Softball Questions

I attended a meeting this week at the senior center where I live. The goal of the meeting was for each of the principal administrators to give a report of work being carried out in her or her department. It wasn’t an impeachment hearing; just a routine report to the residents. There was a time for questions after each of the reports and there actually were questions after some of them. They were, in most instances, question intended to clarify some minor element of the report. [1]

While this was going on, a woman in the row behind me muttered, “These are softball questions.” In this essay, I would like to consider two questions.

  • The first is whether these were, in fact, “softball questions.”
  • The second is, should they be softball questions or, to ask the question in a more pointed way, should they have been hardball questions.

What is a softball question?

The direct meaning of the expression is that it was an easily answered question. Also, probably, an easily evaded question. The Director of Marketing, for instance, was asked how long the waiting list is for people who want to live at Holladay Park Plaza and she gave the answer.

I think that was a softball question in the direct sense of the term but the expression is softball 1generally used in disparagement. “It should have been a hardball (difficult) question, but instead, it was just a softball (easy) question.” As you can readily see, this gets us into much more difficult territory. In order to know whether it was a “softball question,” we need to know whether it should have been a hardball question.

And it gets worse. Clearly, it is the assessment made by the user of the word that matters here, so if I had had the chance, I could have asked, “Why do you think hardball questions are the most appropriate ones in this setting?” [2]

And it (probably) gets even worse than that. She probably meant not that this particular department head should have been asked hard questions, but that “they,” the administrative staff, should as a matter of practice be asked hard questions. If I am right about that, then the real scenario involved an alienated or angry resident and an administrative staff that is thought to be unresponsive or devious. And THAT would be why “softball questions” are such a waste of our time and “hardball questions” are always more appropriate.

Hardball questions

The metaphor calls for a little understanding. Baseballs (hardballs) are harder than softballs and they are thrown faster. Softball pitchers range from 70—85 miles per hour. Baseball pitchers get over 100 miles per hour. The point of the metaphor is that getting hit harder by a harder ball would hurt more.

And so it would. But now we have arrived at the point where we can ask why the hardness of the ball and the velocity of the pitch should be defining elements of a question. A question could be categorized in other ways, certainly. Was it founded on a realistic understanding of the situation, for instance.

As a legislative assistant in Oregon, I got a routine Friday afternoon call from a constituent [3] who persisted in asking why “the government” was spending so much money on military hardware. I told her that I thought it was a real shame that the U. S. was doing that, but that I worked for the state of Oregon, one of the least militarized states, and that we were definitely not spending money on military hardware. “That’s just like you guys,” she said, “always shifting the blame.” By “the government,” she meant “you guys,”—they say :”you lot” in British films—including me and she was not dissuaded. Her question was not, however, based on a realistic assessment of what the government of the State of Oregon did.

abate 1We might ask of a question, rather than asking about hardness and velocity, whether it had a useful notion of the causes of the event in question. Holladay Park Plaza is going to have to spend a substantial amount of money replacing its heating and cooling systems. If that was caused by sabotage, we need to know about that; if it was caused by the gradual deterioration of the present system over the last 50+ years, then we need to know that. It isn’t that the sabotage idea is harder and therefore more appropriate, it is that it misattributes the cause. The virtue of the explanation that the system is old and needs to be replaces is not that it is a softball question, and therefore inappropriate, but that it correctly attributes the cause of the problem and sets us up for appropriate action.

If this were a pitched battle—the beleaguered residents against the oppressive administrators—you could make some case for hardball questions. But if, as I suspect in this case, it is an alienated or angry resident who just wants “them” to get hit by a pitch, then I think asking of a question that it be potentially hurtful, is really not a good enough reason to ask it.

[1] I know mine was. Dining Services recently began to offer Open Table as a way of making reservations in the dining room. I like the new service very much, but it is irksome to fill in the same information time after time. “Is there any way,” I asked, “to have the basic information filled in automatically.” There is, it turns out, and I will do that.
[2] That would not have been well received, I am sure, and I am also reasonably sure that the woman who made the complaint did not know why she thought more difficult questions should be asked—in which case, she would very likely have told me to mind my own business. But I beat her to it; I minded my own business before she told me to.
[3] Legislative assistants don’t actually have constituents, but they work for elected representatives who do and the usage simply spreads through the office to that secretaries are said to have “constituents.”

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First dates and last dates

“Your subscription has been successfully adjusted.”

That’s the response I got when I “unsubscribed” from a site called Trip Trivia. [1] For some reason, it made me think of my early dating years. [2]

There were girls I wanted to “go with” who, after a brief experience with me decided they would rather not. That was when I got this kind of message. I dated some very nice girls, but none of them had the generosity or breadth of mind—to say nothing of the vocabulary—to tell me that my dating requests had been successfully adjusted.

It’s hard not to be happy about succeeding. I wanted to do something—stop some of the clutter in my inbox—and they told me I had been successful.

On the other hand, “successfully adjusted” doesn’t quite capture the flavor of “I really wish you would stop hanging around and asking me for a date.” It works the same way, I have to admit. Her relationship with me has been successfully adjusted in the sense that it has been decisively ended.

On the other hand, Bette successfully adjusted our early relationship when she found my first two emails to her—both of which were celebrations of our first date—in her junk email box. Her spam filter had looked at my authorship and found it unfamiliar. Bette successfully adjusted my subscription by changing the spam filter so that my emails to her got through. [3]

[1] The word “unsubscribe” is in quotation marks because I didn’t ever subscriber to it.
[2] For those of you who don’t know me, the early years were my late teens. I had to go back to it in my late 60s.
[3] I can’t help thinking of Ellis Lacey, the principal character in the film Brooklyn, who, when asked for a first date, said yes for two dates on the grounds that the first one might no go very well.

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Bible/Anthropology 201

At Holladay Park Plaza (HPP), where Bette and I live, [1] there is a set of electronic bulletin boards, telling what is going on that day/week.  Each event or activity is identified by a little icon, telling what kind of activity it is.  I have been a difficulty, I am afraid, for the people who maintain the e-board.

I am teaching a class called Bible 201. [2]  What kind of icon should be put on that 201activity?  I put a lot of thought into what to call the course, but I confess that the icon problem never occurred to me.  And I am sure it did not seem to be a problem to the Director of Resident Life either, the person who had the responsibility of choosing the icon.  Yesterday, the day before our final session, the icon was changed and no questions were asked.  I call both of those good outcomes.  This is the official “spirituality” icon.

As I got to looking around for potential members for this class, I was surprised to see that a number of people showed up who have no recent contact with the Bible at all.  What is it that interested them and why did they come?  And here is the official “intellectual” icon.

201-1These people had had some early contact with Bible teaching.  For some, it was toxic and ridiculous and they got away from it as quickly as they could.  For some, the teaching was sentimental garbage and they left it behind as they developed minds of their own.  Some had once been part of a practicing community (Christian in the very broad sense of the term) and had noticed that the church’s practices fell well short of their proclamation, branded the whole enterprise “hypocritical” and discarded it as a shameful part of their past. [3]

So Bible 201 is not and should not be a course about living as a Christian.  It ought not be about God’s plan for you or how to apply the implications of Paul’s teaching to our daily lives.  It ought not be apologetic in the old “giving a reason for your faith” sense of the term.  These people have had some brushes with Christianity in their past and they want a chance to reconsider it as their adult selves.  This is an oddly removed kind of reconsideration.  Think of it as if a musician had had a passionate love of Chopin when he was young and tossed it all overboard when his professor of music appreciation told him it was a bunch of sentimental hogwash, but now as an adult and an accomplished musician, he wants to go back and look at Chopin again.  It’s more like that.

Anthropology 201

This is the way I am thinking of it now.  I am an anthropologist and I am conducting an extended study of some “primitive tribe” or other.  The members of my class used to be members of that tribe and have never been able to shake a continuing interest in it.  They want to go back as outsiders and study this tribe the way only outsiders can.

This is a lot trickier than they supposed when they signed up for the course.  The course requires that they study as “informants” people who have continued on the path they themselves have left.  When they ask an informant, “What is in the Sacred Grove?” they get the same answer they were taught as children and which they eventually rejected. But their job today is not to evaluate it at all, but to understand it.  Their job as anthropologists is the see how a belief like that informs and constrains the lives of the “natives”—the people, that is, who still live there.

201-3One of the people they will need to consult is the local shaman.  In practice, this is some Sunday School teacher they encountered who was too dogmatic or too sentimental in addition to being hypocritical.  They will need to sit down with this shaman and ask the questions that bear on what that shaman’s experience was.  Why did she teach them what she did about the sacred texts?   Why was she so adamant about refusing their own youthful interpretations?  Did she not see that the questioning of the young was a necessary part of becoming full-fledged members of the tribe?

And as you read those questions and as you feel the heat building in them, I would like you to spare a kind thought for these students who know that their job as anthropologists is not to be the children they once were, but to be the scholars they are learning to be right now.  Their job, if I can risk using such familiar language, is “not so much to be understood as to understand.”  And that is not the demand of sainthood; it is the demand of anthropological professionalism.

That makes it all harder, I suspect.

So what?

So this class is a class with a lot of wow and flutter.  It goes along in perfectly regular intellectual tracks for a while.  The Jesus of John’s gospel uses an unusual rhetorical style and to make it work, someone in the dialogical setting needs to be the patsy.  In John 3, it is Nicodemus.  Every one of Paul’s letters needs to be understand in the context of the church he was writing to.

And then it suddenly swerves and someone says, “How can you say such a thing?”  And then stories come out about the way they have always understood that passage.  For some, understanding it is like giving away a much-loved teddy bear.  For others, it is like finally getting the blinders off.  For both, it is no longer the “perfectly regular track” it was a few minutes ago.  It has gotten suddenly personal and that is going to have to be taken care of in some way before we can get back to the careful scholarly study of texts they first learned about from an uncomprehending Sunday School teacher.

I would like to stay with the anthropology metaphor if they will let me.  Whatever experience we have had with the sacred writings and the cultural practices of these “informants,” our job today is to understand why this all works for them and to ignore, for the moment, whether we can any longer make it work for us.

To my fellow anthropologists, I say good luck.  I wish you the understanding your careful study can bring you.  To my fellow informants, I say “sin boldly.”  Tell the truth you know as a member of the tribe and pay no attention to the uses of your truth the visiting anthropologists make.  Just as they have their job to do, so do you have your job to do.

And may the Spirit that lives forever in the Sacred Grove be with you.

[1]  It’s a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) in NE Portland, Oregon.  In a month, we will celebrate the third anniversary of our move here and I feel like I’m just starting to get the hang of the place.

[2]  There are reasons for a title like that, but the short version is that I wanted to suggest “readily accessible” (200 level course) and “academic” (college course number).  And, of course, the subject (Bible).

[3]  This last group has developed hypocrisies of their own, of course, but having your very own forms of hypocrisy is surely better than falling in line with the hypocrisies of your youth, isn’t it?  The current ones might be called idiopathic hypocrisies, if we were to get really serious about giving them a name. 

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The Prodigal Son–for Women

My friend, Fran Page, gave me a gift last week.  In the narrowest sense, it was just the gift of an astute observation.  She said that the story of Martha and Mary was the story of the prodigal son—for women.  I love that idea. [1]

The story of the father with two alienated sons is an analogy.  It is a little bit breathtaking to say that the story of Mary and Martha can best be understood as an analogy to that analogy, but I don’t think it is crazy.  Let’s try.

So Martha is the Elder Daughter.  If one of the sisters was going to say, “All my life I havealso prodigal 3 worked like a slave for you,” (as the Elder Brother said) it would be Martha.  As in the story of the Prodigal, everybody winds up happy except the Elder Brother.  Jesus is happy because he is a guest in a nice place provided by friends;  Mary is happy because she gets to listen to Jesus. [2]  Martha is not happy.  Why?  Note the elder brother on the right.

Here are two views.  Jesus says that Martha is anxious and troubled.  The narrator says she was “distracted.”  My mother used to use the word “fussing” for that combination of dissatisfaction and busy-ness.  To understand why this was not the best choice, we have to wonder what was wrong with it.

Jesus says that Mary has chosen “the better part.”  Is the better part sitting and listening?  Not in general, no.  Sitting and listening is not “better” in any general sense than preparing and serving food.

also prodigal 4Let’s come at the same question another way.  When Jesus said, “You can help the poor any time you want because there will always be poor people in need of charity,”  (Matthew 26:11) what did he mean?  He meant that the action that had just been taken on his behalf was an exception to the normal run of events and was perfectly appropriate as an exception.  Jesus was very big on exceptions.  Note the elder sister on the left.  See any similarities?

When the Pharisees complained that Jesus’ disciples did not fast, neglecting an important spiritual practice, Jesus said that this time with the disciples was an exception to normal practice and that they would return to fasting when that time was over.  Jesus was very big on exceptions.

Martha is not attracted to the exceptional character of Jesus’ visit in her home.  It is a nice thing, of course, and everyone ought to share in it, but the work still has to be done.  Martha is making the case for equity.  There are two sisters and X amount of hospitality work to do.  Mary’s share is X/2 and she is not doing it.  Notice how un-exception-friendly X/2 is.  If hospitality involves 50 tasks, Mary’s share is 25. [3]  It’s always 25.  No matter who is in the parlor, Mary’s share is 25.  Equity demands it.

The rub, in this understanding of how to value different opportunities, is that it puts the demands of the system ahead of the opportunities of the moment.  The system is always there and Jesus is not.  Martha’s system is “equity.”  Make my sister do her share.  Jesus has nothing to say about equity as a principle, but, as I noted above, he was alert to exceptions.  “Martha,” he said, in effect, “do you really want to put the demands of equity ahead of this one chance for us to be together?”

Now…you have to be careful about exceptions.  Exceptions are an easy way to get out of your share of the work.  Exceptions are notorious in the way they ruin otherwise perfectly sensible diets.  “Well,” you think, “I don’t indulge ordinarily, but just this once.”  Exceptions are not a good way to organize a life and an even worse way to honor the ongoing demands of relationship.

Martha’s case was probably—there is no reason Luke would have told us about this— that it shouldn’t have been necessary to choose between the two.  We do all our work early and then we both sit down and listen to Jesus.  But for whatever reason, the work did not all get done early, and the choice had to be made.  Martha’s commitment to equity between the sisters and to the priority of the duties of housework can only mean that Mary would have to leave Jesus and go to the kitchen along with Martha.  That would have been fair.

But “fair” is not the top of the food chain when Jesus is a guest.  Willingness to set the routines aside to do what is best right now; that’s the top of the food chain. And that is what I think Jesus meant when he said that Mary had chosen the better part. She recognized the surpassing value of the moment and sacrificed the routine demands of hospitality to it.  I don’t think he meant that chatting in the parlor is better than working in the kitchen.

also prodigal 2

What does this way of looking at the situation require us to believe about Mary.  Is it possible that she routinely skipped her share of the work?  Of course.  In fact, I would guess that it is more likely than not. [4]  So we don’t need to say that Mary, whose work ethic was otherwise exemplary, chose just this once to skip work to listen to Jesus.  She might have been regularly delinquent.  In fact, I think that accounts, in part, for the level of Martha’s exasperation which was so great that she intruded on a guest to ask him to settle a family squabble.

I think all we are really required to understand about Mary is that she got it right this time.  There will always be housework, just as there will always be poor people, but sometimes you have to say what is important and what is not.

[1]  There is a broader sense, though.  She knew that I had been working with the story of the prodigal son (s) in a group for which I had high hopes and that the discussion had not gone very well.  And she knew that I had just heard the same sermon she had about the meaning of Martha’s relentless work ethic.  So tying the two together and handing it to me with a bow around it was a very good thing to do.

[2]  There are some, I know, who think that Mary is just hiding out in the parlor so she doesn’t have to be in the kitchen, but I think that is ungenerous.

[3]  I am a member of the Subtrahend Society, which specializes, as you would guess, in subtraction.  In our society, we would get at the 25 by subtracting Mary’s share (25) from the minuend (50).  If we did that, it would give us the chance to say that if Mary really wanted to make a difference, she should have done her work first.  It’s an arithmetic joke.  It doesn’t really have to be funny.

[4]  Mary was a second child and I know quite a bit about second children having been one.

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And thank you, Mr. Tweedly

My niece, Lisa Hess (thank you, Lisa) reignited our family’s love of Stan Freberg’s humor this week.  For her, the occasion was a meeting with women writers in which she was supposed to “share something that shaped my love of language.”  Somewhere in the process of thinking about what she wanted to say, she remembered “Elderly Man River,” a skit Stan Freberg and Dawes Butler performed on Freberg’s radio show in 1957.  I was 20 in 1957 and this is exactly the kind of humor that lit me up.

I had no idea when Lisa sent the message around the family that so many of us are stillScreen Shot 2019-07-21 at 5.25.07 AM.png fans of Freberg’s humor.  It is the bringing of that current appreciation into the light of what we all know together that I had in mind when I said that Lisa had “reignited” the family’s love for Freberg.

So first, why don’t you just google “Elderly Man River” and listen to the skit.  I’ll wait.  It only takes a couple of minutes.  And a full text script comes with it—even if there is a mistake or so in the transcription—so you can see it, too.  Daws Butler (left) and Stan Freberg, celebrating their achievement.

Today, I want to take the premise of the skit seriously.  I know that isn’t funny, but it what I have been thinking about since I got done remembering how funny it was and how long I have loved it.


This show ran during the McCarthyist 1950s and that is a fact Freberg was aware of.  In The History of the United States, Volume I, he gives this line to Benjamin Franklin: “Oh sure, you sign a petition and forget all about it.  Ten years later, you get hauled up before a committee.”  “A committee,” as everyone understood at the time, was a reference to the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) which was a major part of the McCarthy jihad.

Tweedly is a jab at McCarthyism.

The status of the citizens’ radio committee

Here is how he establishes his position of authority and how he multiplies the occasions for its use.  First, “I am the censor from the citizen’s radio committee… I must okay all the material used on your program here, and I think the best method is to just sit back here and interrupt when I feel it’s necessary.”  Daws Butler, voicing Tweedly, puts an extra emphasis on “I feel” but it isn’t really necessary.  It is offensive enough as is.

Then, second, he says, after stopping Freberg for forgetting to say thank you, “ Politeness is an essential in radio programming. Your program goes into the home, we must be a good influence on… children.”  Butler achieves a lovely tone as he pronounces “children” as “chilled wren,.”

Third, he objects to the word “old” in Old Man River as Freberg starts to sing it, because “the word ‘old’ has a connotation that some of the more elderly people find distasteful. I would suggest you make the substitution, please.” [1]  Notice how the criterion for Tweedly’s objections has expanded, and with it, Tweedly’s power,.  First it was the good example of politeness (formality, really, but let’s not quibble).  Now it is the possibility that some old person might be offended by the use of the word “old: in a song personifying a river.  

Finally, when Freberg gets to the second line, “He must know somethin’/But he don’t say nothin’” Tweedly objects to the enunciation (no g- on “nothin’” and to the grammar “don’t say nothin’.”  That’s really net new territory for Tweedly.  But this time, Freberg objects.  The way he is singing the song is “authentic”

But that’s authentic. “Somethin’,” “someTHIN'”. That’s the way the people… talk down there.

OK, it may or may not be authentic, but authenticity is a valid claim.  To sing a song the way it is supposed to be sung is important.  It adds to the accuracy of the anthropologist’s account, to the credibility of the theatrical performance, to the evocation of some time and place that is not ours.  Being authentic in performance is important for all those reasons and many more,

Reasons as good as that do not deserve to be swept aside by, “The home is a classroom, Mr. Freberg.”

And Freberg, although he pretends to accept the authority of “the citizen’s radio committee,” and although he flinches dutifully as Tweedly’s buzzer sounds, really doesn’t get it.  It all sounds credible enough when he changes somethin’ to something and “don’t say nothin’” to “doesn’t say anything,” but he comes completely unhinged in the process.  

It is when he gets to the line “He don’t plant taters/ He don’t plant cotton/ and them that plants ‘em/Is soon forgotten,” that it all falls apart.  It is ridiculous, of course, in a black slave work song, to change “taters” to potatoes.  We can understand the substitution in a general way.  But Freberg can’t.  That is why he goes on in the next line to change “cotton” to “cotting” (following the nothin’/nothing rule) and forgotten to “forgotting” following the same rule.

Why it doesn’t work

The thread of understanding that ties nothin’ and nothing snaps entirely when we get to cotton and cotting.  There is nothing left but the frantic jerking about of the man who has been slapped down one too many times.  I know that’s not funny and I know it isn’t fair to the Stan Freberg of 1957, but when I take the skit seriously, it has an awful contemporary feel to it.

I remember a story about a woman in a women’s dorm who had the responsibility for recycling the paper.  Back in those days, you put the white paper in one barrel and the colored paper in another.  Accordingly, she put the signs “White” and “Colored” on the two barrels.  Some witty friend—that’s the way I reconstruct it—wrote a note on the sign that said “Colored” which said, “You mean ‘paper of color.’” I think that’s funny.

The woman who put up the signs was horrified.  She posted an apology so wretched and miserable, so abysmally guilty, that it is hard for me to read it.  “Oh, I’m so sorry.  I really didn’t mean any offense,” etc.  I summarize those in my own mind as, “Please don’t hit me again.”  That’s the Tweedly effect.

When I give my mind over to Freberg’s masterful comic sense, I can still enjoy “Elderly Man River.”  But Tweedly as the Master of Microaggression isn’t funny to me anymore.

[1]  Some of the more elderly people find distasteful.  Hm.  Clearly a microaggression.  Maybe if we had stomped harder on “elderly” in 1957, we wouldn’t have so many microaggressions today.

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Alternative antonyms

English is a language that is congenial to antonyms, but it is not always clear just what constitutes an antonym for a particular word. For instance, what is the opposite of “responsible?”

I can think of two: irresponsible and not responsible. How can there be two? That’s whatantonym 1 this essay is about.

Or take “interested.” Is someone who is not “interested,” disinterested or uninterested? They don’t mean the same thing at all. Or at least, they have historically meant different things. That difference is getting fuzzy.

The key to understanding this dilemma is understanding the referent of the word, “not.” Here are two.

  • There is a meaning of “not” that indicates that the term does not belong on that continuum of meaning at all.  I’m going to call that a Type 1 designation.  It establishes that the term is relevant to the context.
  • And then, there is a meaning of “not” that indicates that it does fall on that continuum of meaning but that it falls at the negative end.  That’s a type 2 designation.  It establishes that the term points to the high achievement end of the continuum.

Perhaps some examples are in order. I have three in mind.


For the first example I chose, one is excused because he should not be responsible. I am reminded of Tom Lehrer’s line about Werner von Braun: “‘Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down/That’s not my department,’ says Werner von Braun..” A more humble sounding and thus more effective defense is the “pay grade.” “It’s above my pay grade,” clearly says that I am not responsible, but implies that I am not responsible because I hold a lower status. That’s a type one understanding.

“Irresponsible,” by contrast, establishes that the person is responsible in the sense that it is a standard he should be held to. But it also holds that he does not meet the standard of good performance. He is responsible AND he has failed in his responsibility. That’s the type two understanding.


“Interest” is a little more complex because “interest” has more meanings. If you have an interest in the outcome of a court case or in the sale of a product, it means, ordinarily, that you will benefit from a favorable outcome. But it could also mean that you are interested in it in some more general way. I might say,  “I’m always interested in what the Court decides to do with political gerrymandering cases.”

antonym 2That distinction has produced distinctly different English words. “Disinterested” means that no matter how interested you are, you are going to be fair. You are going to treat the matter just as you would if you did not have a financial interest. That’s s type two criterion. Interest is relevant and the meaning is clear, but you, yourself, are in the clear.

“Uninterested” means that you really don’t care about the issue at all. It does not mean that you do have or do not have a financial or political stake in the outcome. Obviously, that’s type one. The relevance criterion is just not established.

Criminal Justice

I referred recently to our “system of criminal justice”—an uncontroversial name, I would have thought—only to be contradicted by someone in the group who said that it was not a system of criminal justice. It was a system of criminal injustice.

That’s not a bad thing to say. Once. As a witticism. But this was not meant to be wit; this negative comment antonym 3was an appeal to the other kind of naming—the second kind, where the in- is thought to indicate “not.” He heard me say that we have a system that produces justice for criminals, not a system that was relevant to justice for criminals. So when I said, “justice is what this term is about,” he heard me saying “justice is the result that the system achieves.”

This is a loss to the language I love, I am afraid. It is possible to say as many things as anyone might wish and still keep the frame of reference clear. I can say this is not a matter that bears at all on the matter of criminal justice (meaning #1) or I can say that it does belong to the question of criminal justice and that if fails miserably (meaning #2). I just hope that we keep both kinds of sentences available for people who need two kinds.

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Making people better cogs

Professor Karen Levy has been studying the automation of the trucking industry.  That is why New York Times writer Noam Scheiber interviewed her in preparation for his article on robots in the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island.  Schreiber and Levy are studying the same thing, although the one is looking at highly automated packing warehouses and the other at long haul trucking.

This steady stripping of human judgment from work is one of the most widespread consequences of automation — not so much replacing people with robots as making them resemble robots.

That’s the Scheiber puts it.  People react to this, of course. [1]  Levy tells about a trucker who had figured out how to play solitaire on the computer that the company installed in his cab and observes, “It was a super meaningful way for him to preserve a little bit of decisional autonomy.”

But that’s really where the trouble is, isn’t it?  People need some “decisional autonomy” to reassure themselves that they are human; that they are persons.  The needs of the system—shipping orders at the Amazon warehouse and maintaining the most efficient operation of trucks (and of truckers)—are not compatible with “decisional autonomy.”

robot 1The system works better with a single rationality engine.  The people in the system work better when are able to act as competent agents.  This is one of the major dilemmas of our time and I don’t see a happy resolution to it at all.

Marx imagined a communist utopia where mechanized industry did all the work and the people were free to pursue their own interests.  Little groups of neighbors would form themselves into literary societies and orchestras and so on.  That’s not how things are looking at capitalism’s current stage of development.

Here is a conversation from Levy’s study of truck drivers.  Note the difference between the way the questions are put and the way the answers are put.  “Consider,” she says, “the following exchange I had with one driver about how to get from Oregon to Indiana. [2]

Q: So you don’t use GPS though?

A: GPS? No. Honey, I’ve been driving for twenty-nine years, I’ve been all over the United States, I don’t need a GPS. I don’t even need a map.

Q: You don’t use a map?

A: [laughing] No.

Q: Really?

A: Hell, no. I could drive—where do you want to go?

Q: West Lafayette, Indiana. […]

A: Go around Ontario, Oregon, over to Pocatello. Go south on Pocatello, go to McCammon, that’s 30, it runs—McCammon runs over to 80, I-80, that’ll come out by Little America, take Little America—or the 80, excuse me—run that over to Chicago, right? Get through Chicago, now from there it’s up to you which way you want to go. […] You’d have to go south on 65, down towards Indianapolis. […]

Q:So how do you learn all this [about different routes]?

A: Honey, driving them.

She sums up exchanges of this kind by saying:   “Road knowledge” gleaned from years of experience serves as a clear source of value and professional identity for these workers. [3]

The Future of Road Knowledge

The principle works the same way at the Amazon center.  The workers are doing repetitive jobs and the question is how fast they can do them.  A change in what a worker does that shaves one second off his part of the process is worth a lot of money to the company and Schieber’s piece gives us workers who look at it that way.

Here, for instance, is a “stower” [4] named Jing Zhang:

Mr. Zhang seemed like a state-of-the-art Amazon employee — someone who saw the world through the eyes of a manager. “I try to find ways to make me more efficient,” he said. He figured out how to reduce wasted movement by unpacking the box closest to the shelving unit first, then replacing it with the next-closest box, rather than wandering to and from other boxes.

Seeing things through the eyes of a manager means privileging the system perspective over the personal perspective.  It means the end of “road knowledge” as the trucker would put it and the end of decisional autonomy, as Levy herself puts it.

Shawn Chase has chosen a different way to keep his head in the game.

A picker named Shawn Chase said he motivated himself by competing with a friend in a different part of the warehouse to see who could earn the higher productivity ranking…“Last week I was 41st in the building,” he said. “This week I’m trying to be top 10.”

But, of course, “keeping your head in the game” is not the choice everyone makes.  Karen Levy remembers a trucker “who had figured out how to play solitaire on the computer that the company installed in his cab.  Her comment about this strategy is that it was “a super meaningful way for him to preserve a little bit of decisional autonomy.”

Decisional Autonomy

This steady stripping of human judgment from work is one of the most widespread
consequences of automation — not so much replacing people with robots as making them resemble robots. “The next pod comes, and a pod comes after that, and after that,” Mr. Long told me. “All day till you get off.”

That is Scheiber’s view.  In the meantime, Levy says, “what you end up doing is making people better cogs.”

So there it is.  If the future is the full use of robots, humans will have to find something to do.  Maybe it will be what Marx envisioned.  In the meantime, there will be a mixing torobot 2gether of robots and humans under the direction of the system devised for the process.  This system will have no place for decisional autonomy.  “Road knowledge” will disappear in due time, but long before that, it will be demeaned as a weakness The picture to the right shows a much happier kind of resolution.

Decisional autonomy is easier to insist on when someone is directly taking it from you.  A boss who is a bully will create a complete palette of acts of covert resistance among the workers.  “You can’t do that to me” is the cry of the heart in such circumstances.  But when “the system” devises the kind of interface with robots which strips away all decisional autonomy, it is hard to find someone to receive your acts of defiance.

If you are in that situation, you need to step up and be a corporate hero, like Jing Zhang, or a subversive, like the trucker playing solitaire.  The system is stacked in favor of the robots, so larger and larger numbers of people are going to have to find a way to do without “decisional autonomy.”

We used to call that “being human.”

[1]  I say “of course,” because I am thinking about my time and the people I have known.  It may be that the workers of the future will simply not feel it as a loss.

[2]See her article inFeminist Media Studies. Apr2016, Vol. 16 Issue 2, p361-365

[3]  And it isn’t just the automatic routing that bothers the truckers Levy studied.  “As two drivers put it in regulatory comments:”A computer does not know when we are tired, [f]atigued, or anything else. Any piece of electronics that is not directly hooked up to my body cannot tell me this. … I am also a professional [and] I do not need an [EOBR] telling me when to stop driving … I am also a grown man and have been on my own for many many years making responsible decisions!”

[4]  In the Amazon line, the stowers come right before the pickers.  In fact, Zhang is making an acute comment when he says, “Our customers are the pickers.”  Making things easier for the next agents (whether human or robot) is, in fact, Zhang’s job.

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