Tuesday, August 27, 2013

You've Got to be Carefully Taught…Not

I heard the song often as a kid, as the background music on public service announcements for some organization that was fighting prejudice. You know, the one that goes:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

The idea was then, and still is now, that kids aren’t born prejudiced, they’re taught it by those around them, and if we can just stop teaching it to them, it will go away.

It’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s not true. I know because I’m living proof of it.

I remember when I started kindergarten there was a girl in my class named Marissa. I remember this clearly because I remember her clearly. Why do I remember her clearly?

Because she was black.

Now…I know what you’re all thinking right now. You’re asking if I’ve looked in the mirror lately. You’re asking if I maybe thought I was Korean. No, no…I know that ethnically I’m black, but this girl visually was black. If we’re talking RGB codes here, I was 139, 69, 19, and she was 41, 0, 0. I had seen other black people before (although we didn’t call ourselves that in 1961), they were in my family and my neighborhood. I had obviously seen white people before, they were all around us. I had even seen what we then called “Orientals,” they ran the China Pagoda restaurant on Main Street (and it’s still there over 50 years later). But I had never seen anyone this dark before, and I was stunned.

Not just stunned, but a little afraid. And a little repulsed. Actually, a lot repulsed. My immediate impulse was to think that she was dirty because she was so dark. My immediate impulse was to think that I didn’t want to sit next to her…or anywhere near her. My immediate impulse was that I didn’t even want to get close enough to her to talk to her…because she was so dark.

Did my parents teach me this? Hell no. In fact, even though I was repulsed by her, I never told my parents about her. I never told them or anyone else about the girl who was so dark that I thought she was dirty and was repulsed by her. Something told me that I wasn’t supposed to feel that way, and that my parents would not be happy to hear me say that, so I just kept it to myself.

Eventually one day she either left our class group or left Ashland School, and I didn’t have to deal with the dark girl that I thought was dirty, and that I didn’t want to be around. But eventually, by high school, I had met other girls who were that dark…and that I had crushes on, so that prejudice didn’t stay with me forever.

But my point is, and it’s a very important one, that you don’t have to be carefully taught to fear or hate someone that’s different. It’s a very natural thing. Children are the perfect little xenophobes. Think about it…where did the first hatred of someone different come from?

Someone who obviously hadn’t been taught that way, but who saw someone different for the first time, and said to him or herself, “Not like us. Must be bad.”

I think that had I mentioned to my parents that there was a girl in my class who was almost black, and who I didn’t want to sit near because she was dirty, they would’ve wondered what they had done wrong. They would’ve worked to set me straight.

In short, they would’ve worked to carefully teach me not to think that way.

Sometimes you have to be carefully taught not to hate or fear.

Would I have been so fearful of and repulsed by Marissa had I been exposed to other really dark people earlier in my life? Probably not. She would’ve just been one of many different shades of people I had grown up around. But I had gone for five years without seeing anyone that looked like her, and to me she might as well have had three heads…and I probably would've been put off by a girl with three heads too.

You don’t always have to be carefully taught to hate. All you need is to never have been exposed on a regular basis to “the other.” And even if you grow up in the most diverse of environments, you’ll still find some way to make some other group…even an identical-looking group…the “other.” Just being from a different side of town is enough to make them “not your people.” It’s human nature.

Yes, it’s a very charming sentiment to think that you have to be carefully taught to hate. And yes, it often does take a little concerted effort to fan the flames of discomfort into a full-blown hate. However, let’s take a more realistic view of what children are like, and how they deal with something that they’ve never seen before.

Yes, you do have to be carefully taught…

…to be accepting of those who are different from you.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Morals, Economics, and Lego

Our family loves Freakonomics. My wife and I, along with our 20-year-old daughter, have read the book. My wife and I, along with our 11-year-old daughter, listen to the podcasts in the car. In fact, our 11-year-old has decreed that we’re not allowed to listen to the podcasts without her.

One of the things I love about Freakonomics is that the two Steves explain that morality is how you want the world to work, while economics explains how it actually does. I think the word “morality” sounds a little heavy-handed for what I’m going to talk about here, so I’ll change it to say that idealism is how you want the world to work, while economics explains how it actually does.

And with that out of the way, I want to talk about Lego.

Yes, Lego. I did Lego before Lego was cool. In 1961, when my family went to the toy department at Bamberger’s in Newark to replace the set of American Bricks that my sister and I had played with, and stepped on, and broken, for years, I saw a display for this new stuff I had just seen on a TV commercial a few days earlier. It was Lego. We bought a set, and soon we were Lego Evangelists, converting all of our friends from American Bricks and Kenner Sets and Tinkertoys to these new bricks that snapped together and locked in place…and that didn’t shatter when you stepped on them.

The Lego sets of the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s, were, as one might say these days, “gender neutral.” Girls and boys played with them and built things with them. But the market started to change in the 90s, and Lego seemed on the verge of collapse. What saved them was licensing characters and concepts from popular movies like Star Wars or Harry Potter or The Avengers. This brought them back from the brink, but this return to success meant that 90% of the kids playing with Lego were boys.

Lego had a huge problem on their hands. They wanted girls to play too, but construction toys seemed like a hard sell for girls. So they did a little research. Actually, they did a lot of research…and came out last year with the Lego Friends sets, which have become wildly successful with girls.

And this is where idealism and economics…or rather idealism and reality clash.

I know my share of women who are appalled at the “all pink and girly” sets that Lego has designed, and see them as consigning girls to the “pink and girly ghetto.” But if you’ve done your market research, and found out that this is what they really want, are you consigning them to a ghetto, or are you tapping into an unmet demand?

They also complained saying that maybe if the ratio of male to female “minifigs” in the regular city sets were closer to 50/50, more girls would be playing with them. This is a big maybe, however, and one based on wishful…or rather…idealistic thinking. After all, if that was really all it took, Lego would've done it, and at far less cost than creating a whole new line of sets.

When I tried explaining Lego’s market research to some of my more vocal female friends, and tried to convince them that maybe it showed that most girls weren’t interested in more female minifigs in the regular sets, but sets specifically themed to what they were interested in, the response I always got was along the lines of “But I’m a girl, and I enjoyed playing with regular Lego!”

Did you ever try explaining to someone that even though their experience is valid and true, they’re an outlier, and not representative of most people in their group? It’s not fun.

And then I saw an old headline in the local paper that gave me a new way to explain this. It stated that women still earn less than men.

Now wait a minute. For the 27 years I’ve known my wife, she has always made more than me…and by a significant margin too. Shouldn’t the fact of our experience as a couple negate the carefully-gathered statistics that the newspaper cited?

I didn’t think you’d buy that. So then, if it’s easy to accept the fact that my wife and I are outliers when it comes to who earns more, why such a hard time accepting the fact that even though you, as a girl, enjoyed playing with “gender-neutral” Lego, most girls want something a little more girly? Why such a problem admitting that the results of Lego’s research are valid, even though it goes totally against what you wanted to see? It’s not denying the truth or validity of your experience, it’s simply saying that most people aren’t like that. Accepting that means putting aside your idealism for reality.

Lego could’ve gone broke chasing after an idealistic version of how kids should play. Instead, they actually asked kids what they wanted, and gave it to them.

Seems to me that that’s a great example of giving girls a voice…even if what most of them want isn’t what you would’ve chosen.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Asterisk

As the story is commonly told, when Roger Maris hit his record-breaking 61st season home run during the 1961 season, it was declared that an asterisk should go after its mention in the record books. Not because of any particular taint to the achievement, because Maris made his 61 homers honestly, in the days before steroids were as common as Wheaties. No, the asterisk would go there to explain that Maris hit his 61 home runs in a season that was 12 games longer than the one that Babe Ruth hit his 60 in. So the circumstances were a little different. Perhaps with 12 more games, the Bambino might have hit 63.

Funny thing is though…the asterisk thing is a myth. At the time there was no official Major League Baseball record book, and therefore, nowhere to put an asterisk. But the story, and the idea of the asterisk, persists.

And the idea of the asterisk persists not simply as a way of denoting special circumstances, as was the case with Maris and Ruth, but to point out a taint of some sort.

After the highly contested 2000 election where Gore won the popular vote but Bush won the Electoral College, cartoonist Garry Trudeau depicted the president in all strips for the next eight years as an asterisk. Because he won, but “not really.” (We’ll talk some other time about my feelings about the Electoral College.)

Recently I’ve been reading…or rather listening to the audiobook How I Killed Pluto, and Why It Had It Coming by CalTech professor and astronomer Mike Brown, and have just made it through a very exciting section where it appears that someone has “stolen” one of his planets. It seems that in the days after Brown and his team had published an abstract about a new object in the Kuiper Belt that they had been studying, and the days before the symposium at which they would officially announce their findings, a team from Spain scooped them, announcing the discovery of the same planetary object. And in the world of astronomy, the one who announces first gets the credit for it…even if the other team actually has more data because they’ve been studying it longer.

In the beginning, Brown just figured that he had one of those occasional instances of bad luck that comes when a team that wants to do a meticulous job of verifying their findings before making a grand announcement loses out to a person who wants to have the bragging rights of saying that they found something…anything…without knowing for sure what they’ve found. But then, along with the body in space, he discovered a rat on the earth. He discovered that the other team had gotten their hands on his team’s telescope logs after the abstracts were published, and used that information to find out what he was looking at, and announce it first. They were celestial claim-jumpers.

Arguments and counter-arguments were made over who really discovered this object, whether Brown was “hiding objects” and hurting science or whether the Spanish team was acting unethically and unprofessionally. If you want to know the details, I suggest you read the book. It’s really a fun read/listen…especially the parts where he gets all nerdy about his wife’s pregnancy.

The final result however, is an asterisk. No, there’s not an asterisk in the official book of the universe saying that the Spanish team cheated and stole Brown’s planet, but there might as well be. Because despite the Spanish team’s protestations of innocence, and their insistence that they were right and Brown was wrong, most people in the professional astronomical community will see the Spanish team’s claim as being severely tainted; and even though the official records may say otherwise, because that is the official protocol, they will regard Brown’s team as the true discoverers. Indeed, I’m willing to wager that over the centuries, when the name of the Spanish team is mentioned, it will be in the same breath as the words “cheating” and “unethical.”

All of this brings me to a friend of mine. This friend is a survivor. She is a survivor of a family in which there was monumentally horrible parenting. A family in which one sibling committed suicide and the others didn’t end up much better. She is a survivor who has done a wonderful job for herself, despite the family she grew up in, and has raised three great and successful children. And then, her parents have the gall to point to her as a shining example of how good they were as parents. She wonders how blind can they be!

To her I say that they may be totally blind, but those around them, those who have seen what’s been going on for years can see one thing very clearly.

An asterisk.