Consider The Bigger Picture

This is Procrustes. Don’t be Procrustes.

Recently a male friend posted a meme I found offensive on Facebook. I won’t repeat the post, as it was making light of domestic violence and, as a survivor of such a household, it sickened my stomach.

I called him out on it as did others. Predictably, some rallied to his side, defending it as “just a joke” and “stop being so sensitive”. Thus ensued the all-too-familiar back and forth of those “too easily offended” vs. “I’m unfriending you now.” The dialogue died uncomfortably and we all moved on. Yet, I wanted to continue that dialogue because nothing grew from it, which brings me to this post.

I think if the poster of that meme thought about how the world is becoming a monoculture and that a new ethic is being wrought in our time, he might have thought twice. But let me step back.

The 20th century was amazing, and the innovations we’ve had over the last century or two have been astonishing. Food used to rot and people starved in the winter – now we have refrigeration and plastics for storage. Millions use to die of dysentery, smallpox, and tuberculosis, now we have vaccines. Feces from horses and humans flooded the streets of New York City. It was estimated that 20,000 people a year died from diseases related to the massive amount of horse dung that plagued the city, and from their rotting corpses. Cars solved that problem.

Every single one of these innovations has made the human condition better. This report has shown that the world has unequivocally gotten better for people. Check out Steven Pinker’s excellent discussion here (This starts at the excellent graphics, but I recommend the entire video).

Then came the Information Age and the gains we saw in material goods moved to gains in information transmission and access. I used to have to send letters to my fiance while I was in the Navy. I used a phone that was attached to a wall. I needed a payment card to dial something called “long distance”. I needed encyclopedias to research, cameras to take photos with, a typewriter to write papers with, white-out to correct errors when typing, and, most tragically, zero video games.

The Computer Revolution changed and disrupted everything, dubbed a Bengali Typhoon by WIRED magazine editors over twenty-five years ago. Life is nothing short of amazing now for massive swaths of humanity, approaching science fiction level advancements almost every year.

“But but but!” you say. “We have global warming, we have plastic pollution, hate-fuelled by the never-ending supernova-level dumpster fire that is Twitter, and things are awful again.”

The question isn’t can our world be As Dr. Pinker says, our world will never be perfect.

The question isn’t how do we get a perfect world, but how we co-create a better one. What sort of culture are we collectively creating?

Answer: We have to think bigger.

Thinking bigger is a simple way of what is known in academic circles as Systems Thinking. The name implies what it is – we think about the systems that surround us, chart how systems work, and what our influence is beyond our direct, immediate observation. I may learn to sacrifice some of my short term interest for long term gain. An example is due:

Say I’m fishing in a pond, and I know there is only a certain amount of fish. I’m competing with three other fishermen, and I decide to win this by using a giant net. All are mine! I’m rich. I buy new boats and nets. The next year, there aren’t as many fish remaining, AND my competition has invested in nets as well. Eventually, the pond has no fish. This pattern is the Tragedy of the Commons, a typical Systems Thinking example that actually happened in the 1990s. As an individual fisherman, I only see my profits going up (short-term) and the signals to think differently come late. There’s a fun one-minute video on this here, but you may wonder – what does this have to do with my Facebook friend?

What would happen if my friend decided to consider Facebook as that pond that we share? He might think that of the hundreds of friends he has, ostensibly all people he cares about, of those few probably some of them have had experience with domestic violence. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, nearly one-third of all women in the U.S. have experienced a form of violence that has impacted their physical ability by their partner in the last year alone.

This is the fish in the pond story in reverse. Rather than taking something out of the pond, by sharing insensitive memes we’re putting pollution into the pond. We don’t see the impact it might have the right way, but over time it can destroy relationships and divide people.

Okay, we get it – be nice online. But what’s the other side of the coin? Radical sensitivity? Victimhood? A humorless world patrolled by the PC Police? Must we all conform to some ultra-sensitive definition of what is allowed?

This brings me to the image that adorns the top of this article. Here’s his story, courtesy of Medium:

Procrustes, “the stretcher,” son of Poseidon, bandit from Attica, held a residence on “the sacred way” between Athens and Eleusis. Here, Procrustes had a bed in which he invited every traveler who passed by to spend the night. Problem was, nobody seemed to fit this bed. Procrustes, being the metal worker he was, set out to work on his ill-fitted visitors and made them fit the bed. A guest proving to be too tall for the bed would simply have his or her legs amputated to the desired length. Too short? Procrustes would simply stretch them to fit.

Note that part – none seemed to fit his bed. His standard was an ever moving mirage, an impossible arbitrary standard of one being.

So on one side, we have those that would share what they want, damn the consequences and on the other, Procrustes Legion, ready to cut you down to size if you don’t measure up (and you won’t). We as a society are bound together now. We can’t think about progress in the same way. What gave us cars now gives us global warming. What gave us flexibility now pollutes our oceans. What gives us unlimited access to oceans and far-off friends threatens to divide us into warring, unfriended tribes.

Compassion is what is needed on both sides. Squeezing others into an arbitrary standard won’t work. Guilting people won’t work. Chopping people’s legs off won’t do it.

Thus I did not unfriend my friend. Instead, I will share this article with him in an attempt to raise understanding, and maybe he’ll think a bit bigger the next time he shares a meme, and I’ll do the same. Our age needs more grace, love, and compassion and less hatchet, axe, and saw.

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