Peers and Um-peers

“Peer” is the English language version of the Latin par, which means “equal.” [1]“Umpire” just means “not a peer.” English borrowed nompere from the French but over time “a noumpere” became “an oumpere”—a process I learned just today is called metanalysis. And that is why in English, especially at baseball games, an umpire, who is “not a peer” gets to say which are balls and which are strikes. Pitchers, catchers, and batters may disagree, of course, but they are all peers (equals) and so must defer.

Mariners vs Pirates - June 29, 2016But in the U. S., we live in a time of tribes and there is a squeezing together of people who were once “peers” into a virtually featureless mob of adherents to a common cause. “We” now all hate the same people and love the same people. This is a real problem for someone whose instincts run in the direction of making up his own mind and the role of umpire beckons.

This squeezing of pre-established hierarchies into groups of peers has been an artifact of war for a long time now. Of course, it sound better in iambic pentameter.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother…

So it goes in the famous Crispian’s Day speech in Henry V. These few brave Englishmen did not melt into “a featureless mob of adherents,” at least not in Shakespeare’s treatment of them, but the silos of like-minded political activists do, in fact, run that risk. They read the same sources, subscribe to the same blogs, listen to the same broadcasts and podcasts, and attend the same rallies. The idea that other people might raise questions that begin from another ideological base place is a genuinely foreign idea.

There are two common responses to the well-known fact that some people do, in fact, formulate problems beginning at a different place than yours. The first is that they are wrong. Something—morality or efficiency or sustainability or something—requires the starting point that my tribe and I have chosen.

ump 4The other, the one that comes down on my house, is that admitting that there is more than one starting place is a bad idea because it weakens the tribal bond. And they are right. It does weaken the tribal bond. A person who often says that you can plausibly start at either place really has the burden of justifying this practice to his colleagues. [2] This person is an umpire—a non-peer.

The count is 3-2, last of the ninth, two outs, the bases loaded, and the pitch comes in in the vicinity of the outer edge of the plate. The batter knows it is wide and starts off for first base. The pitcher and the catcher know it caught the corner and head for the dugout pumping their fists. These are two peer groups: the batter belongs to one, the pitcher and catcher to the other. The interest in one call or the other is very strong and their perceptions follow along obediently.

The umpire is in a different place. [3] His job is to say where the ball was, with reference to the strike zone, no matter what the implications are for one team or the other. And now that we have electronic tracking of each pitch, it is worth pausing to admire how good these human calls really are.

That’s not the kind of umpire I am. I am the kind that says that when you start here, the logic of inference will bring you out there. This is the tribe-specific answer to the claim that the event is “really about this.” As I noted recently, I have a special antipathy to “that’s not what it’s really about,” which is, nearly always, a demand that we start the discussion here, where I am, rather than there, where you are. And we should do that, according to this particular device, because “the issue” is “really about” one thing but not the other. Puh-leese!

Here’s an example. A black man jaywalks across a busy street, putting the orderly flow of traffic at risk. The police arrest him. Liberal sources will feature “black man” and “police.” They will not say that this citizen should not have been breaking the law. Conservative sources will feature “lawbreaker” and “police.” They will not say that the man is a member of a small racial minority which is often arrested for doing things that members larger racial minorities are not arrested for. [4] Both of these are true. The pundits at each site will say, with reference to the other source’s emphasis, “but the real issue is.”

In fact, it is true that I, acting as an umpire, am weakening the argument being made ump 7by my friends and neighbors. That is a cost to the issues they hold most dear. If I am going to continue in their company—not to be a member of their tribe because umpires don’t belong to tribes [5]—I need to make at least one other point. Here it is.

Recognizing that other people begin with alternative biases is a good thing for this group. It benefits them is some important way to be continually aware of that. If you are trying to sell an idea, for instance, you don’t start with why the target audience ought to care. We already know they don’t. You need to start with what they already care about and sell your idea as a way to expand the value they already hold.

Here is an extremely local example. I live in a senior center that has just taken a turn away from “homey” toward “professional.” One small part of that change is that the residents receive, at the end of the meal, slips to sign indicating that the charges for the meal are correct and that we consent to have that amount subtracted from our monthly total. These slips are printed on expensive and non-recyclable paper.

Some people don’t like these slips—they are new, after all, and we are old—because they signal the decay of the homey culture. We are moving, they say, toward a more “commercial” and “impersonal” culture. Some don’t like the slips because they are environmentally aware, and hate to waste all that paper. Some don’t like it because the paper is expensive and in one way or another, we are going to have to pay for it.

I don’t have to be a member of any of these groups to know that if I want their support, I am going to have to start where they start. I don’t start with the green group and try to argue that they should resent the creeping commercialism of the new process. Why would I do that? I will start with what they already value—this is non-recyclable paper and there is a lot of it—and point out that getting rid of the post-meal accounting system would save a lot of trees.

I’m not going to make that point at all in my role as umpire. I am going to try to get this group of greens to be willing to keep me around because “beginning with people who have alternative biases” is a really good skill to have. My awareness of the different biases cherished by other people makes me a benefit to this tribe, even though I don’t argue the tribal line. That’s why they should consent to having a non-peer (me) in the group with them.

I feel sometimes like Andrew McPhee in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. He is the designated skeptic in a collection of people called to fight to the very end in a war that is, to McPhee, murky and uncertain. You wonder after awhile why he is there. [5] But Edwin Ransom, the Director, says to Jane Studdock, a new member, “I want you to like him if you can. He’s one of my oldest friends. He’ll be about the best man if we’re going to be defeated [by the forces of evil]. …What he’ll do if we win, I can’t imagine.”

I like being an umpire. I don’t like not being a part of the tribe, but I think that is a cost that going with the position. The deal is that they like to have you around because of what you can do that they can’t do or don’t want to do. They forgive you your lack of enthusiasm for the currently hot consensus because they want you to stay even though you are a pain in the butt from time to time.

It’s really not a bad deal at all.

[1] I can scarcely use the word without hearing the Major General in The Pirates of Penzance singing “Peers will be peers and youth will have its fling.”
[2] I am not counting as “colleagues” the other people who have that same practice. I am picturing a logician in a group of friends, pointing out that the other argument is as logical as ours. I am aware that this logician has colleagues—other logicians—who will applaud (in absentia) what he is doing.
[3] It is not quite as different as is sometimes maintained. Umpires are under a good deal of pressure to keep the strike zone constant. They would be criticized harshly fall establishing a narrow strike zone in the early innings and then expanding it when the game is on the line in the ninth. That means that the umpire needs not only to see where the ball is, but also to remember how he has been calling pitches like that in the game so far.
[4]I know that sounds clunky, but I keep hearing that whites are going to lose their status as “the majority” in the U. S. and I thought I should begin practicing other ways to say it.
[5] Someone is going to cite the Major League Umpires Association, superseded in 2000 by the World Umpires Association as the “tribe” to which umpires belong. There is some merit in that point, but umpires do not live with the other members of the Association, so the problem doesn’t really go away.
[5] Some Lewis scholars think that is adding McPhee to the mix, he is redeeming the story of his own teacher, William T. Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick whom the Lewis men (father and two sons) called “the Great Knock” had no room at all in his life for the Christian faith which was later to be the foundation of Lewis’s life, but Lewis remembered him with great affection and brought him back into the story as McPhee.







About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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