Diversity: Avoiding Pain is No Gain

March 3, 2012

I still contend I was not being insensitive — just naive. I arrived on the East Coast in 1973 — freshly out of grad school — having been selected for the one job at John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab I’d wanted more than any other I’d even considered applying for. After my church had canonized a new section of its D&C the previous year that included an emphasis on the need to protect the environment, it was the place where my work could most quickly and directly contribute to mission in the world.

With this job went the then princely annual salary of $12,500 per year, a well-funded, high interest-bearing pension plan to which I did not have to contribute a dime, and three weeks a year of paid vacation. I also had access to a restaurant-quality cafeteria that offered reduced prices for three meals a day if I wanted it — although that might have interfered with the use of the swimming pool at my apartment complex. I could participate in a softball league at a lighted field maintained behind the Lab. There was even a subsidized barber shop. It was like still being on campus, but being well paid to be there.

To put it bluntly, I had more money than I knew how to spend usefully, and when you are the grandson of a depression-era coal miner, you grow up learning to save money you can not spend usefully.

However, finding a wife of my own faith did fall under the “useful spending” category. It was the “next thing on my list” of life goals, even though that was about 100 times harder for an RLDS male than for an LDS male. We are, after all, only one one-hundredth of the size of the LDS in the US, and the East Coast isn’t exactly the hub of today’s Restoration.

So, when my mother tried playing matchmaker by asking an old friend from her WW2 days in Washington if he knew of any “good church girls” in the East, I soon found myself writing letters to a young woman I’d met once when we were toddlers, and who had been responsible for my first case of puppy love. Not long afterward, I was getting on an airplane at Washington National Airport to visit her in the Big Apple.

The weekend date went well, and she then escorted me through the subway and bus system to Kennedy for my return flight to Washington. I got on my flight, feeling really good about how our romance was starting and eagerly looking forward to the next time we could get together. I presume she was pleased as well — we have been married for more than 34 years now — but, while I sat back in my airline seat, she walked miles back from JFK (extreme right of map above) into Manhattan and up into the Bronx (north on map above) because she had no money to pay the return subway or bus fares.

For whatever reason, at the time she was unwilling to share that fact with me when I could have done something about it. But I was totally clueless that someone whom I liked and who seemed to come from so similar a background to mine could be viewing the world from a situation I’d never considered. And I don’t think that, afterward, whatever benefits she got from not telling me directly that she couldn’t escort me back to the airport felt as real as the blisters she acquired. Communication could have avoided problems, but we were too fragile in our relationship for that communication to occur.

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Last week on W&T we had threads here and here that explored some of the issues that hinder discussion in this forum. We were particularly drawn to concerns that some commenters stay away because they don’t want to express viewpoints that others don’t want to hear. It’s a pain avoidance mechanism that seems to make sense at the time, but may not avoid getting blisters from other sources.

It seems to me that there is increasingly a temptation to segregate ourselves from media we find unpleasant precisely as we obtain — through the internet, mobile phones, or cable television — so many opportunities to receive media messages that comfort and reassure us in our existing beliefs. But comfort media has some of the same risks as comfort food. We have to be sure there is enough variety in our media diets to maintain our intellectual health.

Indeed, segregating our media may be a sign, or perhaps even a reinforcement, of separating ourselves into different communities. Is that bad? Well, it depends on the degree of separation we maintain, and what we will do in order to maintain that separation.

This week’s New Scientist magazine contains an interview (available electronically only by subscription) with a “moral psychologist”, Jonathan Haidt, who studies the psychological underpinnings of moral decisions, and how they underline the differences between the moral reasoning of conservatives and progressives. Haidt notes:

“Dividing into teams doesn’t necessarily mean denigrating others. Studies of groupishness have generally found that groups increase in-group love far more than they increase out-group hostility. Dividing into groups increases social capital and trust; it’s generally a good thing. But when it crosses the line from ‘we disagree with you’ to ‘you are evil’, then people begin to believe the ends justify the means and all hell breaks loose… Yes. In my moral psychology class where I work with students for 14 weeks, I always find that the students don’t change their politics – they don’t become more centrist – but they stop demonizing others and actually become interested in listening to the other side… So if you just let one team – liberals, conservatives or libertarians – run everything, they’re going to screw up because they don’t have a full tool kit.”

Let me give a specific example of falling into the “ends justify the means” trap by limiting oneself to only a single media community. Over the last few days, a story has been making the rounds of both progressive and conservative media regarding the leaking of internal memos from a think-tank called the Heartland Institute that publishes research from scientists that question global warming, among addressing other environmental issues from a free-market perspective.

Initially, this release was compared to a reverse-Climategate. But, in this case, it quickly became apparent in discussions in the conservative media that there was something very wrong about this bunch of internal memos. Attention was immediately focused on the head of a West Coast environmental institute with a strong advocacy role for green technology development, Peter Gleick. As a result, progressive media were forced to come to Gleick’s defense — only to be undercut almost immediately when Gleick confessed to being the leaker, and to having obtained the memos by pretending to be a Heartland board member with a new e-mail address in order to trick a junior staffer into sending him Board correspondence.

A story from The Guardian is typical of the progressive backpedaling, but is as interesting for what it omits telling its readers. You have to work very hard to notice, deep into the last paragraphs of the story, that one of the positions Gleick held was as an expert on scientific ethics for the American Geophysical Union. His expertise as a “scientist” — which the story calls him instead — was not in global warming, but in water resources, and in particular, the very scientific ethics he confessed to violating.

But more, the story omits mentioning the most important part of the scandal. Almost all of the memos are legitimate, but uninteresting. They are about as much of an embarrassment to Heartland as would be a leak of Council of Twelve minutes that disclosed that the Brethren were discussing how to increase tithing compliance. There is only one memo that is embarrassing, and that memo is a fraud. It contains no author name, Heartland stationary, or mailing list. It was written by someone who already had access to the other emails in the leak, but who made mistakes about purposes of donor grants and the think tank’s self-image that no Heartland insider would make.

In short, it was written by an outsider pretending to be an insider. Since the memo’s metadata identifies it as being uploaded from the Pacific Coast, far from Heartland’s offices in the “heartland”, well after Gleick received his copies of the other memos, and since the memo specifically identifies Gleick (surprisingly) as one of the major voices in the global warming community, it was this fake memo that focused attention on Gleick as the leaker and as the likely author of the fraudulent memo initially.

So, far from being a reverse-Climategate, this is now being called  a “Fakegate”, more akin to the scandal that got Dan Rather fired as the anchor for CBS news when CBS aired fraudulent documentation regarding George Bush’s National Guard service immediately before the Presidential election. As Robert Tracinski noted in a column entitled “Fake But Accurate Science” a number of major figures in the environmental movement have come to view the environmental cause as important enough to justify lying about. Ironically, this is exactly the ethics-be-damned attitude that the original Climategate scandal seemed to highlight, raising suspicions of the “if-they-will-lie-about-this-what-else-will-they-lie-about” variety.To quote Tracinski:

“Anthony Watts, over at the skeptical Watts Up With That? blog, has been calling this ‘noble cause corruption.’ It’s a term that originated in law-enforcement to describe a dirty cop who plants evidence on a suspect because he ‘really knows’ that the guy is guilty, so he’s doing the world a favor by making sure he gets locked up. It’s the same rationalization: it’s OK to lie, because you’re acting in a ‘noble cause.’ The corruption, of course, is: how do you really know the suspect is guilty, if you have to fake the evidence against him? How do you know your cause is noble, if you keep having to lie to defend it?”

Perhaps in the context of Mormon discussion, we might consider the phrase, “Not all truth is useful.” But, avoiding the effort to expose ourselves to un-useful truths from someone else’s viewpoint may, in the final analysis, be the most un-useful behavior of all.

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2 Responses to Diversity: Avoiding Pain is No Gain

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 3, 2012 at 7:01 AM

    Joseph Smith was warmed against this specific type of behavior. I have kept that in mind.

    “For such are not exempt from the judgment of God.”

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  2. hawkgrrrl on March 4, 2012 at 8:14 AM

    Interesting stories. Going back to the example of your future wife not wanting to share her financial situation, it’s true that disclosure is difficult when one isn’t sure how the group will respond. The only way to overcome that is to not care what others think or to selectively disclose what will be acceptable. I do think there is a lot of “comfort” grouping that happens online, some of which is useful, and some of which probably lulls us into not growing or challenging our thinking.

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