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  • A Reductio ad Absurdum of the “Progressive” Categorization Obsession

    Posted by David Foster on September 25th, 2018 (All posts by )

    Here’s a “lifeboat” exercise for students at an Ohio middle school.  The scenario is that Earth is doomed–a spaceship is escaping, but there is only room for 8 passengers out of the original 12 who were selected.  Students were required to choose who should go and who should stay, based on such descriptive criteria as:

    –“an accountant with a substance abuse problem”
    –“a militant Afro-American medical student”
    –“a female movie star who was recently the victim of a sexual assault”
    –“an Asian, orphaned 12-year-old boy”

    etc etc

    Note that these descriptions are mainly about demographics categories and sexual preferences/behavior/experiences, and about attitudes toward these things.  There’s a little about occupations, not much about skills, and very little indeed about personality and behavior.  We are a long way here from Martin Luther King’s dictum about judging people by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin.

    The above may be a particularly egregious example, but this kind of thinking has become quite common in American universities.  Administrators, along with substantial parts of the faculties and now also the student populations, tend to view people through exactly this kind of lenses.  I’m reminded of the University of Delaware indoctrinator who became rather disturbed when one of his indoctrinees responsed to the question “When were you first made aware of your race?” with  “That is irrelevant to everything. My race is human being” and  “When did you discover your sexual identity?” with “That is none of your damn business”…and, most significantly, responded to  “When was a time you felt oppressed? Who was oppressing you? How did you feel? with this:

    “I am oppressed everyday on basis of my undying and devout feelings for the opera”

    …which elegantly makes the point that people are more than the sum of their demographic categories, and that the things that result in their “oppression” or “privileging” are often things other than those categories.  I greatly admire this young woman’s courage.

    This sort of thing may have started in odd corners of American universities, but has now become one of the defining characteristics of those universities, and has substantially spilled out with toxic effects for the entire society.

     

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    15 Responses to “A Reductio ad Absurdum of the “Progressive” Categorization Obsession”

    1. orthodoc Says:

      Simple. Take all the women. That’s at least four. (I’m assuming the others are male, although it seems sexist to assume that the accountant, militant, medical student, administrator are all male). Otherwise, leave the administrator and novelist behind – never met one of either category that was worth the oxygen. The accountant is useless. Take the Asian kid, the Hispanic clergyman, and the militant African-American for genetic diversity. And the armed racist cop to keep the latter from being a pain in the ass.

    2. David Foster Says:

      One thing that wasn’t made clear in the original exercise was whether this was the *only* group of people escaping to the new planet, or whether it was one of many groups. The criteria for people-selection would probably be quite different depending on what the answer to that question is.

    3. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

      The lifeboat exercise and that type of thinking is pernicious, and completely inappropriate for middle-schoolers. The plan is to bully people about how prejudiced they are, in order to switch them to different prejudices.

    4. Vincent Says:

      Pernicious is certainly the word. I suppose it resembles the Milgram experiment which if I recall tries to demonstrate that we’d all be Nazi torturers rather than estrange ourselves from the boss and his flock of sheep. That one was innocent by comparison: how far can you go in withholding human fellow-feeling, measured on a simple scale of voltage.

      This one forces you into some kind of noxious discrimination and then bargain with your team members as to which kinds of discrimination are virtuous and which kinds evil. It could only work in a middle school for whom class group-think (if it could exist) must vie with obedience to teacher as competing options for winning prestige.

      I wish I knew what happened, how many pupils opted out and what pressures they were under to conform.

    5. Anonymous Says:

      Pernicious is certainly the word. I suppose it resembles the Milgram experiment which apparently demonstrates that we’d all be Nazi torturers rather than estrange ourselves from the boss and his flock of sheep. That one was innocent by comparison: how far can you go in withholding human fellow-feeling, measured on a simple scale of voltage, if I recall correctly.

      This one forces you into some kind of noxious discrimination and then bargain with your team members as to which kinds of discrimination are virtuous and which kinds evil. It could only work in a middle school for whom class group-think (if it could exist) must vie with obedience to teacher as competing options for winning prestige.

      I wish I knew what happened, how many pupils opted out and what pressures they were under to conform.

    6. Vincent Says:

      Sorry I thought I had signed in. – Vincent

    7. Christopher B Says:

      A little OT – Both the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison are being exposed as fraudulent. The supposedly naturally cruel guards and torturers were likely manipulated into performing as the experiment leaders wanted.

      Perry has also revealed inconsistencies in another major early work in psychology: the Milgram electroshock test, in which participants were told by an authority figure to deliver seemingly lethal doses of electricity to an unseen hapless soul. Her investigations show some evidence of researchers going off the study script and possibly coercing participants to deliver the desired results. (Somewhat ironically, the new revelations about the prison experiment also show the power an authority figure — in this case Zimbardo himself and his “warden” — has in manipulating others to be cruel.)

      I think this does have a connection to the lifeboat exercise, though. Attempts to teach respect for diversity and inclusion in this way are absolutely counter-productive. It does lead one to question if the intent isn’t exactly that, as y’all have pointed out. As a man famously wrote, the way to stop racial discrimination is to stop discriminating based on race but that leaves little space for graft and corruption, to borrow another phrase.

    8. Grurray Says:

      From Christopher B’s link(s):

      The wrinkles in Milgram’s research kept revealing themselves. Perhaps most damningly, after Perry tracked down one of Milgram’s research analysts, she found reason to believe that most of his subjects had actually seen through the deception. They knew, in other words, that they were taking part in a low-stakes charade.

      This was my thought when I first watched video clips of Milgram’s tests years ago. I didn’t believe it either. The subjects kept looking at the analysts, as if thinking, “this is a gag right, where is this really leading?” No one was dumb enough to believe a mundane university experiment was so blatantly leading to injury or death. It might’ve been different if it was some secret project by a cryptic organization requiring subterfuge at a hidden location, but it was just a lab at Yale.

      Milgram really proved that, not only is it difficult to manipulate regular people to be cruel, it’s difficult manipulating them into being manipulated. It is easy, however, to falsely portray them as cruel, and that’s what we still see today.

      Regarding the fallacious marshmallow test, they should’ve consulted the classic saying, ‘a bird in hand is better than two in the bush’. Even kids know that one.

      Discipline is indeed still important, but there are risks with delayed gratification. The bigger the bush is, the harder the risks may be, and the less likely we’re able to fully comprehend the consequences. Sometimes the most disciplined approach is to forgo false or uncertain promises and just be happy with the bird you have.

    9. Gavin Longmuir Says:

      Let’s hope that Walmart has already colonized the planet to which this group of misfits is escaping – because not a single one of them could grow a vegetable or fix a leaking faucet.

      The humorous part is that the class exercise required unanimity in the choice of the final 8. If the class was about 30 children, it would be a real challenge to get unanimity without resorting to physical violence. To be charitable, maybe that was the real point of the exercise?

    10. Philip Says:

      Gavin, that last point is insightful. It could perhaps have been that way! A test within a test, maybe – how far are the subjects (students) willing to go to comply? Wheels within wheels.

      I actually think that questionnaire could be interesting to take in a small-group setting. Of course, it would be easier and more genuinely interesting without the identity-politics veneer, so would have to be rewritten somewhat.

    11. Gavin Longmuir Says:

      Philip – thinking about rewritten scenarios … back in my high school days, the debating society (most schools had them back in the Jurassic era) would do an annual Balloon Game. Supposedly a group of historical characters found themselves in a leaking balloon, and most would have to be thrown out to lighten the load. Half a dozen or so debaters would each choose a historical figure and present the case for their guy or gal to be left in the balloon. The debating society would vote who to throw out, usually quite raucously.

      Interesting thing is that the focus was on demonstrated internal character and real world accomplishments of actual human beings. The Ohio exercise is strictly about external observables and group membership of cartoon cut-outs. Sic Transit Gloria.

    12. Gringo Says:

      I am reminded of an old joke about bailing out of an airplane. The names of the participants vary according to who is telling the joke. There are four passengers in a small plane. The pilot leaves the front of the plane and announces to the passengers that the plane is going to crash in several minutes, and he is taking one of the four available parachutes. The pilot jumps out of the plane w a parachute, leaving three parachutes for three passengers. The passengers decide to each give their case why they should live. The hippie says he should live so he could keep grooving on nature. The priest says he should live so that he could continue to serve God’s flock. The Argentine says nothing, but grabs a parachute and jumps out of the plane. The Bolivian says, “No problem. The Argentine jumped out with the hippie’s backpack.” A friend heard it from a Bolivian. For some funny reason, Bolivians love jokes poking fun at Argentines. :)

      I have heard this joke where an Englishman informs the remaining two passengers that the Irishman jumped out with the hippie’s backpack. Then Tea-Sippers (University of Texas at Austin) and Texas Aggies have their versions. A Chinese student told me the joke where Li Peng- in charge of China during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989- was the one who jumped out with the hippies’ backpack.

      I don’t think this joke would go over very well today, as it is not “inclusive.”

    13. Mike-SMO Says:

      The school list is all “Identity Politics”. The Progressive theology holds that all are equally intelligent or capable. That is clearly a fantasy. The experience in US Navy destroyers clearly show that if intelligence and responsibility are not the primary and mandatory criteria, then “Diversity” kills.

      Nowhere does the school exercise get to “breeding stock”, useful skills, tolerance of confinement with others, optimism, intelligence. technical knowledge (farming or propulsion or carpentry or electronics).

      For colonization most any non-fertile or non-reproducing individuals are just useless cargo. The optimum genetic mix could be calculated (M:F) to optimize the survival of a small population followed by a determination of the ratios of males vs females which could tolerate that genetically “optimal” scheme. [The jokes write themselves.] [Besides the school test did not factor for Blonds vs. Gingers. Even “porn” sites have a multi-step characteristic selection page so that your “co-pilot” will suit your desires….. ]

      Inability to learn/teach are grounds for exclusion. As a “pre-test” any potential colonist who responded with the type of characteristics shown on the “Identity Test” for inclusion into the “New World” is, as a practical matter, excluded.

      A review of the successful individuals in the North American colonial period would probably be a good guide for a selection protocol. The ideology of “each according to his capability; to each according to his needs” quickly went to “farm your plot or starve….”. Ad they did.

      The “reality” has nothing to do with the Progressive Identity Politics. [Ooops! I am off the “bus” but I have noticed some other unsuitable colonists that I could comfort.]

      The school Identity Test provided would fail as a component of even a semi-competent science-fiction novel.

    14. fiona Says:

      Marshmallow test – even as a small child I hated Marshmallows. It would have been easy to wait to eat one and getting two would be no incentive. Was this taken into account in the test, or was it just assumed that every kid was the same in liking marshmallows. (also hated gumdrops and jellybeans…)

    15. Mike K Says:

      The pilot leaves the front of the plane and announces to the passengers that the plane is going to crash in several minutes, and he is taking one of the four available parachutes. The pilot jumps out of the plane w a parachute, leaving three parachutes for three passengers.

      I heard it about Jimmy Carter who took the boy scout’s parachute and said he was doing so because he was the smartest man the world.

      The other passengers looked around and the boy scout reassured them there were still enough parachutes because “The smartest man in the world took my back pack.”