Easy Distinction

*Posted by Kirk Spencer

First the Dodo marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (“the exact shape doesn’t matter,” it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there.  There was no “One, two, three, and away,” but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over.  However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out “The race is over!” and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, “But who has won?”  This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it stood for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence.  At last the Dodo said “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

Lewis Carol
Description of the Caucus Race
From Alice in Wonderland

This summer I was at Church Camp watching my group of preteens playing various camp games.  In each case, at the end of the game, the camp–staffers would ask them, “How is this game like the Christian life?”  A very abstract question for pre-teens, since they have not entered Piaget’s “Formal Operational Stage” (where abstract thinking becomes easier)—but they did their best.  And their answers were very entertaining: Some answers were oddly irrelevant, some were obviously just what was in their heads at the time and some were things they had heard grown-ups say (sort of).  However, none of this mattered because every answer was correct.  After asking the question, “How is this game like the Christian life” each camp-staffer was quick to add this consoling affirmation: “Don’t worry there are no wrong answers.”  Not only did I hear some wrong answers, I heard answers that were completely incoherent.   But they were all “correct.”  And all the children were proud of their answers, even the ones that didn’t make any sense.  Each “correct” answer was accepted with the easy distinction of a quick “that’s right” before moving on to the next “correct” answer.    As I stood there listening, it struck me as a warm-hearted thing to do—warm-hearted but wrong-headed.  “Yes-we-can” confidence, no matter how warm-hearted, is wrong-headed without “doing-it-right” competence.  It misses this important point:  The seductive power of affirmation-without-correction produces confidence in abilities that do not exist.  It taps into the natural propensity for our incompetence to extend to the knowledge (or rather lack of knowledge) of incompetence itself.  In other words, Ignorance is often ignorant of its own ignorance.  

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

Charles Darwin
From The Descent of Man

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

Shakespeare
From “As You Like It”

If we fool ourselves into believing unqualified affirmation produces authentic qualifications, we have something to learn, or relearn: Competence includes more than just words of affirmation and many wrong answers are required before we get it right.

Trophies

I saw a table once, a long table, covered with trophies from end to end, rows and rows of trophies, all of them the same.  Someone told me that they were having a tournament that day and those were the prizes.  I said, “That’s a lot of winners.”  And they said, “Everybody gets a trophy. The cost is figured into the tournament entrance fee.”  Then they explained that several years before the parents of children who didn’t get a trophy were upset because their child’s feelings were hurt because they didn’t get a trophy.   Then the next year, feelings were hurt again because someone got a bigger trophy.  So now the trophies are all the same and everybody gets one.  I remember thinking that the human-race was becoming the Caucus Race, “everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”  Even doing nothing, you can still get a prize—even a Nobel Prize.  And if you are “too big to fail,” you won’t.  Risk is removed and everyone wins.  But if everyone wins, then no one wins and so, we could just as easily say that everyone loses.

When I was a child, only the best got a trophy.  To get the trophy, you had to turn the battle to your favor.  I have read that in ancient Greece, the location on the battlefield where the battle was turned was called the “trope” (“the turning”).  It was there that the enemy was routed and the victory won.  On the trope, the victorious warriors would collect helmets, armor, shields and weapons and arranged them into the figure of a man.

This human figure was called a trophæum (a sign of victory).  The hard-won victory, and the effort exerted, and the lessons learned transformed those who won.  And so the trophaeum or trophies given in competition today are (or at least were) just such a “sign of victory” symbolizing the transformation that comes from turning the tide, showing your metal and becoming who you were not before.  But now trophies are given to all, even those who do not try, to those who did not turn the tide, those who are just the same as they ever were.  They possess a symbol of something that has never occurred, a sign of credentials they do not possess.

Chameleon Culture

Trophies, and other credentials, that are given away to the over-privileged cronies and the under-privileged tokens, are no longer tropheum of victory but totems of belonging to our chameleon culture where appearances are everything.  In a Chameleon Culture, it’s not what you know but who you know; and looking good is more important than being good.  In Chameleon Culture, perceptions are king; and pretense is persevered by claiming credit for others work and blame for one’s own incompetence is transferred to others, all within a safe cocoon of cronies.  All are put into play to produce the entitled privileged position of infallibility where there is no wrong because that would not be affirmative, maybe even discriminative, if the charge can be made to stick.

And so we have come full circle and what began as Childs play is now in the work-place.  Success is something given, not something earned.  No one can be successful on their own because they were not the only ones to “work hard.”  In such a climate, it is only natural that monetary success, which was also given (not earned), should be spread around to those who did not do the work (or work hard enough).  Redistribution is no longer from a heart of charity, but by force of law as a way to buy the loyalty of a (temporarily) “free” people.  The 19th Century political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville touches on this progression of dependency in his “Democracy in America.”  At the end of the chapter on “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nation Have to Fear,” De Tocqueville comments on how the governments minor subjections of its people gradually breaks their spirit and entices them to surrender the exercise of their own will to rulers that manipulate the electorate like play things.

It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power…  It is indeed difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people.

Alexis de Tocqueville
From Democracy in America

Could it be that in our generation, the American Dream of equal opportunity is progressing into the Marxist Pipe-Dream of equal results?  We certainly see signs in this false functional equality where everybody “wins” without even trying and the natural hierarchy of merit is made taboo to the point that the government takes away the results of trying.  And if folks stop trying, we will be easily diverted further into the doldrums of diversion where we no longer want to be better at all—not growing, not learning, not winning or losing.  Equality will come to mean equal in forced indifferent mediocrity.   Making everything free may very well be the end of freedom.  Not because we can’t do what we want to, but because—when we can get it without trying—we don’t want to “want to” anymore.   Then the Caucus Race will reach critical mass and the Dodo will speak, when everything has been taken, borrowed and spent, when everyone is forced to share what’s left, when prizes must be paid from whatever is in our own pockets—mainly just fuzz covered breath mints—then everyone will wait for the affirmative entitlement they have long expected.

“But who is to give the prizes?” quite a chorus of voices asked. “Why, she, of course,” said the Dodo, pointing to Alice with one finger; and the whole party at once crowded round her, calling out, in a confused way, “Prizes! Prizes!”

Lewis Carol
From Alice in Wonderland

My wife was telling me about how, in her preschool class, if you are quiet and still during nap-time you get a sticker, and if you actually go to sleep (or pretend you are asleep) you get two stickers.  The very first week a mother complained that her daughter was crying because she did not get two stickers and then the mother said this: “Why are you punishing my child!”  The mother was irate and wanted it changed.

Everybody gets two stickers now—no matter what.  Everything is equal and fair…  And don’t worry, “there are no wrong answers” and “everybody has won and all must have prizes.”   I just hope there’s enough to go around (maybe someone should check into that?).

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One Response to Easy Distinction

  1. From my perspective, America (the one in which I grew up) died on November 6, 2012, and I see no hope for her revival precisely for the reason you have so eloquently expressed here. Our only hope is in Christ’s return.

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