Ask a blind midget

Wow.  Woke up this morning having passed a minor threshold, and feeling good about it: by closing the doors on the Lifewriting: Revolutionary Writing class I can step out of “marketing” mode and just concentrate on helping people and having fun for the holidays, with no obligation to “ramp up” again until next year.  Yaay!  We will have a link to a waiting list available soon. But not now.  Right now I’m drinking tea and enjoying my morning.

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“Is it worse to be X or Y?”   That question gets asked a lot, with various psychographic and demographic categories for each variable.  Sometimes it is difficult to find an answer (“is it worse to be dead or insane?”) because there simply isn’t enough data available, and we fall back on individual opinions.  Probably not the best example, but like I said, I’m just waking up.

But I do remember people saying things like: “is it worse to be caught in a sandstorm or a snowstorm?” and the obvious answer was: “I don’t know.  Find five people who have been caught in both and ask them.”

And it became more interesting when people claimed that one group, defined by race, gender, ethnicity, income, age, physical disability, nationality, or whatever, had it worse than another group.  At one party where, frankly, inebriation had become the evening’s thematic core,  “Midgets have it worse than blind people…” was offered as a thesis.  

And I came back with: “why not ask a blind midget?”  I mean, someone with both characteristics would probably be able to tell you which “issue” was more onerous.  I remember the room laughing, and I was accused of being rather nuts, but in rather more scatological and obscene terms.  But it did seem to me that if you asked five blind midgets which was more of a hinderance, and they all agreed on an answer, it would be reasonable to draw a tentative conclusion.

What was interesting was two other comparisons: gay, or female, and black.  I’d heard each  described as being more of a problem.   The fascinating thing that happened  when I said: “well, why not ask ten black gay people which is more painful?” or “why not as ten black women which is more problematic?” was the response.   Some did a kind of Scooby take (ur??) and actually did it.  Frankly, I’d not done the exercise myself, and I was curious what the answer might be (yeah, I’ve done it since that time).   But some got angry, claiming that one couldn’t get an honest answer because, um…well

My, my.    It was rather obvious that someone had a preconceived notion they didn’t want questioned. Or…that they really didn’t care about the answer, they simply wanted to win the argument.    They wanted points for their team, to control the conversation, or shut an opponent down.

It was years before I encountered the formal notion that there are different kinds of argumentation, and that two major divisions are:

  1. Arguing to win.  This is the political arguer.
  2. Arguing to determine “what is true?”  This is the philosophical arguer.

Of course, political folks can be honest inquirers, and philosophers can be dishonest asses, so I’m not drawing a clear line.

But over the years, its been a very useful tool.  The truth is that sometimes it IS good and useful to know which of two life circumstances is more advantageous or limiting. And it seems to me that if you ask multiple people who are in both groups what their experience has been, you have approached truth in a responsible and effective fashion.  There are others, of course: things like objective standards of life span, income, inherited wealth, infant mortality.  Subjective standards like indices of life satisfaction across hundreds or thousands of respondents.

But that’s tricky, because the politicized will tend to argue backwards from a premise, or in this case, to select standards that favor their argument.  Is there an answer to that?  Well…if you have used that standard to extract perspective and you got an answer that defeated your argument in a painful way, I have more respect for your use of it in another context.  (Yeah, this happened to me using World Health Organization standards of general population health like life extension and infant mortality to evaluate the health of blacks in South Africa under Apartheid compared to the neighboring countries.  Oops.)  

Anyway, for those interested in such things, that tactic of finding people who bridge both groups and asking THEM, and actually listening to what they say, has been valuable, and some of the answers I’ve received have stood me well for decades.   Give it a try.

Namaste

Steve

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