Sunday, May 22, 2016

Rochester Agonistes: the rule of thumbs

Metaphors, as we have seen, are conceptual in nature. They are among our principle vehicles for understanding. And they play a central role in the construction of our social and political reality. - Lakoff and Johnson, "Metaphors We Live By"

I don't care much for "balancing interests" anymore. Why? Because (a) people who say they are usually aren't. And (b) it's a pernicious metaphor wrongly associated with fairness. To be clear, seeking fairness is not wrong. But, insisting fairness is achieved by "balancing interests" is, if not wrong, at least misconstrued, ill-conceived, and not without consequences.

The very notion of balancing begins with divisiveness. Weights and counterweights. One thing set against another thing. The measure of one is set against the measure of another. As a metaphor balancing reduces fairness to portions purported to be measured out equitably.

Balancing assumes - usually falsely - that all things are or should be divisible and then divides them. Balancing divides them to portion them out and then claims to distribute these portions fairly as if fairness is only a matter of what you end up with. Is it? It sounds good. It sounds right. It sounds fair because that's what we have come to believe fairness is. What we miss is what all this balancing requires in the first place. What we miss is what is assumed to make balancing possible. The whole endeavor relies upon asserting a relevant calibration - a shared property - by which a balance can be achieved.
There’s a deeper problem, though: Embedded in the idea of the scales is a picture of a process for arriving at sound decisions—which if the metaphor is sufficiently pervasive we may come to think of as the only method for making sound decisions. A scale is a machine for reducing diverse objects—or in the metaphor, interests and values—to a single shared dimension. You might have items as varied as toasters and giraffes on the opposing plates of the scale, but all the scale cares about—or all we care about when we employ it—is that they both have weight and mass. Every other difference between the items in the balance is irrelevant so long as they have this one shared property, this one dimension along which they intersect, which allows us to quantify each in terms of the other.
It is the calibrating that matters most. Portioning is not impartial. In assuming that by careful calibration it can be impartial, balancing misconstrues fairness as simply a matter of distribution. It mistakenly believes that impartiality is even possible. Even worse, it is mistaken that impartiality is the point. Of course it is fair, we are told, it's impartial. But, calibrating is a very partial choice.

Interests are not balanced by the disinterested. Nor is it the disinterested whose interests hang in the balance. When it comes to balancing interests it's also important to look through all the finger pointing to see whose thumbs are on the scale.

image: M.J. Carlucci
Now if you are thinking that this metaphor doesn't matter all that much my guess is that you haven't tried to get a Holiday Inn built in Rochester recently. Or park a "mobile food unit" downtown. Or maybe you haven't applied for a position on a city board or commission. Or maybe you haven't tried to find a house or an apartment you can afford. If you had attempted or been party to any of these things you would have learned that "balancing interests" matters a lot. "Balancing interests" is the reason you've been given for why it takes so damn long to get anything done and why you end up with so little or nothing at all.

Is it surprising when citizens troubled by these outcomes take up the Old Testament remedy visited upon Adonibezek and start talking about cutting off thumbs? But as satisfying as that metaphor (it is a metaphor right?) might be for some to ponder, it leaves us within the same frame that "balancing interests" creates in the first place. Maybe we need instead something more New Testament - like the scales falling away from Saul's eyes. We should act rather than judge. We need to "reframe" the conversation.
In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry our policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.
Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense. Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames. Thinking differently requires speaking differently.
As long as "balancing interests" frames our civic deliberations, our outcomes will likely remain all thumbs. And thumbs will rule.

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