Monday, August 30, 2010

Lazy or Sick?

As a thought experiment, imagine that we discovered a virus that inhibited certain higher brain functions. Most subjects infected with this virus would exhibit a greater tendency towards short-temperedness, and would be seen as 'difficult' or 'moody' by others. A few, though, become criminally anti-social. When a treatment for this virus is developed, many formerly hardened criminals become model citizens, exhibiting none of the destructive tendencies that had seemed so hard-wired.

How would this change the way we viewed criminals? (And, for that matter, the cranky uncle who drives everyone nuts at Thanksgiving?) My hypothetical above does not claim that the criminals and the cranky were powerless to resist these urges, just that it was harder for them than for the non-infected. I would contend that society would be split between those who felt those with the virus had been dealt a bad hand, but their behavior was still their fault, and those who would argue people cannot be held really responsible for behavior driven to a large extent by an outside influence.

I bring this up because of a brief article in New Scientist that outlines the link between a mouse virus and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). The science is clearly at an early stage, and previous attempts to link CFS to a virus have not borne out. But here is the key finding:

Shyh-Ching Lo of the Food and Drug Administration in Bethesda, Maryland, and colleagues found that blood samples from 32 of 37 people with chronic fatigue syndrome contained "polytropic" murine leukaemia virus-related fragments, compared with only three of 44 healthy blood donors.

Now, having done some work in this topic, I can say that many physicians, especially older male physicians, put CFS in a bucket of "women's conditions", along with related syndromes like Fybromyalgia and Restless Leg Syndrome. They tend to believe that the women in their care have underlying psychological problems that are manifesting themselves in these syndromes. That some anti-depressants have proven helpful in alleviating several of these syndromes reinforces their view. To say these physicians are dismissive of these problems and these patients is an understatement.

Patients would widely embrace the identification of a 'real' cause, and would undoubtedly demand a level of care and support for their condition far beyond what they receive today. But notice that not every CFS patient has the virus, and not everyone with the virus has CFS. That implies either that the virus may contribute to the syndrome without fully causing it, or that the reaction to infection might vary enough that a significant number of the infected aren't noticeably sick. (And would this be so surprising? After all, people react very differently to infection by the same cold viruses.) But if, for example, 25% of the people infected with this mouse virus are not noticeably fatigued, and another 50% are fatigued or lethargic to a degree, but are still able to function, many people are going to dismiss the 25% who are most affected as lazy, as milking their diagnosis. And it will be hard to prove the truth either way.

As the science of health continues its amazing advance, we're going to learn more and more about the environmental influences (viruses, bacteria, chemicals, etc.) that impact human performance. If pre-natal pollution exposure lowers IQ, should the less intelligent from dirtier environments be compensated, or get preferential treatment at schools? If certain gut flora lead to obesity, do we give them health coverage for bariatric surgery? With each new learning or theory, we move farther from the notion that people should be held accountable for their choices, and closer to a world where every personal failure is attributed to an outside force. It may be hard work to preserve the notion that we are masters of our own lives.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Untalented and the Fearful

About a week ago, I saw some truly lousy modern dance. It went as these things often do, with odd costumes, occasionally amusing visual gags, brief moments of coordinated physical movement, and an audience that often tittered at what one could only guess were inside jokes. And so my mind wandered, a bit.

I found myself trying to determine if the dancers had talent in any discernible way. Did they, through combination of native ability and hard work, demonstrate high aptitude, if I took what they were doing at face value? I thought to other modern dance performances I have seen, and in subtle ways, I thought they were probably in fact a bit less skilled then many of their peers. To put it another way, I thought other dancers I have seen would have performed the same routine with more grace, more flair, and more humor. But those differences are minimized by the art form itself, which has sacrificed everything but novelty.

I don't mean to bitch about modern art, or not only to do so. Other writers, including one of my favorites, have done that much better than I can. But I mean to question if the sad state of modern art forms (I'd include painting, poetry, dance, classical music composition, and much of theater and architecture in this bucket) have evolved so as to coddle the talented and shelter the talentless.

If judgments about art's quality are subjective, then it is awfully mean to tell anyone their art stinks. So you don't, and the poor artists don't get weeded out. But the talented have no incentive to hone their skills, either, because that's not how they will be judged. They will be judged by novelty, their flair for self-promotion, and whether they master the language and the symbols of the in-crowd. Showing too much raw skill just might turn everyone else off.

And so the state of art is perfect for our self-esteem culture. The talentless are given a fair chance to beat the gifted. If someone rejects your work, it is not because you stink, it is because they don't get it. You don't need to master what your predecessors knew because it is old hat, and all anyone in your crowd cares about is what's next. Jackson Pollock is relevant as a cultural marker, but a young painter cannot learn what he needs by studying his predecessor's technique, because he can never fling paint at a canvas better than Pollock. The attempt would just be derivative. Maybe splatter a canvas with your own blood or desecrate a religious icon.

Great art, even mediocre art, requires deeply understanding and at least partially mastering what the public standard for quality is, and then either building on it or turning it on its ear. Modern art has build a Tower of Babel where the insiders only pretend to understand each others' gibberish, and then pat each other on the back in celebration of the wonderful new language each has created.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

On Rejection

If I can disagree a bit with the image at left, increasingly, we don't learn early on how to deal with rejection. It seems the self-esteem factories of childhood are dead set against letting young people experience anything that could be seen as rejection or a repudiation of their innate wonderfulness.

I am writing this from the very un-objective point of view of someone who just got a rejection letter for a short story he thought was pretty good. But despite my anger (and there's no other word for it) that some hack assistant editor decided my story wasn't worth the time of day, rejection is clarifying. And I don't think we have enough of it in our modern world, especially for young people.

In the worlds of academia and youth activities, we have worked hard to ensure that relatively few people are told their work is inadequate. There's a paint-by-numbers way to get at least decent grades, and there's always an activity willing to celebrate your effort. (Sports remain something of an exception, but only because putting lousy players on the team only delays rejection until the actual game, when you get the ultimate rejection of losing.)

Grade inflation is perhaps one of the more insidious ways that a culture of non-rejection ruins people. A smart student that gets B's and C's because their work isn't quite up to the level of top achievers might be motivated. But when everyone who is adequate gets an "A", the underachiever has no motivation to improve and the overachiever feels cheated and stops working as hard.

Even in dating, perhaps the area most likely to create rejection, the challenges have been lessened. When most people dated with some degree of commitment, the decision to be with a person or not was serious, and a lot of feelings got hurt. Now, young people increasingly have to live with a hook-up culture that discourages serious commitment, but opens the door to casual flings where no one's feelings are hurt, but no one leaves quite satisfied, either.

In adulthood, this translates into no one being willing to tell you that you could be better. I had a long conversation recently with some managers at my company, who said that they were trained to treat anyone under 30 with kid gloves and to overwhelm them with positive reinforcement, lest they become discouraged and quit. Unsurprisingly, those 20-somethings don't seem to be learning how to get better.

That's the value of rejection: it either clarifies your failings or makes you that much more determined to prove the rejector wrong. If we are losing our ability as a society to reject that which we feel is inadequate, we will end up with steadily less excellence, as too many talented people will feel their first, mediocre efforts in their chosen field are good enough. Far better to maintain a culture of high standards, where a little rejection goes a long way to motivating people.