Rambles about Blaming Factor X

I've tried to figure out what it is, in particular, about academe that bugs me so much. I keep harping back to this because none of the answers I've come up with so far really work. I don't particularly mind over-intellectualizing, although I think it can get sort of silly. It's not the meaningless language; I dislike meaningless language, but I'm not French so I don't want meaningful language preserved in stone. It's not the politics, necessarily, since BYU bugged me too, and BYU is far less liberal than where I am now. It isn't the over-analysis since if I were to find fault with that, I'd have to stamp hypocrite on my forehead (as this blog site attests).

It isn't the demand for a broad, generalized, overarching Theory of Everything. Now, this is, admittedly, part of my problem. I don't really believe in one solution to everything: that is, the idea that LIFE all comes down to factor X or personality X or whatever. That's why reading Self-Help books are so depressing. That's why Myer-Briggs is evil (sorry, Myer-Briggs' fans). On the other hand, I am a huge fan of String Theory (or "M" theory) which attempts to bring together quantum mechanics and Newtonian laws into one swell package. (However, to a large extent "M" theory postulates something bigger than itself. It all comes down to X, but X makes everything more complicated. This is how I feel, too, about Mormon theology.)

I think this desire for one Theory of Everything is imprinted into the human psyche. In case you haven't noticed, I'm trying to do it right now: find one over-riding reason why after ten years of non-academe, I still get annoyed at academic institutions. The Theory isn't God (necessarily). Marx and Freud were guilty of doing it and neither of them were pro-God. Evolutionists are guilty of it. (Note: I'm not too fond of Creationists either but my beef with them is a different beef.) People are guilty of it in their day to day functioning. We design stories that account for the memories we picture, the experiences we remember, the stories we've heard. It's called a narrative, an overused term in academic circles but still a good one.

Academics like getting freaked out about the narratives that individuals and nations tell themselves because such narratives are just riddled--riddled, I tell you--with racism and classism and yucky stuff like that. I don’t much care about this side of the issue since wishing that people had pure narratives is like wishing people were dead (i.e., that horrible John Lenin song where he moans on and on about how he wishes there were no nations and no religions, yadda yadda: John Lenin's heaven is my idea of hell: unending, torturous boredom).

What interests me about narratives is the how and the why and the what-for: not the "imperialistic ideology" stuff or Freud or Marx but the individual choices stuff. Free-will is pretty darn fascinating, as the good Vulcan would say.

Which brings us to what annoys me about explaining and constructing narratives. What annoys me is when FINDING X turns into FINDING X TO BLAME.

There's a faint line between the two. There is a line and you can go pretty far down FINDING X until you get to FINDING X TO BLAME but, unfortunately, the two things do seem to seep into each other at some point. And it seems to me that academics automatically go to that point and then waffle around on the line. So while I'm thinking, "Is that really X?" everyone else is wringing their hands over whether it is appropriate or not to blame Caucasian Westerners for EVERYTHING that goes wrong in the World.

In case you were wondering, it isn't.

Sociologists and psychologists seem especially vulnerable here. I mean, if gravity works, it works and you really can't blame it even when a piano falls on your head. And if evolution did work and is working, you couldn't stop it and can't now. But approaches like Freudianism, Myers-Briggs and genetics=personality seem open to blanket statements of supposition. Take genetics--a valid subject, but the minute a conversation veers from "How about those genes?" into "Genetics account for everything," my interest wanes. "Genetics account for everything" isn't that far from "Something [liberals, Republicans, Bush, whites, immigrants, evangelicals, the rich, TV, etc.] is to blame for everything."

Nobody talks about genetics in college because they are still welded to the "environment accounts for everything" approach (but not to Freud because Freud insisted on gender differences, swoon, swoon) which leads us to . . . Marx! Marx is an excellent example of some hotshot who was going to explain ALL THE PROBLEMS IN THE WORLD (which should have been a clue right there) and ended up with a theory which is all about blaming Bill Gates.

The most common arguments made in favor of the FINDING X TO BLAME approach are (1) blaming X gives you greater insight; (2) blaming X helps you solve the problem (whatever the problem happens to be). I disagree with both. My experience with Myer-Briggs is that it ties down personality and behavior to a series of labels: ISTJ. All possibilities get encapsulated into four labels and sixteen personality types: "I did this because I'm a ENFP," like people who try to tell you that they do stuff because they "have ADHD" as if you "have" ADHD like you "have" a virus or "have" Cancer. You don't. Unless there is a chemical imbalance (see your doctor), a counselor will diagnose ADHD based on the behaviors that you exhibit in certain areas in your life. If you exhibit y number of behaviors in p number of settings, then you have a pattern of behavior which the counselor calls ADHD. Counselors have to label you to get paid. Insurance companies insisted some years back that they wouldn’t pay for therapy unless the therapists got together and standardized it--none of this, "I went for three sessions and now I feel better" stuff; they wanted a reason--and they got it. And now people run around saying, "I have ADHD."

But such labels don't really give you any insight into people. They don't explain the actual behavior that resulted in the diagnosis. They don't explain the mentality that goes into those behaviors, the thought processes, the choices, the world view, the religious feelings, the visceral reactions, the environmental factors, the genetic factors, the family factors, the health factors. Instead of seeing one's day to day behavior as something that you, as an individual, create, your behavior becomes something that you watch happen: "Well, look at me ADHDing all over the place, and now I'm going to ISTJ and whoops, there goes a little bit of Obsessive-Compulsiveness."

I'm not talking, by the way, about TAKING RESPONSIBILITY. I don't care, in this context, whether people take responsibility for their behavior or not. Nor am I belittling the compulsions of behavior. For one thing, they help you understand Adrian Monk. Speaking as someone who has exhibited obsessive-compulsive patterns at different periods of her life, I'm not prepared to say, "It isn't real." Well, yeah, it is all in our heads but our heads are all we've got. So it's real. (And that's the point: it's your head. It's your body that you're trunking around. It's yours, whether you like it or not.)

In any case, what I'm talking about is the idea that labeling someone or something or some behavior increases understanding. My opinion is that it rarely does. It can, I suppose, bring one to a plateau of understanding but continual use of the label does not carry anyone beyond that plateau.

Identifying stuff is a huge part of the human experience, and we have this idea that if we could just find the big bad at the bottom of our psyches (or societies or nations), that simply recognizing it would somehow wipe it out. I personally think a lot of "recovered" memories of abuse are examples of this: a desperate desire to explain one's problematic and dizzying life by finding, literally in one's self, the worst thing possible. Oh, it's gotta be that. (Which is why it is nonsense to say that people never believe things about themselves that will hurt them because they will.)

Which brings us back to the Theory of Everything or, to be more specific, the Theory of Human Behavior. My personal take is that genetics are a cushion to free-will. That is, our genes keep us from going crazy by limiting our options to, say, t through z, rather than the entire alphabet. I also believe that our environment provides us with options (although the human imagination makes it possible for us to imagine more). Hence, our choices emerge out of genetics and environment. But at some point, we look back at our choices and we construct a personal narrative (I would guess it starts somewhere in the teen years). The personal narrative can change, sometimes drastically; more often it is refined. We use it to explain ourselves to ourselves. It has tremendous power, much more than either genetics or environment, and it is entirely a matter of individual taste, of will. People are ultimately--and it's an odd argument to have to defend this late in the human game--self-conscious agents of self.

At the end of the book Abyss (which is better than the movie), Orson Scott Card gives what I consider to be the best analysis of why death stinks, not matter what you believe. An alien species lives at the bottom of the ocean; it belongs to that cute, cuddly variation of alien species where they share each other's thoughts and nobody mourns the passing of another alien because the memories live on, yadda yadda yadda. And in the course of the book, a human dies. And the aliens get upset. And they don't understand why they are upset, until one of them—who was exiled—returns and explains: you aren't mourning the human's memories; you've already downloaded those. What you are mourning is the absence of her future choices in our lives; her personality, her individuality, her self is gone from our future. It's a big, hairy, new idea, and the aliens get all excited and save the human's life.

It's a great answer to that overused sci-fi answer to death: "The dead live on in your thoughts." The odd thing is that so many people, even people who believe in life after death, don't understand how Card's argument applies here. We spend so much time insisting that people are not composed of individual choices, when it gets time to mourn their absence (of individual choices) in our lives, we can't. There's no point in mourning the genes; if people were only genes, all we'd have to do is put the dead one on ice and clone him/her. There's no point in mourning the environment; the environment isn't going anywhere. There's no point in mourning a Myers-Briggs' personality type; we can always find another one, there's only 16 after all.

It's odd that we worry about devaluing life through abortion (if you're conservative) or violent TV (if you're conservative or liberal) or the death penalty (if you're liberal), and yet continue to see life as some construct of genetic, environmental, taught, trained, standardized material. At least the Christian Right thinks it is all about sin. Otherwise, if the individual's thoughts and choices and behavior and words are just so much superficial gloss, what's all the fuss for?

CATEGORY: HISTORY & LEARNING

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