Thursday, March 1, 2012

Playing with Peers

A friend sent me this article, which in my mind represents a really robust, thoughtful kind of conservatism.  Where the author and I part ways is unclear, largely because I cannot tell precisely what social policies his political platform proposes.  (Is he against gay marriage?  Is he against polygamy?  Does he support the US Department of Education? etc.)  I like this article enough to say a few things here about it.

The author recognizes that evolution does not make all human beings equal: men are not women, Westerners are not sub-Saharan Africans, and I am not Bill Gates, Grigori Perelman, or Barack Obama.  This is an important point that often gets the shaft, for reasons that the author recognizes: saying that humans are inherently unequal flouts the Declaration of Independence (at least prima facie) and reeks of the kind of eugenics (and so-called Social Darwinism) whose most famous practitioners were the Nazis.  That the Nazis believed in inequality is unfortunately no reason to doubt (1) that inequality exists or (2) that it is a permanent part of the natural landscape (which includes humanity).  Here I have a point to make, which may or may not agree with whatever it is that the author ultimately wants to say.

What makes people evil and wrong and dangerous is not inequality, but the way they use their inequality.  You and I are different: maybe you are more athletic and smarter, but I was born into a much luckier family.  There is really no way to make our ultimate outcomes different (in my opinion).  My genes will never be yours, and my luck won't be either.  In my world, law exists not to make us similar (taking away my excess good luck and giving me more wit or athleticism--or taking yours away--so that we can be peers), but to insure that we don't use our differences to beat each other up unnecessarily.  You don't get my spot, but I don't get yours either.  You don't get my luck.  I don't get your muscles.  Neither one of us gets to decide precisely when or how we die.  Society works best when both of us are allowed as much freedom as possible to be what God (or nature) made us to be.

This is why I say, let the gays marry.  If it is meant to come to no good end, it will (though how this will happen remains unclear).  On the other hand, if it yields some unexpected benefit, I don't want to stand in the way of that.  Let women do the same work that men do.  If Larry Summers is right about their mental capacity (a big if), then a few really great female brainiacs will be surpassed by even brainier male counterparts.  Big deal.  Society doesn't require the smartest people to be the only ones allowed to study: Marie Curie was an important influence (a vital one), even if she wasn't as smart (by some measurement) as some less famous male colleague(s).  The same goes for women in the sciences today: they are doing important work, even if they aren't the best at whatever it is they do (how do we define "best" here, really?  I confess I find reductive definitions of intelligence unconvincing, but then maybe I am a closet female).  I'll personalize this.  Let me spend 10 years pursuing a PhD in the humanities.  Maybe I will come out with a degree and no job, since the market is small and I am less qualified than many other candidates.  If that is the case, then I will go back to the drawing board.  I will adapt.  I will find or craft a niche where I can use what I have learned in a way that benefits me and those around me.  Maybe I will go back to school and study something else.  Maybe one of my hobbies will take off.  Maybe I will make a lucky investment.  Maybe some friend or family member will lead me to an unexpected opportunity that makes my fortune (not that I am counting on this, by any means).  But I won't wish that my choice to study Greek and Latin had been co-opted by some careful civil servant crunching my test numbers and deciding, "No, you had better go into some other field: I think you belong in secretary school."  If I am to live, it is important that I have some choice in the manner of my life (or death, if that is what it ends up being: if I can steer the ship, then I can also wreck her).  Human beings are structured this way, I believe.  We adapt.  We play.  We discover solutions in unexpected places, often by accident as we goof off.  (Here I put in a shameless plug for Mark Sisson's 2011 AHS lecture on play, which I thoroughly enjoyed.)

Somewhere along the road to civilization, many of us lost our playfulness.  We created rules, inventing people who are "more important" to the community than other people.  Hunter-gatherers, from what I understand, are fiercely egalitarian.  They share everything (food, shelter, sex, play, you name it).  We moderns cannot be so open.  But we can be more open than many of us want to be.  And when we are, we do better work (as individuals and as a community).  More idiots interested in science means that more resources go into science (which then speaks more loudly and intelligibly to the really smart people, who may or may not turn out to be Larry Summers' male brainiacs).  Mistakes give us the chance to learn how to do things better.  Ideally, rules are just useful shorthand helping us to remember past mistakes.  In reality, they often turn into me rigging the game such that I always win and you always lose.  In the end, this rigid approach hurts both of us, when I win a passive-aggressive wife who resents my superior intelligence (ha!), and you--as a homosexual--are left with no honorable place to take your sexual urges.  The really helpful rules, the ones without which we cannot live, are pretty obvious and pretty simple.  Breaking them usually results in death and mayhem (not always in that order).  It is unfortunate that sometimes we become so attached to unnecessary rules that we feel duty-bound to commit unnecessary mayhem when they are broken.  Despite what some people felt (or feel), there is nothing inherently awful or destabilizing about letting black people associate freely in every way with white people (or any other people).  Desegregation was supposed to destroy the world in the old South.  It didn't (though some crazy fools did their best to make sure it did).  Based on the evidence I see, I think the same is true for homosexuals.  Let them play with us.  If they do something really terrible, we can always unleash the beast that so many of us want to set loose pre-emptively.  But they won't.  They know better than to try and rig the game on us the way some of us want to rig the game on them.  Hatred begets hatred.  Suppression begets suppression.  Merciless rules beget merciless rules.  The fewer merciless rules, the better.  The freer play is, the freer we are to learn from it.          

I may not be able to paint as well as you, but that is no reason for me to be forbidden from picking up a brush.  I may not be as successful as you, but that is no reason for me to give up my dreams without even trying to make them real.  You get nothing by stamping on me.  I get nothing by stamping on you.  Fascism doesn't help anyone's game.  

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