’ll also get on your case if you have handicap that isn't visually verifiable. Regardless of the website, handicap parking laws are already pretty absurd; depending on the size of any lot, they require anywhere from 2% to - in the hypothetical of a lot with 2-spots - 1/2 of the spots to be handicapped. It's a business expense issue, not an equal opportunity one. It hurts smaller businesses more; while people with handicaps have already, arguably, benefited disproportionally more from the automobile. In addition to high associated fines, wrote the website creator, “offenders seem to slip in and out of their illegal handicapped parking spaces, with no questions asked. Breaking the law every day with no repercussions.” There are a lot of really angry people at that website.
  • All federally funded research has to ask 2 questions about race/ethnicity: Are you Hispanic/latino? And then, identify your race. This is because many Hispanic/latinos have multiple ethnicities. At the same time, so do many people of non-hispanic descent. While this measure was intended to streamline data collection, it falls short for the same reason most silly government guidelines fall short – because the government is no expert in the area. The guideline was first promoted through the Office of Management and Budget (?) in 1997, tested by the census bureau in 2000, and then required in any study funded through the NIH. Surely should the scientific consensus on ethnicity change – and after all, America is a changing landscape – the government won’t be quick to adjust.
  • School Bus traffic stop laws. You might have heard about these because the punishments are so severe. In many areas you can get up to $1000 and a month of jail time for passing by a stopped school bus that’s either loading or unloaded kids. In essence the school bus functions as a moving stop sign, which pops out whenever the bus is stopped, however these rules still apply if the flashing stop sign doesn’t work. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a bus for kindergarteners or high schoolers. Childhood safety is surely important, but I’ve yet to see any studies on the safety of a moving stop-sign that applies to passing cars in both directions.
Those are just humorous outliers - examples of people fighting, and fighting really hard, for things that don't really matter. But they make me wonder how many other beliefs – held by me or by others – are as vain. Battles against things like drugs, gay marriage, or corporate America all strike a similar cord with me: What are they fighting against?

Sayre’s Law summarizes related phenomena as follows: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue.” I like that law. It throws the fighters directly on their heads, and I don’t think it undermines my perspective but maybe it does. A corollary to the law states, “That is why academic politics are so bitter.”

Usually in our modern society, very little is at stake. This is in part due to our affluence. A successful economy functions to keep our individual stakes small, it hedges risk. Banks minimize the risks involved in loaning money just as insurance companies minimize the risks involved in getting sick. Our largest corporations are partially owned by millions of stakeholders; if they make an irrational move and the shareholders disapprove, they stand to lose a lot of money. Speculators from Wall Street protect farmers from the risk of volatile price swings. Clearly we’ll never be immune from risk – business cycles still exist – but you can’t deny progress. We’ve been able to relocate risks further upstream, before they occur. Things like liquid assets and health insurance provide buffers against risk. Only in their relative absence we’re left, to varying degrees, to face real risks like famines and epidemics.

But all the more reason, I think, to make sure that our battles are worth fighting. It’s all the easier in our society to find new battle fronts – be it in the mind or in the body politic - but it’s become even harder to ensure that they’re worthy battle fronts. Robert Pirsig proposed that the answer to this dilemma is to use those extra resources to bolster the quality, rather than the quantity, of how one spends one's time. Else we’ll go about chasing phantom concerns such as the location of your neighbor's parked car or women’s right to go topless.


Media (in order of appearance)

Photos: (1) Dead End, 04/22/2008, by Loric Wilson; (2) Photos of topfree people, 07/25/2007; (3) Handicap Parking Spaces, 11/23/2007, Road Side Pictures; (4) Stopping for Students to Board a School Bus at 7:02 AM, 09/22/2005, Old Shoe Woman; (5) Half Quality, 02/02/2008, by Beige Alert.

Video: (1) Music video, by Radiohead of the song "No Surprises" from the 1997 album OK Computer; (2) Music video, by Coldplay of the song "Lovers in Japan" from the 2008 album Viva la Vida.
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1 comment:

  1. Balance is at issue here. In this case an imbalance regarding how one feels about something. People lack perspective in the moment, but it is what you provide here with a little reflection. And reflection can certainly help bring about balance...


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