What Game are We Playing?

Does anyone really enjoy musical chairs?  Someone must, right?  But I don’t think it has appeared at a single birthday party of my kids’ experience.  Kind of a brutal game, really.

I don’t love outdoor team building exercises, either, thanks to fear of heights and the outdoors always being too hot or too cold, but at least it’s heartening to face a seemingly impossible wall knowing that everyone is committed to getting all of you over or no one.  If you tossed me into competitive wall climbing instead — everyone for themselves and last one over the wall loses — I’d probably just give up and wander in the woods alone pondering the stupidity of walls and humanity.

It seems like a lot of psychological research reports averages and tendencies, drawing general conclusions about all of us.  “People cheat more when they think no one is watching,” “People feel calmer in blue rooms,” that kind of thing.  Lately I’ve been pondering the differences more, though.  Just now, I'd rather read a deep explanation of why some people want to fight over a chair while others would rather heave their teammates over a wall.

It feels like maybe psychologists are starting to pay more attention to differences, too.  (Or maybe I'm just noticing it now?)  I was handed an article recently (although it was published years ago), on a gene associated with ADHD.  The researchers had studied neighboring tribes, one of settled farmers and one of nomadic hunters.  (I can’t find the exact article, but it was very similar to this one.)  Among the farmers, where routine ruled the day, ADHD was a liability.  People with the gene ended up with less food.  But among the hunters, where quick reactions counted and every kill went a little differently, the gene meant more food.  It was the calm less-distractible people who more often went hungry.

There are unsettling implications to this kind of thing, especially if you see life as a zero-sum game of musical chairs.  Unsettling in that eugenics seems to have made a stunning comeback recently, with a Tennessee judge offering reduced jail time for prisoners who accept sterilization (the policy has since been pulled back after public outrage), a former senior advisor to the winning presidential campaign talking about immigration on CNN as “this is about who’s in your [national] gene pool," and congressional leadership fighting hard to make health insurance too expensive for many  people to have.  As twitter user @anthoknees put it, “I’m convinced that people want poor people to die bc they believe in eugenics (often without realizing it)”.

But if a musical chairs mentality draws us towards endorsing eugenics, could a no-one-left-behind exercise push the other direction?  Instead of survival of the fittest, the goal is survival of all.  Which is aided by building trust (generally hard to do if you're ditching teammates whenever that seems convenient) and preserving a broad set of skills with which to tackle the unknown challenges of the future.

These thoughts were humming in the background, not quite jelled, while I read How Fear of Falling Explains the Love of Trump (New York Times).  It points out the cultural divide between coastal elites and middle Americans, not over hot topics like abortion and gay marriage, but over fundamental how-the-world-works assumptions that run under the surface, powerful and unseen.  In middle America, “valuing hard work means having the rigid self-discipline to do a menial job you hate for 40 years, and reining yourself in so you” don’t “have an attitude” and create “disruption,” which would just “get you fired.”  But for elites, “hard work… is associated with self-actualization; ‘disruption’ means founding a successful start-up.”  (I feel compelled to note those quotes are all from a book, which I have not read, by Joan C. Williams, a law professor, which is quoted in the article, which I have read.)

In one world, disruption means success.  In the other, disruption means failure.  Like the hunters and the farmers, different circumstances easily end up favoring opposite traits.

Soon Twitter tossed another article into my mental stew.  Disabled and Disdained (Washington Post) shows the conflict in a struggling rural community through the lens of the McGlothlins: a woman on disability, her 19 year old son, his wife, and two other adults who live with them, all depending on that one disability check.  Her son’s been following the rules, finished school, hasn’t been in jail, etc. but things aren’t working out for him or any of them.  And many of their neighbors who haven’t fallen so far off the ladder see the world the way they’ve always seen it, with the clarity of traditional American calvinism:  workers are good, non-workers are bad.

Calvinism is another thing that’s been on my mind lately (what a segue!), and with it old memories of sitting in a plastic chair with a bolted-on “desk”, watching and listening in fascination to my favorite teacher as she scrawled chalk notes across the blackboard and responded to our comments with frustration or excitement (but always with intensity) as we tried to make sense of the theological and economic roots of the Protestant Reformation.  “Predestination” was definitely on the chalkboard (I remember she had a particular way of writing e’s so they always looked like capitals).  “Pre-“ for “before” and “destination” for “destiny” — God decided before you were even born whether you were saved (one of the “elect”, also a word on the chalkboard) or damned.  The decision was secret, of course, because God likes secrets, and there also wasn’t anything at all that you could do to change it, because otherwise how could God be all-powerful?  You’d think this would be a recipe for all kinds of hedonism because LOL nothing matters!, but people are people and they figured out a solution faster than you can say “sinners in the hands of an angry God”:  of course, no one could truly know the will of God, but they could guess.  And the guess they came up with was not impressively creative:  achieve worldly success while making a show of self discipline and you were probably one of “the elect”.  Misfortune, though, was strong evidence of your irredeemable depravity.

So let’s go back to the McGlothlins.  By Puritan standards, they are contemptible. (Did I mention it was the Puritan Pilgrims of Massachusetts that brought Calvinism to America? are all those words really supposed to be capitalized?)  No jobs between them, whiling away their days playing video games or holding a sign by the side of the road hoping for some cash to buy food.  Their neighbor calls it like he sees it: there is a “resistance to work” these days.  He himself “worked 60 hours a week — despite a thyroid condition, despite two bankruptcies, despite the depressed local economy — not because he felt like it but because that was who he was.”

Researchers have described this attitude as “a tendency by Americans in the second lowest quintile of the income ladder — the working or lower-middle class — to dissociate themselves from those at the bottom, where many once resided,” according to Who Turned My Blue State Red? (New York Times and Pro Publica, last year).  Not really surprising, is it?  I mean, if not working is evidence of incurable moral failure, then you’d want to distance yourself from that stigma as much as possible, wouldn’t you?

And if you felt like you couldn’t escape the ranks of the damned, you’d want to avoid coming into contact with the “elect” as much as possible, right?  Indeed, “She knew how she must look,” we hear of the elder McGlothlin, “in her pajamas and mismatched socks, to people who work. She knew what they must say… She would sometimes consider how she would answer.  But it’s simpler to say nothing at all, so she rarely leaves the house now.”

The societal consequences of this withdrawal are huge, explain the academics of Who Turned My Blue State Red?  Those who rely most on public assistance have “become profoundly disconnected from the political process” and mostly do not vote.  Thus their thesis: it’s not the needy stupidly voting against the programs that are barely keeping them afloat.  Instead, those who don’t need assistance at the moment are voting to take it away from their damned lazy undeserving neighbors.  And their damned lazy undeserving neighbors are too depressed and ashamed to bother voting at all.

At the end of the story about the McGlothlins, the son has been shooed away from his spot on the highway where he “holds a sign” when the family is desperate.  It’s what his father used to do, before he went to prison on drug charges (addiction followed the pain from his 30 years in coal mining... 30 years when they weren't so contemptible).  It’s what his father told him to do when necessary.  But then the cop told him to leave.  So he calls his mom from the grocery store.  “I don’t know what to do,” he says, “What should I do?”

What do you do when your strength is following the rules and doing what you’re told, but the rules have all changed without much notice and there’s no one left to tell you what to do?  What do you do when you’ve been a successful farmer but now your land won’t produce and you’ve got to try your hand at hunting?  And what do your neighbors do?  Who decides whether we're playing high-risk musical chairs, with the chairs disappearing faster to ditch the undeserving more quickly, or whether we're up against a wall of change, for the umpteenth time in human history, needing a plan to pull as many as we can to the other side so we can face the next danger together?