Sunday, April 3, 2016

The solution defines the problem—an observation about ideological wingwalkers

Yesterday Emma and I met a few friends at a bar, and "the personal is political" came up briefly. Several of us dislike it—my take is it rejects the idea that politics is an attempt to find what's best for the polis, the community, and instead says self-interest is all that matters.

One friend, a capitalist feminist, defended the saying and, as an example, claimed the disproportionate number of positive female role models on television is a political issue. I suspect our other friends saw that the conversation could go no place good from there and changed the subject before I could ask the next questions:

If the problem is political, what political solution do you suggest? What laws would you pass to address sexism on television? Would you enforce gender quotas for characters? For the writing staff? Both? How would you use the political process to solve this social problem?

I first noticed the disconnection between claims about problems and solutions with anti-racists who insist certain problems are racial while proposing solutions that have little or nothing to do with race. My favorite example is #BlackLivesMatters' support for Campaign Zero, a 10-point program that I agree with, which has almost nothing to do with race because its creators realize, I suspect, that the problems of police abuse have more to do with our militarized police and the way our society treats poor people in general than it does with the ways racist cops treat black people.

And then I thought about how advances in science often come with attempts to make them compatible with religion. Naturalist William Paley came very close to understanding evolution before Darwin, but Paley's faith made him fit his observations into a theological context.

I can't remember who told me that in relationships, humans are wingwalkers—like performers on airplanes who walk out on the wings, we don't let go with one hand until we're sure the other hand has a firm grip. Humans are wingwalkers with ideas, too. We come up with a theory that something is racial or sexual or religious or political, and then we find a solution that works, and we cling to the idea that our assumption about the problem is still true even when the solution has no connection to our assessment of the problem.