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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 1/12/13

You Know The Drill, And That's The Problem

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It doesn't matter what the issue is -- gun violence, government finances or social welfare programs... -- the situation is the same. Each side watches in disbelief as the other prepares to destroy the world, while they selflessly prepare to save it. Neither can afford to let the other win. Stalemate. And it all comes down to a matter of belief.

Not faith, mind you, belief, because you can't solve a problem unless you first believe it exists. And that's where we run headlong into the elephant in the room: our combatants are under the mistaken belief that they both live in the same world. They don't, because they don't share a common basis for experiencing it. In the case of gun violence, for example, one side believes it's purely a gun issue, and the other believes it's about violence. Since they don't agree on the problem, they won't agree on the solution. So, which one is right? Neither, really.

And yet, even if both sides could agree on the problem, their beliefs about what caused it would still preclude a solution. From infancy, we learn to see the world in terms of cause and effect. Push something, and it falls over. Even if there are multiple causes for something, most people will stop looking once they've found the first one, regardless of whether those causes cascade, like an avalanche, reinforce one another, like a collusion of hit men, or both. Eliminate one rock from that hillside, or nab one of those hit men, and the results would probably be the same.

Time and time again, the response by government to an act that causes physical, emotional or financial harm is to pass a law or write a policy proscribing that act or something that was used to commit it. So, for example, if a particular weapon was used to kill people, or even to attempt to kill them, that weapon is singled out in a new law intended to prevent a recurrence. Even if that weapon was a pair of shoes. The logical implication is that any weapon that has not yet been singled out in this way is therefore okay to use in the next rampage. Like hiding the explosives in your underwear instead of in your shoes. All that is accomplished by enumerating the means to commit a crime in a law or a policy is to induce the next perpetrator to be more imaginative. It does not address the problem. Just ask anyone who lost their life's savings to the ingenuity of well-paid and well-regarded sociopaths in the financial sector.

So what can we do? In the short term, we could start listening to people who are already practiced in analyzing complex problems. For example, since laws are logical statements intended to describe things in great detail, they could be vetted, while they are still bills, by people who write and test software for a living. This could even be done without cost to the taxpayers by putting the text of all bills onto a legislative wiki, and then acting on the comments. But this would only work if the people were allowed to become a formal check on the passage of bills. As things are now, bills are often crafted by the very people they were intended to restrain, people who have no incentive to write them effectively. Simply pointing out that the bill has holes you could fly a starship through would not stop it from becoming law.

But there's something far more insidious at work here, something that an awful lot of us learned as children. You know the drill, and that's the problem. The drill is a set of answers or procedures that we're trained to parrot or perform when we're asked certain questions. Those questions could be mathematical or theological, but the point is that because there's one formally-approved answer, if you know it, you don't have to think about it. Once we've learned the catechism, we're tested on our ability to supply those answers on demand, rather than our ability to understand the problem and offer a reasoned response. And because only the answer matters, all we need is one easy-to-understand way to get there. For a kid learning math, that could be the multiplication tables, and the traditional methods of doing arithmetic. For a legislator engaged in budgetary negotiations, it could be refusing to accept any rise in taxes. Alternative ways to reach the answer is considered not only irrelevant, but a waste of time and money, and alternative answers are unthinkable.

When I attended technical college forty years ago, one of the instructors had a very precise method of grading papers: he gave 80% for the answer, and 20% for the work. But there was a catch: he assumed that if you got the answer wrong, you must have done the work wrong, so you got nothing. It didn't matter if you had developed an ingenious method of solving the problem, but made a stupid error along the way. In fact, if you actually did invent one, he wouldn't even have noticed. All that mattered was the answer. Another instructor that same year had a very different approach: he gave 50% for the facts, and 50% for understanding the how and why of things. It was a microcosm of diverging approaches to education, a struggle we're still dealing with today.

We now have an entire government enforced educational strategy based on teaching only what's needed to pass the test. We rate the teachers on how well their students perform on those tests. We even fund the schools based on this metric. The whole idea seems to have been the product of some MBA's warped and inappropriate application of a practice that improves the profitability of a business to the 'business' of educating children. Except that the point of schools should not be to make a profit, but rather to help create well-educated citizens who are able to think for themselves. You know, all that stuff about a well-educated citizenry being essential to the proper functioning of a representative democracy. Government is not a business, and children are not products.

Which brings me back to our stalemated negotiation. A large contingent of legislators have been suckered into subscribing to one drill or another, so when they are presented with a decision to make or a problem to solve, they turn off their minds and parrot whatever they've been trained to say. When they do this, they are not considering the merits of the bill or the needs of the people it was meant to affect. Instead, they are engaging in dereliction of their duty as representatives of the citizens who supposedly elected them. If they've been seduced  by campaign contributors to look the other way, then they are guilty of taking bribes, and should be treated as such by the laws that are supposed to apply to everyone equally.

But more importantly, how does this practice of inculcating people in well-trod patterns of speech, thought and behavior affect society as a whole? Who does it benefit? I'd place my bet on whoever profits from the decisions that are made as a result of this training. How about you?

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Ever since I learned to speak binary on a DIGIAC 3080 training computer, I've been involved with tech in one way or another, but there was always another part of me off exploring ideas and writing about them. Halfway to a BS in Space Technology at (more...)
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