Saturday, December 13, 2008

When Ideals Meet Practice

Quite frequently someone gets a great idea that would make the world a better place and they want to share that idea with others and get them to participate because they think that it will greatly improve the lives of all those involved. Unfortunately these great ideas meet the harsh trial of reality and fail because frequently what seems like a simple solution to a problem is just that, too simple a solution.

I used to teach beginning level lab classes in physics and invariably the students who were just getting used to solving problems in physics would encounter something that made doing the labs difficult. They would solve the equations given to them and do the experiment but in the end their results from the calculated equations and the actual observations did not match. The projectile did not fly as far as they calculated it would or something happened in the collision that thew off their data, and when they asked me why the equations did not match perfectly with the observations I would usually say it was because of friction (it was in most cases). It's just that the equations they were using did not account for friction.

When some students realized this they came to the conclusion that if there were no friction then the world would be a lot better. With their beginning understanding of physics they could conceive of perfect engines that were perfectly efficient, cars that could go for miles, easier travel and shipping and all kinds of things where friction decreases the efficiency of a process or where friction prevents us from doing something. Thus they come to the conclusion that a world with out friction would be better off.

Of course when they come to this point in their thinking I would begin to ask them a series of questions to get them to think about the implications of what they were proposing. I would point out the cases where it would be desirable to have less friction, but then I would ask them to think about situations where friction was not only desirable, but necessary. I would ask them about walking and say, "If there were no friction then how would your foot push you forward?" Or "Even if you had a frictionless engine in a car, what good would it be because the tires would just spin endlessly because they need friction to make the car move?"

When the students thought about these questions they would realize that friction was not something that was completely undesirable and just an inhibition to things we want to do, but it was something that was necessary for normal life. In the case of friction it was a simple matter to have the students see the potential problems of eliminating friction, but this is not always the case. There are some things that people observe and want to eliminate because they view them as undesirable, but all too frequently their idea fails one simple question, "How?"

Unfortunately there are even times when people see something they view as a moral and public evil and when they get into the actual practice of eradicating it their method of choice is simply a reclassification of the original problem or a completely new and troublesome problem. This is to say that when ideas meet practice they tend to either create new problems or at least replace the original problem with a very similar one.

If we apply this concept to the noble and worthy goal of ending discrimination and prejudice we frequently run into problems. I agree that this is something good to work for but all to often the methods chosen result in more problems rather than fixing the original one. If we consider racism there are very few who would not say this is a good thing to eliminate, but when it comes to the actual mechanics of identifying and eliminating racism then we very quickly run into problems.

I say this from personal experience as I was once accused of being racist. This happened while I was living in Argentina. I was at the time conversing with a native Argentine and we just so happened to be walking through a trash heap that existed in the middle of the city. While some of the larger cities did have proper rubbish disposal, the citizens of the particular city where I was at simply took their trash to a marshy area that could not support houses and dumped their trash there. The Argentine who I was with asked me if such things existed in the United States. I told him that I had never seen or even heard of this kind of thing in the United States. I went on to explain that the nearest landfill to my house when I was growing up was on the Pima Indian Reservation. Of course this landfill was nothing like the one we were walking though at the time, but in the mind of the person I was talking to he equated the sanitary landfill I was telling him about with the unregulated dumping of trash we were currently walking past. When I explained that it was located on the Indian Reservation he became indignant and called me a terrible racist for dumping on the poor defenseless natives and contributing to their demise. When I protested and tried to explain the truth he would not listen and insisted that he did not want to talk about my racism. With that the conversation ended.

Bringing this back to my original topic, if we are to eliminate undesirable things such as racism then we must first establish what it is we are eliminating, and how we are to do it. For how are we to eliminate racism if people are accused of being racist simply because of the location of a landfill near their house, especially one that was planned and begun when I was in elementary school? Should I be "reeducated" simply because I grew up in a neighborhood that that was predominately white? Am I automatically racist because I was born a White American (some people I have talked to seem to think this, ironically enough)? How do we eliminate racism? Do we discriminate against people because historically people that look like them discriminated against others? The questions could continue forever, but there is a simpler way.

As it is with my original example, that of friction, there is a way to solve the problems. In some cases we do not want to eliminate something altogether, such as friction, as that would make normal life impossible, and other things such as racism we may want to eliminate but are unsure of how with out creating problems, or implicating the innocent. The simple solution to the problem is not social, or political, or even cultural, it is personal. But this is the most difficult of all possible solutions because it requires the most individual involvement of all.

It is striking that almost all of the solutions proposed by politicians, activists and proponents of ideals involve the actions and responsibility of everyone except the individual. Even the movements that emphasize the individual and personal involvement somehow fail to require first personal change and/or require complete personal change throughout. There is nothing wrong with requiring others to uphold a standard as long as you yourself first hold to that standard.

This way when ideals meet practice it is backed by experience and knowledge which will prevent misunderstandings and mistakes. I would not ask others to live a principle I have not first tried to live.


Jared said...

Nice post. :)

James said...

Good analysis. I lived in a segregated town and went to a segregated school and was all the way through my University studies before I even knew that I had done so. Does that mean I am a racist?