Sunday, June 6, 2010
The Tyranny of Consistency
BP is going to be just fine.
No matter how many things are screwed up by this mess, BP will be F-I-N-E.
Why? Because WE are fine with it. You and I are like, basically, ok with it. And not because we are amoral or apathetic.
It's because of the Tyranny of Consistency.
To illustrate, I thought I'd share a little anecdote about two students, Emma and Jose. These are not their real names.
Emma submits her work with a mechanical precision. She crafts her responses, building arguments upon well articulated evidence culled from the texts, delivering elegant essays (double spaced!) that include flawless documentation. She includes jokes. Emma writes fine papers; she peppers her prose with a patina of smartly shaded idioms. English teachers pray to Ancient Greek gods to send students like Emma.
She listens, she contributes, she modifies her work. She grows.
Jose abandons his work with the ease of a drunk aristocrat. He belches his responses, constructing arguments mitigated by energy-drink chemistry, trailing dog-eared looseleaf that includes dozens of errors in punctuation and spelling. He adds insult. Jose writes lousy papers; he smears his prose with a quilt of carelessly sewn non-sequitur. English teachers pray to Ancient Greek gods to smite students like Jose.
He refuses, he dismantles, he plays by few rules. He festers.
One day, Emma is late with a paper; it's her first time being late with anything. The teacher, despite his waterproof rules regarding tardiness, allows her a day to make up the work that she gratefully accepts.
Jose, on the other hand, has been on time once out of dozens of times. Through experience, he knows the teacher’s calculation for late points better than the teacher himself. Jose, who appears to notice nothing, notices Emma’s reprieve. He tells his mother and she gets on the phone with the teacher’s supervisor. Within two weeks, the staff of the school receives an email from the principal about the importance of consistency and fairness.
What's this have to do with BP?
Jose weighs the cost of working against the cost of the consequences. He's wagered that our school doesn't want justice; it wants stability. Or, at least, the appearance of stability.
And Jose, like BP, has made a good bet.
The idea of “fairness” rests squarely at the heart of what is often called “common sense.” Unfortunately, fairness and consistency have become interchangeable. When we say “fair,” what we most often mean is “stability preserving.”
Worse, we’ve muddled it more by confusing “fairness” with “justice.” We've figured out that the only way to be “fair” is to do things which will rock the boat the least. To make the system work "justly," we believe that tomorrow must be as predictable as today.
The problem rests in a system that is founded on the idea that creating consistency is the BEST means to create stability and fairness. But that mess in the Gulf is no example of stability, and neither is Jose and his mother's puppetry of our principal.
To change, we all need to challenge ourselves to face our own part in this. Our schools are simply manifesting the values of our culture. Schools didn't invent the idea of conflating justice with consistency. Schools didn't create a world that loves stability at almost any cost.
Our culture did. And, in case you didn't notice, you and I are a conspirators.
What are we trading for this stability, this consistency, that we treasure so much?
I'll tell you what I'm going to do tomorrow: I'm going to drive my car to work. My car that always starts when I turn the key. The car I drive, everyday, the same route 35 minutes each way to work.
The car I fill up, sometimes, at BP. Vroom vroom.