the green, green grass of your world

I’ve been holding back on commenting on the powerful post by “olderwoman.” I’ve been less tempted to comment on it directly, and more on some of the commentary on the post, on the extension of the conversation over on Crooked Timber, and the extensions of the conversation on scatterplot. Finally, I just got to the point where I decided to just write my own post about one of the things that bugs me about that whole conversation. That thing is this tendency we seem to have toward a perceptual bias in which, when things are tough for us, that we always seem to think we have it worse than other people–the grass is always greener in someone else’s life than ours.

I’m not one who thinks much of trying to put different people’s suffering on a scale and trying to determine who has it worse, mainly because the vast majority of the time we really have little idea what is going on in other people’s lives and how something that might seem insignificant to us could be a major hassle, or even debilitating, in theirs. Have you ever been embarrassed after doing something like mocking or criticizing someone for poor performance only to learn that one of their parents just died and they couldn’t concentrate? Well, we should probably all be embarrassed a lot more of the time from such behavior–but most of the time we just happen to get away without finding out the facts that would have embarrassed us. The point: you rarely know enough about what is going on in other people’s lives to justify your comparison.

Case in point: leaving a work situation to pick up your kids from day care. The various constructions of this in comments try to suggest that whoever isn’t like “me” some how benefit from this. Women take advantage of it because they have mom identities. Men benefit from it (and try to benefit from it) because they will be viewed as super Dads who are big professionals and gender-egalitarian pitcher-inners. Single people without kids have it so much easier because they can stay late at work and not have to worry about it. Single people without kids have it so much tougher because they have to pick up the slack when mom and dad leave.

Argh. Really, step back from all of those arguments for a moment and consider what you’re saying, and why most everyone who disagrees with you is coming from the other side of the experience. Do you, single person, really know what it’s like to have the kid obligations and what the parent might be doing late at night after the kids go to bed to compensate for the work they didn’t get done when the kid puked at school and they had to leave in the middle of the day to deal with it? Do you, parent, know what it is like to have your work schedule controlled by other people’s family responsibilities? Do you, Dad, know what it is like to have to suspect that your colleagues and bosses aren’t taking you seriously because you are a woman/mom? Moms, do you really know what kinds of costs dads pay for not fulfilling their gender-stereotyped work expectations by leaving work to pick up their kids while the other dads with stay late depending on their stay-at-home-mom wives to deal with the kids? And while we’re at it, can all the parents out there who’ve achieved the perfect egalitarian work-life balance really appreciate the massive costs traditional absent dads pay when they choose work over their kid’s soccer game?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t complain when things are tough. And I’m certainly not saying we should keep our mouths shut just because someone else out there in the world might have it tougher than we do (although, that would pretty much eliminate a lot of problems,* so perhaps it is a proposal worth thinking about).** But I do think the empty upward comparisons based only some imagined state of someone else’s lawn really have to go.

Instead of unjustified comparisons and criticism, how about a little unjustified empathy? Imagine that people who could be paying costs, actually are paying costs. And assume, for reasons you don’t know, they could very well be quite a bit higher than what it initially appears. Maybe then we could get into a mode of helping each other out a little more instead of justifying backbiting and derogation.***

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* And would eliminate my blog as well, I suspect!

** Yes, I am quite aware that I am being hypocritical. By writing this, I am reminding myself to work on this as well.

*** I can’t wait for someone over on Crooked Timber to call me a “gooper” for writing this post!

6 thoughts on “the green, green grass of your world”

  1. well said, blue monster! we sociologists talk so much about diversity in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc., but rarely examine the need for diversity awareness in the parenting and familyhood domain (and coupling, etc., for that matter), where the norms are as strong and taken for granted as almost any cultural norms. i hope people will appreciate your post as much as the powerful posts that preceded this.

    (btw, the “gooper” link is broken.)

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  2. I have so many thoughts about this whole conversation, but right now all I can formulate is:

    Surely you’re not using gooper as it is defined by Urban Dictionary (aka slang for vagina)?

    Other than that oddity, great response! If I were to put my thoughts into words, they would be a less eloquent version of what you said.

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  3. Right. It’s about understanding the constraints on other people’s choices. For me, the most striking thing about Olderwoman’s post had nothing to do with complaining or gender or most of the other things that commenters at Crooked Timber were interested in. Instead, what impressed me was her statement about what a theory of behavior should include.

    “We often act and theorize as if only one person at a time is real, and everyone else is just environment, not also choice-making consequence-bearing people. We think that if our choices are consequential that we must be able to control the outcomes of our choices. That is, we make the fundamental attribution error in social psychology, attributing outcomes to individual choices rather than systems. But even ‘system’ is an attribution error, as we tend to treat it as if it were a single other individual not, itself, a product of uncountable choices by other people.”

    I find it very difficult think that way, and I can’t imagine how to construct a model for that approach. It’s easier to think in terms of cultural or structural pressures, or individual attitudes and motives. That’s why I’m impressed by what little I know of Schelling’s work. He explains social patterns as the outcome of individual choices made in response to other people’s choices, sometimes with a result that nobody wanted, intended, or predicted.

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  4. Sorry all, fixed the “gooper” link, which goes to a comment on Crooked timber directed at my “always be nice” post. Now in context, perhaps it makes a little more sense.

    Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing OW’s post or responding to it–only to the streams of commentary that have come from it.

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  5. You are right, BlueMonster. Put another way, compassion is an underrated virtue. OW’s post wasn’t the opening ceremony of the oppression olympics, it was her story. Which lots of us share some or parts of. Other people have theirs and I would hope that we would hear and respond to those with compassion too.

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