When I was fourteen, I attended a summer camp. In between swatting mosquitos and eating bland food and sleeping on lumpy mattresses, we played games meant to teach us something about the complexities of the adult world we would all soon face. One game in particular has always stuck with me, and its lesson in self-awareness seems all the more critical in today’s divisive social environment.
The game worked like this: At the beginning of each round players reached into a large pouch and pulled a random packet of different colored tokens. Players then negotiated trades of tokens. At the end of the round, points were awarded for putting together sets of four of a single color. Some colors were more valuable than others, so player X might trade three green for one gold from player Y, if that gave X a complete gold set.
I don’t remember how many rounds we played, perhaps four or five. Each time, players drew a new packet from the pouch and began another round of negotiation. At the conclusion of the final round, the points from each round were totaled and the group was divided into “winners” and “losers.” First one group then the other was asked to describe their experiences.
Members of the losing group generally lamented realizing they weren’t very good at negotiation, or mumbled something to the effect of not being able to catch a break. More telling, every single one of the “winners” proceeded to describe how their superior negotiating tactics had given them the edge over the others.
It wasn’t until after everyone had spoken that the leaders of the exercise revealed a little secret; only the first round was fair. Starting in the second round, the pouch from which players pulled their “random” packets actually had two compartments separated by a divider. Packets of tokens on one side were rich in high-valued tokens, while those on the other side were not. Players who had done well in the first round were from there on out reaching into the rich side, while everyone else pulled from the poor side.
The point wasn’t to prove that games can be rigged. Everyone knows that. The real point was that no one who had done well realized the game was stacked in their favor. Even after being confronted with the truth, a number of them balked at accepting the idea that they weren’t as superior as they had thought.
The world will never be completely fair or equal. People vary in inherent ability and commitment and aspirations. At any level of opportunity, people who work harder will tend to do better, but it’s time for everyone to own up to the fact that we still live in a society where some people consistently get to pull from the good packets, and others don’t. Until we fix that, those that get the good packets need to own up to their responsibility to help out those who don’t.
Just recently, a further insight came to me. Something I probably should have realized a long time ago.
It's no doubt hard enough for someone who's done rather well to try to accept that maybe not all of that success was solely their doing. They can convince themselves they would have been fine without any help (or console themselves with a Caribbean cruise). I have to imagine it's much more difficult for someone who's struggling, who's never managed to succeed, to accept that their disappointment is despite the fact that they might have had a leg up on others who are struggling--people they may have looked down on, perhaps even convinced themselves are being handed numerous advantages they aren't.
There are many ingrained, institutionalized, biases that favor some groups of people over others--whether by race, economic status, or beliefs. That's not fair and needs to be addressed. But it's downright shameful when those in power direct the frustrations of struggling people toward specific ethnic or religious groups in order deflect from their own culpability in perpetuating that inequality from which they benefit so much.
When I was ten, I had my first and only serious encounter with the police. (Not that others wouldn’t have been justified. I just got smarter.) Long story short, in an effort to stave off the boredom of a hot summer between fifth and sixth grades, my friends and I began to experiment with Molotov cocktails. One friend and I had tested one along the railroad tracks on the north side of town, and when we stupidly returned to the same site for a repeat, we were confronted by someone who lived close by. I managed to convince the man my name was Bob Smith, but when asked for his name, in an act of spite my partner in crime gave the man the name of another of our group that he was mad at. The man let us go, and I thought perhaps the situation was behind me. It wasn’t.
A week or so later, I was in my bedroom one afternoon when my sister came in and told me there was a juvenile officer downstairs who wanted to talk to me. Turns out, the man who caught us by the railroad tracks had gone to the police and given them our “names.” No surprise, Bob Smith hadn’t panned out, but the other name had. And that led the officer to my house.
So, we sat down in my living room, with my father on the couch next to me, while the juvenile officer reviewed the facts as he knew them and asked me a lot of questions. Forty-five minutes later, he closed his notebook and looked at my father. I don’t remember exactly what he said. Something to the effect that he was satisfied I wasn’t a junior member of the Weather Underground (this was 1970 after all). He told my father he didn’t feel the need to pursue the matter any further, no doubt trusting my dad to handle the discipline.
When the officer had left, my father turned to me. Instead of yelling at me, or telling me how stupid I was, he instead gave me my first profound lesson in social justice. What he said was basically this: “Consider yourself lucky that you live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. If we were poor, or black, this conversation would likely have gone very differently. Don’t ever be ashamed of who you are, or where you come from, but don’t for a minute think that everyone in life is going to be treated as well as you will be."
That, and I was grounded for two weeks.
i POSTED THIS IN MID 2021
American democracy has demonstrated an incredible resilience, managing to return to something like “normal” after undergoing various crises—a civil war, presidential assassinations, McCarthyism, Watergate, and so forth. So, it would be easy, and no doubt comforting, to assume that the same will happen as we move past the recent shit-show in Washington. But, as they say, this time might be different, and here’s why:
Scientists describe stable situations as being in equilibrium—with all forces balanced out, so an object/system/organism remains more or less status quo until an outside force disrupts the situation. What happens next defines the type of equilibrium.
If the system tends to correct itself, we have a stable equilibrium. Think of a marble in a large, rounded bowl. It will roll to the bottom of the bowl and stay there because that is where the pull of gravity is balanced in all directions. If you push the ball in any direction, the force of gravity is no longer balanced, and the marble will be drawn back to the center. This creation of a restorative force is called “negative feedback”—not in the judgmental sense, but rather because the feedback in the system is opposite to that of the force displacing the system. If the feedback is at least as strong as the displacing force, the system will return to its starting point.
On the other hand, if a displacement from the equilibrium tends to degrade the system and cause it to seek an equilibrium somewhere else, we have an “unstable equilibrium.” In this case, consider a marble carefully balanced on top of a dome. At the very peak, the pull of gravity is also balanced in all directions, and the marble remains in place. If, however, you nudge the marble in any direction, the forces are no longer balanced. Unlike the bowl, though, the net force pulls the marble away from its neutral point, and it rolls down the side of the dome seeking a new point of balance. This system has positive feedback—the signal from the displacement gets amplified and increases the tendency to displace. (The effect is the same when a microphone gets too close to a speaker.)
So far, American democracy has demonstrated the characteristics of a stable equilibrium. No matter how crazy things have gotten, we’ve always managed to pull through and get things back on track. A lot of the control mechanisms were designed in—frequent elections, division of powers between its branches, and the right to open and free communication. But that may not always be the case. In fact, our political system may be the manifestation of a third type of equilibrium—what scientists call a “metastable” equilibrium.
Metastable systems demonstrate the characteristics of a stable equilibrium as long as the displacement/disruption isn’t too severe. However, there is a “tipping point” beyond which the system becomes unstable. In our marble analogy, this would be the equivalent of a dome with a bowl-shaped indentation at the top. Give the marble a small to moderate nudge, and it will roll back to the center of the bowl, but give it a big nudge, and it crests the peak of the bowl and rolls down the side of the dome. My fear is that this is what we are near to today in American society.
Why the cynicism? As the saying goes, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” Up until about twenty-five years ago, mass communication in this country was truly mass. In the early days, if you wanted to espouse your thoughts to the people at large, you stood on a soap box in the town square and spoke to the crowd. If your ideas were stupid, or too radical, the majority of the audience would boo you off your stage. This provided that restorative force needed to maintain a rough equilibrium. As technology improved, we moved to radio and TV, but the selection of channels was limited, and so the ideas remained mostly mainstream. Journalistic integrity kept news shows on track, and the 1949 “Fairness Doctrine” required broadcast stations to present controversial events in a balanced manner.
Enter the new era. The Fairness Doctrine was abolished in 1987, leading to the rise of channels with narrow ideological points of view (even if they called themselves “fair and balanced”). No longer were the majority of people sure to be exposed to a broad range of ideas. A person of a particular bent can now narrow their information intake to only narratives that confirm their pre-existing opinions. Bat-shit crazy ideas face no opposition in this closed-circuit world. For the worst offenders, fact-checking and confirmed second-sources on “lame-street media” give way to, “People are saying,” and “I’ve heard that,” sourcing. Putative “news” channels fill their evening hours with opinion shows masquerading as journalism. Guest speakers are there either to confirm their listeners’ worst fears, or to be shouted over and berated for entertainment if they disagree.
The mechanisms of democracy that have provided the restorative (negative feedback) forces that have kept the country on track, like the ability to vote out someone who is too extreme, and mass-audience journalism that can expose the worst, only work so well in the new world. The events of the past four to five years, and especially the last six months, are a clear example of us approaching that tipping point, beyond which we slide into an unstable mess. The end result is an abandonment of the historical equilibrium in search of a new (and totally unknown) one. Germany saw this in the second quarter of the last century. Perhaps America too has to go through a similar paroxysm before those that blindly follow cult-like leaders realize that such demagogues—Napoleon, Marx, Hitler, Mao, Idi Amin—tend to lead their countries on paths to self-destruction.
Don’t get wrong. There is no progress without change. An overly stable equilibrium is not necessarily a good thing. An organism that fails to evolve eventually dies as the environment changes. Politically and socially, much of the “restorative forces” that have driven stability have also preserved what’s wrong with our society for the benefit of those that had the opportunity to be part of its design. Things like the abolition movement, women’s suffrage, child-labor laws, civil rights laws, and the EPA never would have come about without disruptive forces shifting the system to a new (and better) equilibrium. That said, it is imperative that disruptive change be goal directed and well-thought-out. Smashing a broken watch with a hammer rarely realigns all the pieces into anything that will remotely resemble a time-keeping tool. The growing sentiment to “blow up the system” because “anything would be better than this” is extremely dangerous.
The big question of course is whether we’re still approaching the precipice of instability, or if we’ve already crossed it.