Sunday, December 26, 2010

Don't waste my time (or yours)

There's a certain level of stupidity extant in political/social/societal thought these days that manifests itself in a form of single-mindedness: if you are not with me, you're against me. One finds it in comparisons of Republicans and Democrats (as laughable and contemptible as that is...), "capitalists" and "socialists", Mac users and Windows users (and the everpresent Linux fringe), and the bowl system vs. the playoffs. The concept of finding common ground is a dead one and compromise is seen as the territory of that person not strong enough or smart enough to get what he wants (or should want, if he knew what was good for him.)

Now, when I say "compromise", I'm not suggesting the same route as exhibited by our current chief executive. You see, I, too, am a "sanctimonious purist" in the eyes of the Oval Office. Compromise does not imply capitulation. Standing up for oneself and one's sanity is a natural motivation. One can still live a principled life even if one favors the philosophy of a Life Without Principle (Thoreau; look it up.) But there are limits to all things and those limits are met long before one reaches the current of effluent that passes for public discourse these days. But this is a good example of how we've gotten to the point where the idea of something new and different is derided as unworkable before it's even considered:

A friend pointed me toward a discussion about the nascent social network, Diaspora. As with so many things on the Web these days, the network is being constructed as an open-source alternative to the Facebook monolith. The main topic of this discussion was how Diaspora was going to employ a blank text box for gender, so that people were not restricted to the commonly-accepted "male" and "female". Of course, what the wizards behind this idea didn't realize is that they'd just placed an enormous hurdle in front of the code writers for any kind of interactive tool that requires the use of pronouns. The English language employs three kinds: male, female, and neuter, with the latter not normally used to refer to people. So now they were forcing the code to properly interpret what could be a panoply of possible terms used to refer to someone of their own specification of being. Someone who brought up this sizable sticking point was immediately fire-bombed for being "oppressive".

So, here you have a nascent social network that's supposed to be the alternative to the invasive giant. But, instead of driving forward and producing a service that does things that Facebook doesn't do and which doesn't hassle you on the same invasive level, you place a hurdle in front of the programmers trying to produce the thing, make communication more difficult for programs, programmers, and even users (the very antithesis of the purpose of the creation), and generally distract everyone from the goal while making a few people sit around and smile to themselves about how 'cool' that is. And, of course, when people object on very pragmatic grounds ("Hey, you're making it more difficult for people to be social on a social network and for us to even get this thing off the ground in the first place."), they're excoriated for standing in the way of people's self-identification. Here you have a chance to create a new outlet for people, perhaps devoid of the targeted advertisers and Farmville, and instead everyone will spend every day figuring out whether to refer to each individual as "he", "she", or "zed".

This is the status quo of many of the progressive organizations that I've been a part of and a fine example of the single-mindedness I referred to above: people are tunnel-visioned to their own agenda, regard anyone not helping them with said agenda as "part of the problem", and do a fine job of draining the energy out of what should be a mass movement that could be trying to find a path back to some level of equality in our society for everyone; not this or that oppressed minority or persecuted class, but everyone.

We had the same problem in the Green party while I was there and something I spent a fair amount of time trying to change with a simple message: Get. Over. It. If all people want to do is sit around bemoaning the Plight of the Black Man or spending three weeks writing a time-sensitive press release about water issues on the Colorado by making sure every third paragraph speaks about the Navajo and Paiutes in reverential terms, you will never accomplish anything except making yourself feel better/righteous/self-satisfied for a very short time. That's not progress. That's idleness and that is more emblematic of American society than anything else I can think of.

More on this identity politics problem later, including the concept of how the current idiot in the White House wouldn't really know what a socialist was if one walked up and bit him on the ass.


  1. I'm on board with "Get Over It" as a useful response in lots of cases and the broader point that sometimes getting shit done should win over imagined ideological purity. However, in the case of Diaspora's gender thing, I think the "pragmatic" objections were a little silly. Sure, our language and codes based on it are fundamentally gendered, but it can't be all that hard to replace the handful of gendered pronouns with gender-neutral ones.

    Of course, I'm also not in favor of accusing people who raise objections like that of being oppressors. That's not productive. I guess what I'm saying is I think people can reasonably disagree about when something falls into the category of something they ought to Get Over.

    So ideally, in these situations, you'd have people debate how important the goal is vs. how difficult it is to achieve and figure out what kinds of effort or sacrifices should be considered "worth it" and which ones aren't. Without getting defensive or accusing people of being ideologically impure.

  2. I think you're largely correct that things probably became too heated on both sides of the discussion. And my reaction is distinctly biased, as I've obviously been through this thing many times before and seen it grind what were hoped to be productive meetings into bitchfests. But I think the programming angle is a decent argument, given that any kind of interactive function would have to accommodate the imagination of pretty much everyone, which is a steep curve to walk. But, even worse from my perspective and something I probably didn't emphasize sufficiently, is the communication barrier it creates. Think of how many people feel uncomfortable even pointing out the particular ethnicity or gender- or sexual preference of someone these days and then imagine trying to deal with that in a casual conversation with potentially anyone. It sounds petty, but it's amazing how petty large groups can be...

    Fair point, though. :)