Tuesday, February 07, 2012

“You’re Assuming We Thought it Through”

A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to discuss a proposed and relatively dramatic policy change with someone fairly high in state government.  I objected to the change with some vigor, and outlined several objections that I thought added up to a compelling case.  She listened politely, and then gave an answer for which I hadn’t prepared.

“You’re assuming we thought it through.”

Well, yes.  At least I would have hoped so.  

She explained, politely, the chain of reasoning behind the proposal.  So as not to betray any confidences, I’ll illustrate by metaphor:

- Broken hearts are painful.

- Pain is bad.

- Love causes broken hearts.

- Therefore, we should ban love!

Each of the three suppositions is largely true, taken on its own terms.  But assuming that they tell you everything you need to know leads to a badly misguided conclusion.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve been brought up short by the mediocrity of the men behind the curtain, but it was particularly striking.

Sometimes realizations like that can be empowering.  I recall my pleasant shock when I sat in on a freshman English class at Snooty Liberal Arts College as a high school student.  I was trying to decide whether I could hack it there.  When I saw the caliber of discussion, I had that shock of realizing that those folks were no smarter than I was.  That realization emboldened me to apply.

The same thing happened while I was dissertating.  At one point, lost among the weeds, I stole away to the library to look at the dissertation of someone who had finished a few years prior, and of whom the faculty still spoke in reverential terms.  I expected to be floored.  Instead, all I saw was a reasonably competent piece.  I needed that.  Discovering that even a “good” dissertation was utterly recognizable as the product of a regular human being demystified it, and helped me get over the fear of failure.

But this was different.  

I had expected to confront differing agendas and priorities, and had prepared accordingly.  It wouldn’t have shocked me to hear that some other priority was outranking my own, or that a good idea fell victim to legislative horse-trading.  Even a straight-up ideological objection wouldn’t have been entirely surprising.  But I wasn’t prepared for “gee, we didn’t really give it much thought.”

(Readers of a certain age will recall the presidential debate in which anti-abortion candidate George H.W. Bush was asked about the criminal penalties he advocated for women who had abortions.  The moderator pointed out that if you hold that abortion is murder, then it follows logically that women who have abortions should be tried as murderers.  Bush responded that he hadn’t given it much thought.  I nearly fell off my chair.)

One of the shockers of adulthood is realizing that most people are pretty much making it up as they go along.  It’s empowering in the sense that they’re no smarter than you are.  It’s dispiriting when you realize that great harm can be done entirely inadvertently, by people who mean well, just because they don’t get it.  And it’s humbling when you realize that somewhere, someone is probably saying the exact same thing about you.