Friday, March 15, 2013

Making choices

"Desert Sage" is a weekly editorial appearing in the Deming Headlight.  On the second Thursday of each month, I write the column.  This piece appeared yesterday.


One of my Desert Sage colleagues recently shared a terrific story about personal responsibility. A basketball coach asks his young team if they had ever blamed a referee for losing a game, and every hand goes up. He then asks them if they had ever given a referee credit when they won, and no hand goes up.

That coach, now a retired educator, writes: “I have seen students overcome some incredible hurdles” and concludes that “any student in the United States can get a great education if they really want one… Let’s not blame poverty or language or anything else.”

This witty story makes a critical point about individual behavior. It is usually easier to take credit for success than to eat the blame for failure. If we merely blame others, we do not learn from our mistakes. This is a good lesson for a young basketball team on a regulation basketball court with fair minded referees and coaches that love their kids and teach them about sportsmanship, humility, and shared victory.

Now let’s suppose that the referees insist one of the teams play with hands tied behind their backs, while the other team plays freely under the normal rules. Or, perhaps, they refrigerate the court and ask one team to play bare-chested while distributing long-sleeved shirts to the other team. In such unequal circumstances, it might be possible for the hobbled team to overcome the odds and win. They would immediately be celebrated for their ingenuity and determination, defying the odds and overcoming adversity. Even in defeat, they would be lauded as heroes.

Woe to the person who asks, once the applause has subsided, why that team was hobbled in the first place. Get a load of that party-pooper undercutting the team’s valor and punishing success! Asking questions about the rules of the larger game -- the size of the court, and who is placing the hurdles where – remains a taboo in our country. As the late Catholic archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Social inequality does exist. It follows consistent, systematic patterns. It strongly influences personal behavior. Though many of us presume that our destinies are determined by choices – and there is truth to that – it leaves out the fact that we can only choose among the options that are available to us. In other words, opportunity matters, too; and opportunity is not evenly or fairly distributed.

Economists sometimes refer to this as the “choice-opportunity dichotomy,” and most of them live on the choice side, like much of our political discourse.

Many psychologists have studied the so-called “just world hypothesis,” a cognitive bias which assumes that reward follows virtue and good choices, whereas misfortune must be the outcome of bad choices and personal defects. One of these psychologists, Melvin J. Lerner, wrote: “People must assume that there are manageable procedures which are effective in producing the desired end states.”

It is far easier to assume that the playing field is basically level and people get what they deserve than to confront a world where people, including children, suffer for reasons beyond their control.

Fortunately for this debate, it is not really an “either-or” relationship. The choice-opportunity dichotomy is healed when we see choice and opportunity as integrated and mutually important.  Wherever we individuals find ourselves, we make our choices, but personal responsibility is not just about me. We are also responsible for the state of our basketball court. In the kind of country we aspire to be, we have a responsibility to address the imbalances of power and opportunity in our republic. We can attend school board meetings and vote in elections, perhaps even run as candidates. We can learn how our system works, participate wisely, and petition lawmakers and even businesses to make good choices. We can even organize social movements, inspired by historical efforts of the poor and working class to correct the imbalance of power in our country.

Our playing field is not level, and that determines the choices available to us. If we don’t like that, let’s choose to get smart, and get busy.

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