An Exercise in Problem Solving

“Truth, Justice, and the American Way” is apparently a Superman tag line. I have heard said only for the ironic flavor it conveys. There are people who would pause thoughtfully or even cynically at “the American Way,” but who is going to be against Truth and Justice?

The partisan political world has just had a lesson in the vulnerability of truth because it can so easily be supplanted by “loyalty.” All you have to do to change the behavior of a lot of people is to change the question from “What really happened?” to “Are you with us or not?” The emotional power that each of those questions has makes it clear that they are not going to share space at the top of the salience hierarchy. It is going to be one or the other. After all, no one is in favor of “disloyalty” either.

What happens, then? The way to decide what people are going to do is to see what question they are going to answer. The people who think loyalty is a more powerful question than truth will go one way; people who think truth is more important than loyalty will go the other way. It is not a choice or answers at all; it is a choice of questions.

That is the frame of reference I have begun to use in thinking about the individualism (I call it “hyperindividualism”) of young people and the system stewardship of older people.

So far as I know, there has never been a popular song called “We’ve gotta be us.” Everybody knows the title, “I’ve got to be me.” It gets clear pretty fast if you think of it as a neighborhood. The kind of neighborhood most people would like to live in is scarcely a matter for debate. The people who value what I called “system stewardship” are willing to forego doing things they, themselves, would like to do in order to achieve the kind of neighborhood they want. The people I called hyperindividualists are not.

That means that people who want to justify actions they want to take—they might say “need to take”—point to the value of authenticity. If I feel a certain way, I must act appropriately. To fail to do so is to deny myself. The people who want to live in a neighborhood characterized by social, not personal, values will say that all the behaviors that will enrich the neighborhood should be encouraged and all the behaviors that will not impoverish the neighborhood should be permitted.This problem, when it is looked at from the outside, is often called “the tragedy of the commons.” Each farmer knows what the total grazing capacity of the commons is and each counts on everyone to use their own allotment and no more. But each farmer also knows that just a few deviations will not cause the system to crash. If I and only I, graze a few extra cattle, it will make no difference at all.

But then, continuing to look at the problem from the outside, more and more farmers follow the lead of the deviants and eventually the whole system crashes. The way of looking at the problem I have been exploring in this post is not a view from the outside. I’m saying that what people choose to do depends on what question they think is most important. I have built a modest little polarity featuring the hyperindividualists and the system stewards.I admit that my proposed system doesn’t do much for the tragedy of the commons, but that is because it is built on a limited resource (grazing land) and economic values organized as a zero sum system. The value conflicts we have been looking at are not like that. To cherrypick a few examples from the 2022 election season: the social studies curriculum is not like that; nor is the capacity of the immigration system; nor is the availability of abortion; nor is the damage done by inflation.

The demand of the hyperindividualists is for more tolerance. Many behaviors that might have been frowned on will be allowed if people were just more tolerant. The demand of the system stewards is for restraint or possibly even self-discipline. The hyperindividualists don’t answer the objections of the stewards. They don’t say, “We can show that this behavior will not damage the system.” Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. Similarly, the stewards don’t say, “We don’t approve of your behavior, but it is not going to affect the ability of the system to provide a nurturing and clarifying environment for all of us as a collectivity.”

And in both cases, that case is not made because no one really knows. Given the nature of each value and the consequent nature of each demand, this is clearly not the kind of issue that is going to be solved by determining what the actual effect of a behavior—either expressed or foregone—is going to be. Instead, I think we are going to be drifting back and forth from one emphasis to another based on the inarticulate “sense” that enough is enough or that “that didn’t cause as much damage as we feared.”

I wish those conflicts could be moderated more rationally but I am not going to be holding my breath.

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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