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Like many writers I was morbidly fascinated earlier this summer by the twitter-haha caused by Dan Baum's account of getting fired as a staff writer for The New Yorker. I wrote this in May, put it aside, but now I think I should have posted it. So here goes.
Baum has been dissed a lot for his supposed pettiness and naiveté, but I think his story is profound and well worth some thought. For one thing, it reminded me of why I am opposed to the death penalty.
Baum's story speaks to a contradiction at the heart of human society. I'd describe it this way: (A) We need systems to sort people according to their abilities and actions -- to decide who gets to be President, or poet laureate, or chief of surgery; to find out who is guilty of a crime, or of moral turpitude, or plain incompetence. (B) These systems are imperfect. (That's my death penalty problem -- the inevitability of mistakes in any human institution.)
In all systems of winnowing, a few win and many lose. This says nothing about the merits of the system. ``In moments of progress the noble succeed, because things are going their way,'' George Bernard Shaw once said. ``In moments of decadence, the base succeed for the same reason: hence the world is never without the exhiliration of contemporary success.''
But how anyone feels about a particular system of selection, I think, is fairly predictable. The principle was well-illustrated years ago in a Robert Mankoff cartoon that appeared in, yes, The New Yorker. A big fish, who is about to eat a medium-sized fish, is thinking ``The world is just.'' The medium fish is about to get eaten, but he's also got his mouth open to swallow a small fish. He's thinking ``There is SOME justice in the world.'' The small fish, of course, is thinking, ``There is no justice in this world.''
In my experience, feeling big-fish makes you move among us with a certain grace that is at once charming and a little fake: You're open to the world and polite, as if you were still just a regular human. You talk about good work. You don't dwell on the painful, neurotic interaction of personalities that produced the work, nor on the sufferings of those who weren't allowed their chance: you don't want to hear complaints, backbiting, recrimination and jealousy. You think this is because you're big of spirit and full of ability. But you're lying to yourself. The real trouble with recriminations and second thoughts is that they remind you that the system that vetted you is imperfect.
Minnows, on the other hand, love to recite their wounds. They make much of their small blisters. When they talk, they shrink even more, but they can't help themselves. Iago was a minnow, for example. He claimed he had ample justification for multiple murder, but his reasons were like something out of The Office -- too slight for anyone else to keep straight or remember. (For the record, he says he didn't get a promotion and he heard some snarky comments about his wife maybe having a thing for his boss.)
When we've been played an Iago-hand, we dwell on evidence of injustice. We see the accidents, bad luck and character flaws -- things that, to big fish, are invisible as the water they swim through. The big fish see only final products; small fish see only processes. Processes that, by making them prey instead of predator, must strike them as unbearably unjust.
Most of us have gotten to be big fish at some point in our lives; most of us have been minnowed, too. But it's hard to keep both perspectives in the same moment.
Contrast helps: I once heard a big fish, at a pleasant party that was a veritable aquarium of worldly success, announce that everyone in the room was either writing for him or was a future beneficiary of his editorial acumen and entrepreneurial energy. Having just been rejected by the speaker, I was like a man with one hand in a fire and the other in ice. I was in this net of Manhattan importance, yes; but he'd just thrown me back into the vast ocean of trash fish. I saw myself, for once, as that middle species -- neither conqueror who has forgotten his past nor victim who is condemned to relive it, but a little of both. And it struck me that this middle viewpoint is probably more accurate than either of the extremes.
Let’s face it: It's very seldom that a meritocratic process gives its blessing to utter incompetence. Like many journalists, I think The New Yorker is the best magazine in the world, and I wouldn't wish its contributors picked by rolling dice or holding votes. (In fact, the only part of the The New Yorker that's mediocre is the last-page caption contest, which continually showcases the hoi-polloi's lack of wit.)
On the other hand, does anyone over age 12 think that all human talents have been given their fair chance, anywhere? Obviously not. In our methods of choosing presidents and divas and New Yorker staff writers, there are accident, luck and the old go-along, get-along. As a result, there are a lot of people out there with gifts, people who, as some underappreciated someone once said ``have a quart to give to a world that only took a pint.''
And usually we read about those people in great novels. It's there you find the breadth and depth to set aside the fantasies of big fish and the tiresome whines of minnows, and see the arc of life in all its neither-norness.
It was the novelists who found a way to see and feel people whose circumstances are too small, the person who, as George Eliot wrote, is ``foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognizable deed.''
And now Baum has put this novelistic sensibility into Twitter form. That's interesting.
His bill of particulars is full of the real flavor of our trade. The foolish things the writer wishes he had not said. The seductive, flattering lure of paranoia (``they don't like my work because I said that dumb thing!''). And the strange oracular style with which editors, like whacked-out priestesses at Delphi, try to describe their visions of the future.
``This is not the year of Mexico,'' Baum was told. That's editor-speak. True, some writers can master it (David Remnick, who said it, is one of the finest journalists we have). But many of us, when we hear that sort of thing, must think, as Baum did: ``What he hell does that even mean?''
Baum is a fine reporter; he provides evidence, and leaves his reader free to judge. The record is not all good for him. He says he's never missed a deadline, which to me is a bad sign: If you don't balance getting it done with getting it right, you're bound to turn in some pretty mediocre stuff. And in fact the rejects he makes available on his site aren't all that inspired.
On the other hand, his crashed articles are not obviously worse than some of the less stellar efforts that the New Yorker has published. And I was left feeling like the truth of his firing was somewhere in between, in the realm where many of us live but refuse to see.
That would be in our real lives of luck and skill and accident, where the race sometimes goes to the swift, sometimes to us, sometimes to the guy who drops by for lunch now and then with the boss’s boss. The realm where there is some justice in this world; the realm of the middle fish. Whatever they think of him at The New Yorker, for finding a way to talk about this great subject on a cell phone, Baum deserves some respect.
Full disclosure section: I have a relationship with The New Yorker which is very slight but entirely happy. If that ever changes, I'll ... actually, I think I'll keep it to myself.
The trouble with admonishing people to be unprejudiced is that it focusses their attention on their bigoted beliefs. This can end strengthening those beliefs, while training the believers in the management of image. They end up working at appearing unprejudiced rather than at being unprejudiced.
Gordon Hodson, a psychologist at Brock University in Canada, came up with an ingenious way around this problem.
He put his subjects into the situation of gay people in a heteronormative society -- but cast that situation as a science-fiction scenario on another planet. Most of the people in his experiment did not make the connection between Earth's gay people and their own situation (being human on an alien world where human feelings weren't allowed, needing to find other humans and arrange to live normally without offending the dominant culture). But they saw the parallels when they were pointed out.
And when they re-took the survey that measured prejudice against homosexuals, they appeared less biased. It seems a smart way to get round people's tendency to say what they're supposed to say when the tolerance wagon comes around.
A while back I linked to an interesting study in which people who made themselves physically cleaner were less leery of being morally dirty. I suggested that rituals of purification and cleanliness can be a means to separate people from their intuitive moral sense -- to make them feel less bad about moral filth because they feel themselves to be clean.
Another bit of evidence that (I would argue) supports this idea: This report on a recent study about self-image and behavior. Two groups of people were asked how much they'd like to donate to their favorite charity, between $0 and $10. Some had been asked to write essays about their moral failings -- they had to use words like ``greedy'' and ``selfish.'' Others were asked to write about their own goodness -- they had to use words like ``generous'' and ``kind.''
People who had been primed to see their ethical failures gave much more money (an average of $5.30) to charity. Those encouraged to feel good about their behavior gave an average of $1.07.
Two possible take-aways: First, there is such a thing as too much self-esteem. Second, when our religious, political and cultural institutions encourage us to see ourselves as ``good,'' they may well be making it easier for us to be bad. Might be worth viewing our feel-good rituals with this skeptical eye.
. . . has got Google in a lot of trouble in Japan.
By making old maps available online for comparison with today's satellite images, Google Earth makes it easier to tell who lives in villages once restricted to Japan's traditional caste of outcasts, the burakumin (roughly the equivalent of India's untouchables). As in India, caste prejudice in Japan is officially consigned to the past, but, again as in India, many people make an effort to avoid contact with the modern descendants of the stigmatized caste.
What's remarkable about this story is that Japan's officials, and apparently some burakumin too, are angry at Google. The problem is not the perpetuation of medieval prejudice in the 21st century -- the problem is this damn Internet company reminding us that we live this way.
Isn't Google Earth just doing what it's supposed to do, making more information available to more people? Surely Japan's embarrassment about its prejudices ought to be Japan's problem, not Google's.
My take, which I wrote up last fall, is here. That essay explains why I don't think there are too many demands on our attention in the digital age. I think we feel that there are, because digital information comes wrapped in packages that blink, chime, beep, go red and shout ``Act Now!'' Our media is full of devices that short-circuit our natural abilities to ignore the unimportant.
So we don't have too little attention for the demands of life. We have too much anxiety about attention. Which is good news, actually, because anxiety is an emotion we can master.
Profiling -- using people's apparent membership in an ethnic or cultural group as the basis for subjecting them to a search -- has its defenders, even among mind scientists. Their reasoning is that common stereotypes (of, say, young black men in cities, or of bearded Muslims in airports) are based on what Steven Pinker once called good statistics.
The argument goes like this: Yes, most members of all social groups are innocent -- but if, in group X, 2 percent of people are criminals while in group Y only 1 percent are, then it is a sound tactic to concentrate on X-ers when deciding who to search.
I think this is mistaken because I see no rational reason to assume our cultural categories can solve a non-cultural problem. The important category in law-enforcement is ``dangerous criminals,'' and people should be searched because they show signs that predict their likely membership in that group. As most people in all ethnic and religious groups are law-abiding, then membership in any group is a very poor predictor of criminality. We aren't using them because they fit the problem; we're using them because they're easy to spot and think about -- like the proverbial guy looking for his lost keys under the lamppost because that's where the light is best. Meanwhile, better tools exist, in the form of non-ethnic, non-religious categories -- among them, gender, age, and demeanor.
Two days ago, William H. Press published this mathematical analysis of the question, which comes to the same conclusion: As he puts it, the only effective method for finding bad guys is to spend a lot of time looking ``not under the lamppost.'' Racial profiling, he found, is no more likely than random searches to find the criminals.
Our social institutions are premised on the theory that individuals are rational, about themselves and their choices, if not about the larger world. As evidence mounts that this is not true, what happens to those institutions -- to courts, elections, markets, medical care?
I think a lot will happen. Many of us have no problem accepting the news that we don't really know what we're doing as we make our choices in life. The trouble will come when this account of the mind collides with presumptions that organize our world -- presumptions, for example, that voters, stock traders and shoppers know how and why they make their decisions.
So when John Brockman's annual question at Edge.org turned out to be ``What Will Change Everything?'' I nominated the new models of the mind emerging from behavioral economics, social cognitive neuroscience, and other disciplines.