Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Worry Pile: Bad Solutions

Here's something to rev our engines on the ol' life stress express: bad solutions are bad even after we realize they're bad solutions.  Bad solutions to big societal problems tend to be the sorts of solutions that a whole bunch of people thought were good once upon a time.  (DAMMIT.)  This sort of ideological turnover happens all the time--take DARE programs dropping units on hard drugs after concluding that they're not age-appropriate; a recent spate of evidence that preschool may be the single most lucrative educational investment a state can make in its citizens, not to mention the best guarantee of future personal success and satisfaction; research in Malawi pointing to the failure of abstinence-only and condom-centric AIDS prevention programs, and the much greater efficacy of measures like convincing women to sleep with men their own age instead of older men; or the sex-positive feminist movement's push for a sexual compact built on "enthusiastic consent" over the conventional "no means no" narrative that can make anything that isn't explicit refusal seem like a kind of permission for unwelcome sexual advances.

We embrace mistaken solutions all the time, and here's one problem: whole movements grow up around their implementation, only to find that they're unwanted when a more provably effective practice comes along--or when it's determined that no comprehensive 'solution' is needed in the first place. 

Why worry?  First, activists stay active.  Take the Temperance movement, which to the best of my understanding finally managed to flame out on its own eighty years ago--in name, anyway.  Don't those same bedrock principles continue to motivate our country's anti-drug strategy, even so far as to have birthed the current nutty marijuana situation, where the federal government still refuses to give any formal or informal assurance that growers and sellers in Legal Pot states won't be arrested for a trade that's explicitly permitted and regulated by their state's laws?  Sure, the Protestant ethic, blah, blah . . . I guarantee you the modern temperance movement codified total abstinence and proscription of drugs in the public sphere in a way that no quantity of Sunday sermons and readings from the book of Judges could have done.  Its echo surely carries twelve-step addiction programs, which may not actually work better than other kinds of treatment, say the numbers.

But here's the really questionable guacamole in our problem burrito: activists are also members of a culture.  Push their preconceptions aside, and they start to feel disenfranchised.  And beneficiaries of the bad solutions (because, of course, 'bad' doesn't equal 'totally useless'--it can just as easily mean 'less effective than an alternative') will be outraged to see their savior philosophy besmirched; just try to explain the statistics to someone who has succeeded in a twelve-step program.

So what you get is a bunch of real people who suddenly a) feel trampled upon and b) are completely in the way of a social good that often needs to be comprehensive to be curative.  We've got limited money and time to implement new attacks on social ills.  If universal preschool access ever becomes a reality in the U.S., isn't it likely that some remedial elementary, middle and high school programs will take a budget hit as a result?  Education spending isn't exactly the Bob Hope of pet causes on Capitol Hill, so something's getting the axe.  And why not the money sink that you know won't help nearly as many children *now* as a broader, more economical policy could help five, ten, twenty and a hundred years down the road?

As I mentioned before, the "enthusiastic consent" standard is getting a bigger and bigger push from sex positive feminist writers.  And although it isn't generally pitched as a replacement for "no means no," that's what it is.  A major argument for the change goes like this: "no means no" puts too much responsibility on the woman (and, more broadly, on any participant in sex) to constantly be refusing things, which a) limits her ability to express or focus on expressing what she actually does want, b) makes every instance of partial, implicit or unclear refusal, or clear dissatisfaction without express refusal, a potential inroad for a sexual predator, and c) casts the man (or sex partner) as an agent whose only goal is sex, who has no real decision-making agency apart from seeking sex and recognizing refusal thereof, and who probably wouldn't like to refuse anything himself, given the chance.

In other words, "no means no" is disempowering.  Roll that around your braintubes.  "No means no" is disempowering.  Relatively speaking.  It's an okay way to do things, but worse than an alternative.

Did you clench up just a little, reading that?  Would an assault victim clench up worse?  Can "no means no" be a part of the enthusiastic consent philosophy, or is it just vestigial now?

When your car won't start, you rev the engine for a while and then you take it to a mechanic.  You don't *keep* revving the engine while it's being towed.  How long do we keep handing out the condoms in Malawi?  How long before the feds stop raiding pot dispensaries?  At what point does it become socially acceptable to abandon a bad practice?  And at what point do we collectively realize that we're taking way too long to admit our mistakes?

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