Sunday, July 26, 2009

Changing minds

I don't think you can change people's minds by just telling them they're wrong, or by comparing the costs and benefits of two alternatives, without taking into account their values. After all, you're picking the benefits--you may have excluded something important to them, because it's not important to you. Or maybe it's even something you see as an evil. There's a lot of unexpressed assumptions in most arguments I've read.

You might be able to do it (change their minds) by showing how your proposal is in accord with their values. I'm sure you can do it by changing their values, if you can manage that.

One person told me I changed their mind by presenting information they already had in a different way, which I suppose can be called perspective. (I wouldn't call it framing. I think framing has a deserved bad reputation--it's like push advertising. "If only we choose the right vocabulary we can get those dimwits to make the right decision!")

I learned a long time ago that most people learn best (most easily and most thoroughly) when they learn something themselves. Facts you can just tell, I mean drawing conclusions and figuring out problems. They keep the knowledge, they incorporate it into their worldview, when they work it out on their own rather than being told the solution. That was a hard truth for me: I like to tell people things. I like being the one that knows! And I like being helpful. But when I discovered the best help I could be would be to step back and let them figure things out, I started doing that as a first step in helping.

So, this started out being about the United States moving toward some kind of government-provided health care for all (citizens? persons within our borders?) using tax dollars. I haven't paid much attention-I'm not willing to pay the price of trying to affect this process, so the details are useless to me until it's in place in whatever form it ultimately takes. But what keeps catching my attention is the underlying struggle between two approaches to the problems of life: one, where we (as individuals) decide that this problem is best solved as a community, and agree to impose the costs of a solution on all of us (some voluntarily, some through coercion) by using government as a tool to provide that solution; and two, where we (as individuals) decide that this problem is best left in individual hands and to individual judgement about individual solutions, which also imposes some costs on everyone, just different costs.

People in all kinds of political associations (or lack of them) in all kinds of positions on all kinds of problems have this decision somewhere in the basis of their approach. And they decide it differently depending on the problem. What I rarely see is argument addressing this decision, this core choice about what solutions to try and how to make those solutions happen. Instead in the health care debate I've read mostly comparisons of the costs: if we stay with our current system X people pay Y cost, and if we move to government-mediated health care A people will pay B cost. Then the other side picks apart your cost analysis (which can always be done) and you've moved nobody from one position to another.

I think it's possible to move this decision one way or another by looking at values instead of costs. I know, I know--my friends in favor of single payer or a national health service will say that the other side doesn't care about poor people because the other side discounts societal effects on choice, and my other friends in favor of private health care will say the first side doesn't care about encouraging self-reliance and growth (of all kinds: intellectual, economic, research) because the other side thinks it's worthwhile to take away the fruits of personal labor to pay for other people's bad judgement.

I think it would be more useful to admit that one set of people thinks giving the government control of my health care is worth it because only government is big enough to provide care for everyone, and medical care is important enough to do it this way, and our current system is failing a lot of people. And that another set of people thinks giving the government control of my health care means imposing the worst of government bureaucracy on decisions that are very personal, that emotions matter to health care decisions and don't matter to government rules, and that every time I cede power over my life to the government I become more vulnerable to human mistake, human corruption, and clerical error. I think both sets of people would benefit from examining what governments in the United States do well and what they really get wrong; our culture is important to this discussion, more important than how other countries' health care systems work.

I don't think that conversation is taking place.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Kids these days.

Michael Chabon's recent article in the New York Review of Books, The Wilderness of Childhood, wonders where future authors' imaginations will take root, since kids these days don't have free reign to play and think in the wildnesses. Their parents keep them home or in supervised, scheduled activities. I read it with growing anger.

How do I feel about Chabon’s mourning his imagined loss of freedom for other people’s kids? Angry. Angry that there’s one more attack on parents; angry at the unacknowledged privilege revealed by complaining that “middle class” parents giving their children opportunities and supervision but not the one specific opportunity he wants; angry that the risks of unsupervised time are minimized. How many of these complainers are people who were abused or bullied while unsupervised? How many were injured and had no one to call for help? How many were lonely for their parents, who pushed them outside instead of forming a connection? Of course these people support free time for kids–it worked out well for them!

Sure, if you have the wealth to live in a safe neighborhood that contains a wild space and lots of other kids whose parents have similar parenting styles (i.e., let their kids out to play unsupervised), running around in a gang of kids can be a great experience. So can time alone, wandering through a field of weeds and butterflies, pondering your place in the world, with no parent cautioning you not to touch, not to jump, not to cross that creek, not to...engage with the world. But what if you aren’t middle class or above, and the outside world isn’t safe?

I grew up a lot of places, most of them not safe for kids. One city where we lived for about 4 months, I was chased home every afternoon from school by a gang of kids and if they caught me, they hit and kicked me. I was 10 years old. Another place out in the country where we lived for 8 or 9 months, I was bicycling home from the market 4 miles away when a pickup truck ran me off the road into a ditch and I broke my arm. On a deserted country road. I lay in the ditch, tangled in my bike, crying for a couple of hours before somebody found me. I was 9 years old.

Of course it wasn’t all bad. When I was 11 and 12 we lived in a suburb, and I spent hours wandering a weedy field between two housing developments–it was about half a mile wide and a mile long. I found all kinds of debris and garbage, hobo camps, butterflies, and eventually a friend. I spent other hours playing kick the can, stick ball, and 4-square in an empty parking lot. But the common element in the good times and bad? No parent or responsible adult to turn to–my mother was at work or out partying all these times, and my dad hadn’t been around since I was 5.

Nostalgia and rose-colored glasses can't pretty up the loneliness, fear, and struggle of my childhood. Nor do I think I was the only one--again, you don't hear complaints about overscheduled kids from people who were injured by neglect, who grew up too fast, whose boredom led them to delinquency.

Parents have enough to worry about and society has a long history of deciding they're doing it wrong. First we had to ensure college acceptance through a broad range of extracurricular activities: music, sports, and some kind of volunteer work. Now we've overscheduled and our precious kids don't learn how to entertain themselves when they're bored, how to use their imaginations and explore their world. There's no getting it right when society moves the goalposts constantly, and when every wrong is blamed on parents' individual choices whether they match society's expectations or differ from them.

Hat tip Laura at 11D.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Patterns

Topography as art? Why nota map of Beijing hutang neighborhoods or a quilt stitched with Brooklyn blocks?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The death of Michael Jackson

Laura at 11D asks readers to quantify their interest in Michael Jackson's memorial, and commenters are actually discussing their interest in his death and all subsequent events. I wrote there:

I'm probably spending a total of an hour a day this week on it; last week more like 4 hours a day, and the 3 days after his death, probably 6 to 8 hours a day. But then, I liked and admired him; his music was a large part of the soundtrack of my life in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Remembering him and his music, I remember myself at all the various ages and experiences when I heard his songs.

His effect on popular culture was astounding; his success with Thriller is unmatched by any three recording and performing artists since.

The catharsis of public grieving fascinates me. I've wondered whether it's relieving the stress of all the changes over the last year: the housing and economic crisis, the presidential campaign, the various disappointments endemic in the Obama presidency due to the overblown expectations that accompanied his victory.