Accepting the Sting

My ideas are still very much in flux, and I feel that writing about this topic is probably the best way for me to sort through a messy tangle of thoughts. So, please take this post as coming from a fairly experimental place.

During the COVID pandemic, I have often heard: “Trust the science!” Unfortunately, it was not science that has led policy makers to certain decisions—as I understand it at least. Why? For anything to qualify as science, the process being engaged in must at least two qualities which have not been met: authentic humility and curiosity. Scientific inquiry requires an initial state of “I know that I don’t know”, a genuine openness and joy of exploration, coming with a willingness to follow the evidence into pretty much any direction.

As an analogy, imagine entering a completely dark, unexplored room. The door closes behind you, leaving you in a state of no knowledge. And the reason to explore is not instrumental—you are not frantically looking for an object to save your life, for instance. You simply enjoy figuring out the opportunities (and subsequent risks) this room and the objects therein hold. The room also does not, in your expectation, present lethal dangers, such as trapdoors, and neither does the exploration come with time pressure. How much does this image apply to your understanding of “COVID science”?

Instead, I think of the process that led us to mask mandates, vaccines, and other interventions much more as engineering. A similar analogous image is being in mid-flight and realizing that an important piece of hardware is malfunctioning. Without urgent and decisive action, many people may die. If you happen to have capable engineers on board, who are skilled and experienced, there is a decent chance that they can find a solution, and help you overcome this challenge.

The search process in such a situation is very different. It has a clear goal in mind, and it incorporates important trade-offs, such as the lives at risk and the limited time to find a solution. And it also comes with the possibility of implementing steps that, if one were to rigorously test them, would turn out not to have the impact one may imagine.

Why is that difference important? Because in many areas our culture has forgotten that learning—true exploration of novel paths, followed by testing and reliable inference—cannot be achieved without accepting the risk of making mistakes and incurring pain. Instead, it seems to me that we have come to a place of pretense: we assume that we can gain new knowledge and make progress while at the same time minimizing pain. We are trying to solve difficult problems for which humanity has so far not found decent solutions by using existing knowledge alone. How likely is that?

This applies, the way I look at it, particularly in the many situations in which humans struggle to find a solution to which a true majority—say 90 per cent of people—would agree. And the consequence of our approach of not wanting to incur risks and, yes, pain?

What follows is, at this point, highly speculative. I do not have scientific evidence for my hypothesis. And I do not expect anyone to enjoy the thought of trying to collect it. Which is, really, my point: people do not actually want to engage in scientific inquiry on a lot of topics. It feels like costing too much. At the very least it would cost us the peace-of-mind we feel for already having (or at least wanting to have) an existing solution to a problem.

The hypothetical principle I am curious about is that—similar to the necessary pain incurred when a human infant learns how to walk, running into objects, and falling many thousands of times—pain in itself is nothing to worry about. OK, that is maybe a bit too far out. Let me rephrase: For as long as my primary worry is about pain, I cannot truly explore all possible avenues. And derived from this principle, I would say that by pathologically avoiding or suppressing pain, either through prohibiting curiosity or through applying “pain killers”, a system that needs to find a novel approach to solve a problem is likely to destabilize and, ultimately, deteriorate into chaos.

I want to look at this in an area in which I perceive a shying away from conversation, because people experience the topic as painful: How can society honor feminine vulnerabilities, such as by providing gendered public facilities, while supporting sex expression and experience outside the “at-birth-binary”?

A concrete example: in Los Angeles, a trans woman went into a spa, and another woman complained about that person’s genitalia to the spa staff. Eventually, the person was charged with indecent exposure.

Learning how to talk about such a topic would not even require accepting immediate physical pain. It would, however, require accepting the sting that comes from looking at the topic honestly.

Society seems to have reached a critical junction around a painful recognition: despite many achievements in women’s rights, women remain—on a very real and biological or physiological level—more vulnerable than men. If you pick two random people from the population and “pit them against one another”, and I then tell you one is a (biological) man and the other a woman, who do you bet your money on? If you know anything about statistics, about physical strength of the two sexes, and about personality differences between men and women, I presume your choice is just as sexist as mine. But can we stay real, please? Biological differences exist, and as painful as it is having to deal with them in certain circumstances, pretending otherwise is one of those pain avoidance strategies that leads to very odd places.

And as much as we may lament the pitting-against part, until we—through whatever miracle—achieve a society free of crime and strive and struggle, humans will always face situations in which they perceive that another person is willing to use force to achieve their intentions and inflict harm. And this is true in a physical encounter just as much as in a contentious dialog.

So, how can we get to open and honest dialog? My hunch is that the following steps are necessary. First, whenever I experience that a statement I listen to or read creates inner resistance, I want to be sure to separate fact from my (and others’) evaluation or interpretation. Next, I want to ask myself, “What is the source of the resistance? Which values of mine seem violated by what I hear or read?” And once I have deeply connected with my values, so that my experience changes from defensiveness to understanding, I can then ask, “What might be the rejected pain behind the statement?”

In the example of the trans woman, I might read the headline and—if I generally experience trans women as being targeted unfairly—have a strong urge to express anger and despair. Why are people who probably already go through many difficulties still being targeted? If I pay attention to my inner experience, I can see that my sense of care for people who seem burdened creates a desire to alleviate their suffering. And whenever I think of someone adding an additional burden rather than helping, it may lead me to wanting to rescue people from that circumstance.

When I can truly appreciate that my feelings come from my own evaluation and wishes, I can then go the next step. What might have been the reasons for the other woman to complain, and for law enforcement to decide to charge the trans woman with this misdemeanor crime? Maybe I can then see that, as a woman, seeing someone naked who clearly was born as a man in a women’s changing room can be quite distressing. Maybe this person has had experiences in their past, making it understandable to be fearful and complain? And could law enforcement really reach a decision on the spot without charging, and asking the person being charged to go through a discovery process?

To begin answering these and other questions, I firmly believe that it is necessary to be open in all directions. So long as people feel that even the potential for pain—which might come from having to talk openly about the topic—is too much, and that their preferred solution must be the accepted by everyone else, I am skeptical that we will reach a stable conclusion.

As I tried to express at the outset, my thoughts surrounding this hypothesis are far from “in good working condition.” And given this state, I precisely do not want to fall into the trap described by the hypothesis of “having to make up my mind” prematurely. So, please take this post as a preliminary exploration, a step on a journey on which I felt inclined to invite others, maybe to help me think more clearly about all of this.

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