Sunday, December 16, 2007

An Inquiry into What Is Not Right

Perhaps the greatest part of the college experience is being required to take a wide variety of classes. This is the so-called liberal arts education, and it is what separates the university experience from a vocational-technical college.

Sometime from 1991-1992 (I am too unmotivated to hunt for transcripts now), I sat in a Sociology 101 classroom at Paradise Valley Community College. One of the first things that the instructor wrote on the board was "the mores can make anything right."

Intellectually, this really wasn't where I was at in 1991-1992. There was a lot that I didn't like about that class. In hindsight, I probably didn't like that the class made me think thoughts that I wasn't ready to think. That was probably the point.

At any rate, if you look back through the recorded history of the human experience, you can find seemingly endless examples of atrocious behavior (by today's standards) that were well accepted at the time. The mores did make it right.

Years later I was sitting in a graduate psycholinguistics class at Kansas State University. We talked about the given-new contract. This "contract" represents a tacit agreement between speakers (or writers) and comprehenders that stipulates that already known information (i.e., given information) precedes unknown information (i.e., new information). So, something like:

"Given that you know X, you will be able to understand Y."

If speakers do not abide by this contract, then the new information is difficult to understand.

This current post is a bit of a microcosm. I'm getting at a point (trust me), but I cannot just blurt it out. Instead I must set it up.

So, just as our mores can make anything right or wrong, the given-new contract provides a way to set up discourse to expect only certain new information.

Although it is not directly analogous, consider the question: "When did you stop beating your wife?"

Given that question, it is very difficult to introduce any new information that isn't damning.

Later, I had a conversation about the structure of sentences. Just as the mores can sneak a seemingly reprehensible practice into the collective consciousness, sentence structure can sneak information into a conversation. Consider this sentence.

"Politician Joe Schmedly, an opponent of civil rights, introduced a new bill on Friday."

The idea is that the parenthetical phrase "an opponent of civil rights" is relatively less questioned in its current form.

That is, if you had simply said "Joe Schmedly is an opponent of civil rights," then you likely would have been questioned. In that case, it's similar to a mathematical equation. You can -- even should -- question the contents on either side of the equals sign.

Simple mathematical equations do not have parenthetical phrases. But sentences do. So if you sneak "an opponent of civil rights" in the middle, people tend to look at the subject of the sentence, "Schmedly," and the verb phrase "introduced a new bill on Friday," and people think about the relationship between those two. And you tend not to question the parenthetical phrase.

I don't have any data on this, but I am sure that some exist somewhere. I'm not suggesting that the parenthetical phrase becomes a magic bullet of persuasion, but rather, all other things being equal, that information will be relatively less questioned.

A few years after that conversation, I was sitting in a philosophy of science class at Indiana University talking about Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I won't try to do complete justice to Kuhn here, but I will offer an approximation.

In the scientific method, one needs to isolate and control almost everything. Then, slowly, deliberately, and logically, you begin to test things. You must test a single thing at a time if you have any hope at addressing causation.

For example, if you simultaneously change the temperature of the flame and the altitude of the kitchen, how can you hope to say anything meaningful about how long it takes water to boil?

So you proceed slowly. But if you really tested everything, then you would never make any progress. There's just too many things. So you assume some things. You assume them and test the others. But almost no one ever tests the assumptions. We just go on assuming them. And a lot of baggage builds up behind the assumptions over time. (Although it is not germane to today's topic, Kuhn argued that every so often the entire thing comes down like a house of cards and starts somewhat anew).

The mores make anything right because they are pervasive. They are like air. You don't see it. You grow up in a culture, and you hear people talk about things even before you can talk. And about some things -- the mores -- there is never question. There are only declarative statements. Just as the given part of the given-new contract, the mores get built in to the foundation. And you breath them. And they are a part of you. And they are invisible. And you might question them if ever it occurred to you, but it doesn't come up. So you march onward.

Which leads us to the idea behind all of this. Given all of that, it nonetheless deeply troubles me that some things slip through the public zeitgeist. I understand much about the undercurrents of power and authority. Yet the treatment of one human by another human has so often been deplorable.

Sometime after midnight last night I finished reading Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, one of the best gifts that I have ever received.

You should read it, so I won't spoil the facts. However, a central theme is predicated upon the use of electric shock therapy in the treatment of mental illness. And in this sense, I am talking about severe electric shock -- the kind that destroys much about human memory. The kind that changes an entire person so much that Pirsig talks about the before and after as different people. And I wonder:

How in the hell was that ever OK?

You see, I do know something about this. I've read a lot about the work of Scoville and Milner (1957). I know about their patient, H.M. I know the dangers of unchecked epilepsy. One of the journal articles that I've most often read is titled Retrograde amnesia following electroconvulsive therapy (1976). I know that the history of medical treatment is filled with radically foolish and sometimes inhuman (in hindsight) treatments. But sometimes bad stuff such as ECT is needed.

And maybe I read One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest a little too closely. And maybe I watched the recent episode of Cold Case on this topic (Episode No. 102, Boy Crazy) too closely.

But it's not just fiction. It's real. Read A Beautiful Mind and you'll see. Not the fictional film adaptation but the fact-based book. Mental hospitals in the 1960s and 1970s were not places to get especially well.

And, again, it's none of the stuff about which we talked above. It is this almost megalomaniac attitude of mental health professionals that ever made massive doses of involuntary electric shock therapy OK.

I understand the mores, the given- new idea, and assumptions in science. Still, I keep coming back to the idea, "how was this ever OK?"

Early in my life -- and many times since -- my dad has talked about one of his core principles. It is Libertarian in nature, and I am unsure of the exact original source and citation. But my dad always said something analogous to, "you have the right to do anything you want as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others."

It's a pretty good principle. It's one, I hope, that would never have permitted massive doses of involuntary electroconvulsive therapy.

I spoke last week of being effective. Today's post is an extension of those ideas fused with Pirsig's ideas. To adapt another's language, A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

We cured polio. We have indoor plumbing. We have automatic paper towel dispensers (a personal favorite). And all of those things are great. But along the way, we picked up some bad habits, too. And those bad habits are part of the mores, so they don't much get questioned. And if you do question them, you somehow seem like the hippies living in trees at UC-Berkeley.

My grandfather drove a truck for Sinclair refinery. You worked until the work was done. Many days he worked until 10 p.m. Saturday, too. There was no such thing as 8-to-5. He also had a family farm. So he'd get up and milk the cows before he went to work. There was work to do when he came home, too.

And most of us would wilt under that kind of pressure today. And we look back and say that was horrible. And not much of a life. But is the 40-hour week just an extension to a lesser degree? Will my kids be working 32 hours a week and thinking that I had a terrible life putting in overtime at the Sun-News?

It's hard to say today. But I think it's interesting that we rarely talk about it. We don't think about it. We accept it. And some days I wonder whether the time clock is all that different than electrodes placed upon the temples with current flowing. I just wonder. I'm not overthrowing the assumptions, mind you. I'm just asking about them.

Labels: , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In regards to your dad's Libertarian principle, someone once said that the right to swing your fist ended at another person's nose. I don't know if that's an exact fit, but the analogy seems to work well.


12:43 PM  
Blogger Kaz Maslanka said...

I enjoyed your point about mathematics not having parenthetical statements. There is a form of art where we mix the aesthetics of math, visual art and poetry. In these polyaesthetic works we may have a mathematical poem overlaid on a visual image. It just occurred to me that the image works much the same as inserting a parenthetical statement inside the mathematical poem. The image works to shift the context of the poem even though it does so by use of a visual language as opposed to a mathematical one.

On a melancholic note, I wanted to add that my father once told me that his decision to undergo electroshock therapy was the worst he ever made.

12:51 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home