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.


  1. "It has always seemed strange to me,"
    said Doc. "The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second." John Steinbeck
    Cannery Row

  2. I'm thinking that last sentence is a lure for disagreement(or at lest discussion). So I'll bite.

    I was right with you up until the filling up at BP part. Then I furrowed my brow, wasn't sure what to think and surfed on down the web. Until I found this:

    Now I say fill up and drive away - to a protest near you.

    Be the change...consistently ;)


  3. Judy:
    On some level, I can't help but think that Steinbeck is asking us:
    Is a "depression" a function of the economy?
    Or is it a function of what we ACTUALLY value in other people in culture?

    Thanks for your lovely contribution-- and an excuse to talk about literary superstar. :)

  4. Kate:
    Thanks for the comment and the link! I hope other people check it out. I'm honored that you are reading my blog.
    And you open up a world of questions.

    What SHOULD we do about BP? Should we seize the company? Should we seize every company that has polluted the environment in order to pay for the environmental damage?

    And how about: should we all stop driving our cars? Heating our homes and our water?

    And I added the line about filling up at BP because I can't deny the fact that I'm part of the problem. I'm not proud of it- but it's the truth.

  5. Hi Mike!

    Hmmm, well a couple of days ago I would have said seizing would be an option. But I just read that BP agreed to a 20 billion dollar fund for victims and from what I know they have been pretty good so far at trying to un-do the damage they caused. I think it's a very good thing that the President and his administration have put a lot of pressure on BP. But having something in place legally where seizure is an option in cases where there is no cooperation from the company might be a good idea.

    I think it is admirable that you are including yourself in the problem. Count me in too! If America has a problem we are all part of it as Americans. We need to figure out what to do about oil. Not wait around for someone to do it for us.

  6. Mike,
    whew- this is so much like life. I'm challenged by your comments, but if I'm honest- the real "just" response takes too much effort, and let's face it- I'm a pretty lazy person. So, I'll think about it for a while- imagine that somehow by thinking about it I've done something- and then, go about my business- doing what everyone else does...
    I passed 2 girls around 6pm on the road yesterday as I was driving my motorcycle to see a friend in the hospital. They were "selling newspapers" One was sitting on a pile of papers playing with a toy tiara. She was looking at it so carefully, taken with it's shiny fake jewels. The other was literally skipping through traffic holding one paper passing all the people that perhaps she was meant to be selling the paper. Mike, they were NO OLDER THAN 6yrs old. They were smaller than my freakishly small kids- so they could've been even younger. They were doing what 6 yr olds do- play with toys and skip. My mind immediately skipped to my own children, who at that moment were probably playing legos or not finishing whatever heaping portions of nutritious food was on their plate. These little girls were probably working for some pimp who was going to beat them for not selling enough papers. I was overwhelmed with the polarity of their different realities- these girls and my kids. Then, the light turned green and I did what everyone else did. I eased off the clutch and on the accelerator and tried to put it out of my mind.
    Even worse- I thought about what a headache it is to have to see that sort of poverty. You know, how hard it is on me for having to pass people who live in that reality.

    I'm reminded of a story about a Samaritan...