We Are Products - Mary Roach - Stiff

We Are Products

In the United States we like to think of ourselves as unique individuals with something special about who we are. We like to see ourselves as separate entities that are differentiated from the rest of the world. There are ways in which this is true, but there are also ways in which we cannot separate ourselves so easily from the world around us. There are ways in which we are not so much our own thing, but a product of numerous other external things that drive our lives.
In the book Stiff, Mary Roach looks at how different cultures and societies around the planet approach dead bodies. She shows how similar many cultures are, but also highlights differences in practices and taboos related to the dead. She uses different examples to highlight the role of culture and expectations that shape what we see as normal and acceptable and what others see as normal and acceptable. Regarding these differences she writes, “we are all products of our upbringing, our culture, our need to conform.”
We are products. The culture and society determine what is possible for someone with our particular set of genes, skills, and aptitudes. Our upbringing infuses us with believes, perspectives, and self-interests from which we can never truly separate ourselves. Our culture reinforces beliefs, norms, expectations, and taboos. While we are individuals within these cultures, we never truly escape them, and we never truly become something separate from them. We are the sum of a great deal of factors that we cannot even count on their own.
Positive Error Cultures - Joe Abittan

Positive Error Cultures

My last post was about negative error cultures and the harm they can create. Today is about the flip side, positive error cultures and how they can help encourage innovation, channel creativity, and help people learn to improve their decision-making. “On the other end of the spectrum,” writes Gerd Gigerenzer in Risk Savvy, “are positive error cultures, that make errors transparent, encourage good errors, and learn from bad errors to create a safe environment.”

 

No one likes to make errors. Whether it is a small error on our personal finances or a major error on the job, we would all rather hide our mistakes from others. In school we probably all had the experience of quickly stuffing away a test that received a bad grade so that no one could see how many questions we got wrong. Errors in life have the same feeling, but like mistakes on homework, reports, or tests, hiding our errors doesn’t help us learn for the future. In school, reviewing our mistakes and being willing to work through them helps us better understand the material and shows us where we need to study for the final exam. In life, learning from our mistakes helps us become better people, make smarter decisions, and be more prepared for future opportunities.

 

This is why positive error cultures are so important. If we are trying to do something new, innovative, and important, then we are probably going to be in a position where we will make mistakes. If we are new homeowners and don’t know exactly how to tackle a project, we will certainly err, but by learning from our mistakes, we can improve and better handle similar home improvement projects in the future. Hiding our error will likely lead to greater costs in the future, and will leave us dependent on others to do costly work around the house. Business is the same way. If we want to grow to get a promotion or want to do something innovative to solve a new problem, we are going to make mistakes. Acknowledging where we were wrong and why we made an error helps us prepare for future challenges and opportunities. It helps us learn and grow rather than remaining stuck in one place, not solving any problems and not preparing for future opportunities.

 

80,000 Hours has a great “Our Mistakes” section on their website, demonstrating a positive error culture.
Negative Error Cultures - Joe Abittan

Negative Error Cultures

No matter how smart, observant, and rational we are, we will never have perfect information for all of the choices we make in our lives. There will always be decisions that we have to make based on a limited set of information, and when that happens, there will be a risk that we won’t make the right decision. In reality, there is risk in almost any decision we make, because there are very few choices where we have perfect information and fully understand all the potential consequences of our decisions and actions. This means the chance for errors is huge, and we will make many mistakes throughout our lives. How our cultures respond to these errors is important in determining how we move forward from them.

 

In Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer writes the following about negative error cultures:

 

“On the one end of the spectrum are negative error cultures. People living in such a culture fear to make errors of any kind, good or bad, and, if an error does occur, they do everything to hide it. Such a culture has little chance to learn from errors and discover new opportunities.”

 

None of us want to live in a world with errors, but the reality is that we spend a lot of our time engulfed by them. We don’t want to make mistakes on the job and potentially lose a raise, promotion, or employment altogether. Many people belong to religious social communities or live in families characterized by negative error cultures where any social misstep feels like the end of the world and poses expulsion from the community/family. Additionally, our world of politics is typically a negative error culture, where one political slip-up is often enough to irrevocably damage an individual’s political career.

 

Gigerenzer encourages us move away from negative error cultures because they stifle learning, reduce creativity, and fail to acknowledge the reality that our world is inherently a world of risk. We cannot avoid all risk because we cannot be all-knowing, and that means we will make mistakes. We can try to minimize the mistakes we make and their consequences, but we can only do so by acknowledging mistakes, owning up to them, learning, adapting, and improving future decision making.

 

Negative error cultures don’t expose mistakes and do not learn from them. They prevent individuals and organizations from finding the root cause of an error, and don’t allow for changes and adaptation. What is worse, efforts to hid errors can lead to more errors. Describing hospitals with negative error cultures, Gigerenzer writes, “zero tolerance for talking about errors produces more errors and less patient safety.” Being afraid to ever make a mistake makes us less willing to innovate, to learn, and to improve the world around us. It isolates us, and keeps us from improving and reducing risk for ourselves and others in the future. In the end, negative error cultures drive more of the thing they fear, reinforcing a vicious cycle of errors, secrecy, and more errors.

The Extent of Mass Incarceration

“More African American Adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parol—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Michelle Alexander writes this in her book, The New Jim Crow, to demonstrate the extent of mass incarceration in the United States. Mass incarceration is simply the term we use to describe our extensive and high number of arrests and level of imprisionment, and it is a problem because the justice system in many ways does not operate like the blind and fair system we imagine or would like. Criminal justice in the United States, and truly everywhere, depends on humans. We have to have humans to set the laws, arrest the rule-breakers, determine the appropriate punishment, and then deliver a sentence. Throughout The New Jim Crow, Alexander demonstrates how this system has broken down in our country because of the humans, because of our inability to see people without prejudice, and because of a history of race that we cannot simply forget with colorblind glasses.

“The mass incarceration of people with color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.” When we do not think about criminal justice, and when we do not think about people as people, we allow systems to grow that operate with the worst parts of our nature. Our tribalism takes over and we begin seeing other people and other groups as somehow less than ourselves and the groups to which we belong. We start to look at cultures that are not our own and find ways in which those cultures seem to be inferior to our culture, and then we justify the inequality which benefits us while disadvantaging those from the other tribe.

“The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.” What Alexander is explaining is that we are (as a society and as a whole) responsible for the actions, behaviors, and cultures that we see around us and describe as inferior. Concentrated poverty has a disastrous impact on the future of young children, and it was our society and our housing and zoning policies that lead to the segregated ghettos that produced those cultures that we so heavily criticize today. Our decisions, our tribal brains, our self-interest, our ability to exploit others for our own gain, our ability to rationalize our success, our ability to blame the individual for their failure, and our ability to de-humanize those who we see as less than ourselves lead to a nation where we have restricted certain groups of individuals, denied them economic and social mobility, and arrested them for their inevitable humanity. Mass incarceration is not an honest reaction to crime, violence, danger, and a need for punishment. It is a cancerous outgrowth of policy and decisions made in bad faith to protect those who have been favored at the expense of those who have been exploited.

Music, Fear, Culture

Ta-Nehisi Coats discussed growing up in America as a black man in his book Between the World and Me and two of the ideas he continually returned to were fear and not having control of ones body as a black man. Coats described the way that fear made its way into his daily life and manifested in the decisions he made, in the dangers of the places he went, and in the possibility of his future being taken away at any moment. By describing his understanding of the relationship between black people and police he described the possibility of other people using his body to control him. Combined, these forces shaped the culture around Coats as he grew up in ways both implicit and explicit. He never felt truly secure, and he never felt that there was anything physical that he had control over.

 

Born out of this culture, Coats explains, was music and attitudes that other people condemned. Describing his peers and their adaptations to these pressures Coats writes, “I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew,  the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrision and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies.”

 

The rap music so frequently reviled by people outside of the black community, when put in context, becomes more than just music with violent and explicit lyrics. It becomes a response to a world that pushes black people to live in fear and to live without control of even their most basic possession, their body. When police go out of their way to stop black people, search their person and property for drugs, and beat or use deadly force at the slightest sign of danger the boastfulness and power inducing feeling of rap music and gangster culture becomes more understandable. We live in a world where very few people are outwardly racist and where most people understand the danger in racist thinking, but nevertheless, racism continues with us thanks to our tribal brain. It exists not in individuals and their actions, but in systems, processes, and policies that appear race neutral but impact different racial groups in different ways. Racism today does not express itself directly, but is supported indirectly by those advantaged groups who do not want to see the status quo change and who hold up merit and colorblindness as evidence of a lack of racism, despite clear disparate outcomes for racial and minority groups.

 

The moment we meet another person we make snap judgements about them, about who we think they are, about whether we think they are like us, and about whether we can trust them. Colin Wright in his book Considerations spends a lot of time looking at these implicit biases and encourages us to become aware of them, and to become aware of times when we are pushing others away from us or withdrawing from situations where we are surrounded by people we deem to be others. Without realizing it we have perpetuated racism through implicit bias and through stories of colorblindness. Studies show that our implicit bias is to see black people as larger and more threatening, and that we will be more likely to expect crime and violence from black people, even if we are well intentioned.

 

Seneca wrote that even the most self-sufficient man could not live without the society of man, but when that society thinks you are a criminal, threatens you, and takes control of your physical body, your existence can never be fulfilled. Coats throughout his book describes the way that black people have their future robbed from them because the society they depend on does not care about their success as much as their punishment and their restriction. None of us actively act to put black people down, to instill fear in the minds of black children, or to control the bodies of black people, but we still have organized ourselves and throughout history have disadvantaged black people in a way that limits the aid and acceptance that society provides. At the same time, we demand that we ourselves are judged on a merit basis and we view our own success as coming from entirely within. We do not see the way in which we rely on the society of man for our existence. Like someone riding a road bike, even with a wind to our back, we still feel wind in our face, making it seem as though we are being pushed back, despite the fact that a strong wind propels us forward. Recognizing and understanding our dependence on society and how our society pushes back against black people can help us understand the culture and attitudes of black people in America today.

A Lack of Empathy

When describing the attitudes of effective altruists in his book, The Most Good You Can Do, author Peter Singer examines empathy, and how empathy affects people within a community.  Singer focuses on what empathy means and how it has become something worth focusing on in our lives today.  In his book, the author uses a quote from President Obama as an example of how many people think about empathy today,

 

“Shortly after he was elected president of the united states, Obama recieved a letter from a young girl suggesting a ban on unneccessary wars.  In response he told the girl, “If you don’t already know what it means, I want you to look up the word empathy in the dictionary. I beleive we don’t have enough empathy in our wold today, and it is up to your generation to change that.”

 

Singer sets up Obama’s quote by defining empathy as the ability to put oneself in the position of others and identify with their feelings or emotions. He also looks at work by Jeremy Rifkin who sees empathy as a force that is spreading broadly within our community and evolving with our society. In Rifkin’s view, empathy is no longer something we restrict to our close group or to those who look and act like us. Empathy is growing and we are beginning to see the importance of sharing empathy with all of those across the planet.  That means that as a culture that is increasingly globalized, we are able to see the points of view and understand the feelings of more and more people.

 

It is this spread of empathy that Singer believes is at the heart of the effective altruist movement. He breaks empathy down and looks at four types of empathy in the sections following Obama’s quote.  While Singer agrees that empathy is spreading and building the effective altruist movement, I believe he would also feel as though it is not as widespread through our country as it should be.  Practicing empathy can be very easy for some people, but a major challenge for others. Everyone within a community will have to look at empathy and build toward a point where they allow empathy to overcome their prejudices if we want to be the generation that President Obama is counting on to change the way we interact with one another.