Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called David and Goliath, which in his words, is about “asymmetrical conflicts, and the strategies that are available to the weaker side, and secondarily, it’s about the accuracy of our assumptions about the nature of advantages and disadvantages. So, is our perception of one side as the favored and the other side as the underdog, accurate, or is it an illusion…?
The examples he gives, is, not surprisingly, of David and Goliath from the Bible.
“David’s choice of weapon, the sling, is actually an incredibly devastating weapon. You place a rock in a leather pouch, and you swing it around at 6 to 7 revolutions per second, you release one of the chords, the rock goes forward at speeds of 30 meters power… the stopping power of a typical projectile launched in that way is the equivalent of a 45 caliber handgun, and the accuracy of the people in those years was extraordinary. Someone with a couple of years of experience could hit the center of a clock… routinely, slingers defeated heavy infantry, which is what Goliath is, in combat, in ancient times.
There’s been all this speculation in the medical literature about what is going on with Goliath, he moves very slowly, he’d led on to the valley floor by an attendant…the thinking is that he has what’s called acromegaly, which is the condition of a benign tumor on the pituitary gland that causes overproduction of human growth hormone. He’s tall, he’s a giant. Acromegaly has a side effect which compresses the optic nerves. Goliath is probably half-blind. So, a guy who is half blind goes up against another guy with an incredibly lethal weapon, accurate to within a hair’s breadth, and a stopping power of a 45 pistol, and yet for three thousand years we’ve insisted that guy’s an underdog. It’s insane. It’s the most irrational reading of the allocation of advantages and disadvantages in that conflict.
To rephrase what he’s saying, it’s possible to gauge wrongly the risks of a given situation. In David and Goliath’s case, we overestimate the risks of being an underdog, and underestimate the risks of being an established power. The extent of the risks, and the concavity and depth of danger may be oblique to us. We may overstate certain dangers in some cases, understate dangers in other cases.
And I think this misreading of situations can be helped by ideological biases, or point of view biases, which have the effect of marginalizing reality itself.
For example, it is often pointed out that the largest attempt to exterminate an entire people happened in the Holocaust, during World War II, where according to reliable sources, 6 million Jews were killed in the hands of the Nazis. But many others were killed or severely maltreated as well around the time of World War 2, but we often don’t talk about them, due to an ideological bias in the US towards helping Israel. It’s important to note that I am not making the slightest criticism of Israel, but of the US’s general bias toward Israel, which is so monumental. An example of a group of people whose rights and lives we don’t pay enough attention is the lives which were lost because of the bombing of Dreden, Germany, in which many thousands of German civilian lives were lost . And we do not have to establish moral equivalence to the Holocaust in order to care about these other lives. Another example is Herta Müller, a member of a German minority in Romania, when the Soviet Union came and collectivized everything, and deported her mother to a forced labor camp. Romania in textbooks was portrayed as an anti-fascist state (which it wasn’t), and the blame for Nazi-ism was projected onto the minorities in Romania, like the German minority. Herta Müller writes about the cruel deportation of Germans to labor-camps in books like The Hunger Angel. We don’t read The Hunger Angel in college, but we read Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust. My recommendation is that we read both, that both be made required reading, so as to gain an even richer understanding of history. Ideological biases, however, come in the way, and an unappreciated danger is that we may be deprived of an educational experience offered to us by books like The Hunger Angel. In an enlightened educational institution, reading about the plight of the German minority in Romania wouldn’t cancel out or nullify or any way minimize the experience of the Jewish people in World War II, but add to the overall understanding of human suffering.
Yet another example of ideological biases marginalizing reality is the current election season. Some of my friends have offered the following syllogism: Jesus : the devil :: Hilary : Trump. The paranoia surrounding this election is only heightened and assisted by the aid of my liberal friends who make the aforementioned analogy. But I for one am not convinced. Yes, Trump may have – should he win -- the power to appoint Supreme Court Justices, but what everyone always neglects to mention is that the Senate needs to confirm the appointments by a majority, and Republicans themselves have turned their back on Trump. Trump is not the ideal choice for Republicans, but they often see him as an evil, and the lesser one at that. As to the aspersions that he is the next Hitler, I think that is exaggeration. The parallels are remote. For one thing, Hitler was appointed to be chancellor, and as a matter of historical fact this cannot be contested. This is an awkward fact for those liberals who make the argument that democracy is inherently unstable because it allows tyrants like Hitler to come to power; another reason the parallels are remote is that the separation of powers was a lot weaker then than what we in the US are accustomed to now. Friedrich Hayek wrote his most famous book called The Road to Serfdom, in which he talks about, ironically, the notion that Germans were not uniquely evil, and that what had happened in Germany with the rise of Hitler and the death camps could happen in other countries too. But he was nuanced in his description of this possibility. He wrote of the situations in which democracy may be under threat:
"It is not difficult to see what must be the consequences when democracy embarks upon a course of [economic] planning [by means of the government] which in its execution requires more agreement than in fact exists. The people may have agreed on adopting a system of directed economy because they have been convinced that it will produce great prosperity. In these discussions leading to the decision, the goal of planning will have been described by some such term as 'common welfare,' which only conceals the absence of real agreement on the ends of planning. Agreement will in fact exist only on the mechanism to be used [the government]…. the cry for an economic dictator is a characteristic stage in the movement toward planning" (61, 67)
But America is so far from having an economic dictator. Though we want someone to solve our economic problems as if by magic, we have to face up to the fact that congress is the only body which can pass laws. The president can veto a bill that has made it through congress, but congress can override the president’s veto. The president has no true law-making power, and so, because separation of powers is so inherent to the American way of life, there is no way that, even should Trump win, could he exert the kind of power that Hitler exerted.
But these arguments would fall on unlistening ears to my liberal friends, because of an ideological commitment on their part to having Hilary in office, and one way you can get her in office is by increasing the perceived chasm between Hilary and Trump – Hilary as savior, Trump as veritable monster.
Reality is marginalized by ideological biases, and that is a shame, because in the long run, minimizing and downplaying facts to make arguments is not going to work. This is an example of what happens when the dangers are misread, and the risks are overstated.
But of course, ideological biases are not always political. One ideological bias that is very popular these days is that “our kids are coddled” and this must stop. This is a bias that exalts struggle as the best way to acquire all kinds of life skills, so there is a major movement among groups of parents and teachers to stop praising kids, because in their view, praising kids wantonly leads to the increase of undesirable character traits, because they won’t reflect on their deep-seated flaws. This movement is typified by an article by Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, called “The Learning Myth: “Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart.” In it, he basically says that growth happens through struggle, and not by praising kids to up their self-esteem. I think the title is a bit extreme. I personally would love to be told I’m smart – smart by my friends, my teachers, my parents.
But the worldview that accompanies this stop-coddling-our-kids-because-struggle –is-the-only–way-to-become-great philosophy is one that presumes that kids and people generally are prone to being selfish, careless, lazy, slothful, inconsiderate. It’s a belief of convenience, because then it gives people something to struggle to overcome, reinforcing the notion that struggle is important. But, as Bertrand Russel said in Why I Am Not a Christian, “When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings” (23).
And what holds for church is equally applicable anywhere such mentalities surrounding human nature take root. It’s okay to recognize the importance of hard work and perseverance, but to uphold struggle as noble in itself, and to fabricate a worldview – a form of ideological bias – which reduces people to a sum of negative traits, is to marginalize reality.
But, a counter-argument may run, even if the intellectual foundation of a belief is weak, if it gets the job done, won’t that suffice? In other words, why fret over the fact that calling people selfish, a squanderer, slothful, careless, incorrigibly insensitive is not necessarily true, since that incorrect perception may nonetheless incentivize people to try harder and put forth more effort, to overcome their alleged vices?
I think the problem with this thinking is that certain dangers are under-estimated by doing this. I, for one, am one of those people, who gets quite down on myself as it is, and by referring to myself in those disparaging terms this would hurt my ability to persevere. What I may need, then, is a little more of the vices that I’m supposed to be avoiding, or at least to think of myself as needing more of them…
For example, I’m so conscious about not being careless that I’m so slow in everyday tasks. Perfectionism inhibits me from multi-tasking. Making pasta is an ordeal because I need to be 100% sure I’m handling all the ingredients with the appropriate amount of care. Moms, in contrast, are able to do a thousand things at once!
Toni Morrison was describing this ability of moms to do everything in an interview with Bill Moyers:
“I think I’ve seen women, who strike me as being like that… women who are very independent, very fierce, who at the same time, can cook and sew, and nurture, and manage… and I think that we’re probably in a very good position to do that, as black women; we’ve been managing households, and other people’s children, and two jobs, and listening to everybody, and at the same time, creating, singing, holding, bearing, transferring the culture, for generations, we’ve been walking on water, for 400 years!”
I’m so afraid of being careless, I get nothing done, because I’m busy trying to be careful in every situation. So maybe I need to be a little more careless! The same with the notion of being inconsiderate. I’m so worried about what I say to people, how I phrase it, that I probably come across as someone with a stick in their butt at a party – so uptight! And selfish – when I drive, I’m so worried about driving in a way that is socially conscientious that I do things like look across the street 3 times before merging in a T-intersection, that people who I’m giving a ride to wonder if I know how to drive, so maybe I should be a little more selfish! I’m so tentative because of the inundation of care. How could I care any more?
But there are worse consequences of viewing humans as creatures as the aggregate of base-instincts than being more tentative than one would like: it could inhibit your desire to love and be a kind person.
To the person who sincerely believes that struggle is essential, and praising someone is counterproductive because they would get a false sense of egoism from that praise, and they imagine a world in which people embody more negative than positive traits, maybe this has paid off. Maybe viewing themselves and their fellow humans as beasts in clothing has made them more industrious, more conscientious.
But I see a risk that they don’t see. I think these people are misreading the dangers, downplaying the risks.
One of Toni Morrison’s characters in her book Beloved, Paul D, observes of his love-interest, Sethe:
"Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one" (57).
The risk of debasing oneself by viewing oneself as wretched, selfish, etc, is not a trivial issue. The risks are quite huge, in my estimation. The concavity, the depth of the danger, unappreciated. You may decide to spend your whole live trying to patch up the holes in your character you were taught that you have – imbibed from the philosophy of human nature which says praising kids is bad because they won’t get a chance to improve on their dreadful condition --and never venture out beyond the fortress of your habits and go out and love someone, just spread kindness, just to mingle and to mope together, to cry and laugh together, because wait, look at the time, there are more faults to rectify, more character flaws to patch up, more positive habits to inculcate…
The danger is that you would take Paul D’s attitude towards love, that love is too dangerous, that it’s better to love just a little bit, not because you can’t hold on to people, but because people are a hindrance to you, and love is an obstruction in the way of your betterment. Now, wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Ideological biases are not just distortions of reality; they are baggage that can weigh you down and prevent your heart from acquiring the wings to soar and expand in love.