Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Rush to Judgment

I still have friends there, so I won’t say where or when. But I was a young dog handler, not operational yet, attending the first meeting in a certain state of a mixed federal-volunteer program that was later to become the FEMA task forces. [1] I did not, at the time, necessarily expect to be part of the developing system to make available volunteers capable of responding to 9/11-type disasters nationwide. [2] But I was hoping to get to know the folks in the SAR community beyond my team, and maybe see if I could be useful somehow.

I remember, vividly, introducing myself to a member of another team, saying that I was a rookie with XXX, my team at the time.

“Yeah, I know XXX, ” he said. “YYY runs that, right? You might want to consider changing teams. Some people don’t belong in search and rescue, and we’re going to make sure he’s out.”

Now, the awkward fact of the matter is that YYY did, in fact, turn out to be a crook. But significantly, at that point he’d done nothing wrong to the speaker or the SAR system in that state, and even when YYY did fall from grace his sin was against us, his teammates. Maybe more importantly, the quest to oust him, and sideline even the innocent among XXX, involved so much unethical and downright dirty behavior that these guys dug themselves a hole in the muck far lower than the high ground they thought they had.

I don’t think there is any situation in which I’d be so assured of my moral and ethical standing that I would put a young, 20-something dog handler trainee in that position. No matter how bad the team he thought I was on, the fact was that I might, someday, become an asset. And that possibility argued strongly against a display of asshole behavior, pretty much calculated to alienate me from interaction with the larger SAR community that is so important for young SAR responders to learn and grow and make their own teams better. [3]

It turned SAR into a zero-sum game that assured the biggest loser would be the lost person we’re all supposed to be concerned about. It’s a game I despise, and have tried to discourage throughout the 18 years I’ve been in SAR.

The point of the story, though, is that my own instinct is to shy away from judgment. I’ve seldom seen the person who’s so evil that I would feel comfortable condemning him wholesale. [4]

Today’s entry: a Feb. 27 Science study by H. A. Chapman and folk from the University of Toronto. They filmed the faces of people:

· experiencing a bitter, pleasant, or neutral flavor in their mouths
· looking at pictures, of things ranging from the pleasant to the disgusting
· being treated fairly or unfairly in an economic game

Then they measured changes in the relative positions of facial features — particularly the distance between the bottom of the nose and the top of the upper lip. And they found out that, for all the situations above, the only ones in which the distance between nose and lips predictably decreased were gustatory, visual, and ethical/moral disgust.

They weren’t taking a stab in the dark: there’s a longstanding literature suggesting that, when we say that a bitter taste, poo, and incest are all “disgusting,” it’s more than a metaphor. There seems to be a direct link between a physical feeling of revulsion and the moral judgments that a particular human behavior is unclean. Chapman and pals argue that we have constructed our higher-level sense of disgust using the building blocks that developed in the brain to help us avoid poisonous foods.

What really puts a hook in me is the side issue that, as in all things, human beings exist on a continuum. Some of us are far more easily moved to disgust than others; and some evidence suggests that our proclivities along these lines push us toward our political and religious affiliations. In short, the most (socially) conservative of us may be that way partly because we are more quickly and completely moved to real, physical disgust when we see something that disgusts us conceptually. On the other hand, the social liberals (including libertarians, on this issue) are slower to reach this point, keeping the moral and ethical on a more intellectualized level.

I would argue against a rush to ... judgment on this idea, since it isn’t immediately clear that either side is either practically or morally “better.” To some extent, I buy into the conservative argument that liberals are often so in love with exploring both sides of a moral argument they dither. I also hold with the liberal belief that conservatives are often so in love with acting on their gut feelings of right and wrong that they stumble into debacle. Pick your favorite example from recent history, both sides have plenty of ammunition.

Now, humans, like all mammals, never do anything for just one reason. And there’s evidence that, even among conservative religious groups, we may be experiencing significant shifts in exactly what defines of morality: Barack Obama had a surprisingly strong showing among young Roman Catholics and Christian fundamentalists. [5] Even if the link between conceptual and physical disgust is real, it can attach different sensibilities of what constitutes the unclean. In addition, a commentary on the Chapman study in the same issue of Science pointed out alternative explanations for their results to a real, biological link between physical and conceptual revulsion.

But it all does suggest that we split ourselves into ethical tribes because we’re literally put together differently. And that allowing voice to both outlooks helps us with the difficult balance of thinking things through vs. trusting our guts.

Of course, maybe that attitude itself marks me as fundamentally liberal — though I hate the term, and am far more conservative on some issues. No matter: my old team is still there, if transformed by time, and I’m certainly still here. Being able to see both sides doesn’t necessarily make you a pushover: so next time you judge, do so carefully.

[1] Since I’ve found some people associated with the FEMA system to be a bit ... ahem ... thin-skinned, I’ll just say that the state wasn’t Pennsylvania, and at least avoid antagonizing my neighbors. For the record, and for many reasons, I’ve never even tried to become part of that system.
[2] Though this was long before 9/11.
[3] Some of my current team’s best members came to us after concluding that their prior teams did not meet with their personal expectations and standards of quality and behavior. Gotta give people the chance to come to that conclusion on their own.
[4] Seldom doesn’t mean never. Yeah, yeah, Hitler, bin Laden, Saddam, Kim il Jung. I’m not a pacifist. Interestingly enough, though, I’ve only encountered one person in my SAR years that I have no interest in ever working with again — and it’s not the guy in this story.
[5] Deep water: our religious affiliations don’t parallel this phenomenon any better than our political affiliations.
There’s certainly a strain of refusing to judge others in christianity; still, I think most of you know what I’m talking about. Point being, the Obama votes from a new generation of traditionally right-wing voters was about more than just the economy: the definitions may be changing.


Heather Houlahan said...

We are old as dirt. Actually, you are older than. Hence the halfheimers.

You were at least a year operational when Mr. Charming put you on notice that he and his fellow flying monkeys were bent on tearing our unit to bits in order to get at one member, and screw anyone who got lost.

These were the same people who had such keen powers of observation that they could not put together the concept that we were married to one another or had any sort of connection. I mean, different last names, how could there be a link? The fact that we each would show up separately to meetings and searches in identical red Hondas with identical German shepherds named Lilly -- must be a co-inky-dink.

It's mad skilz of observation and deduction like that that I want out in the field searching for clues. They probably never noticed that Superman looks a lot like Clark Kent without glasses.

Made it easy to get them to talk trash to either of us on the other; some day I may tell you what I found out.

"Disgust" means, literally, inedible. Impossible to keep down. Old, old word.

Rocambole said...

This week's Newsweek has a full-page ad from FEMA featuring what looks like a Golden puppy and verbage saying that it costs $10,000 to train one of their dogs.


Heather Houlahan said...

What they don't tell you, Dorene, is that the handler absorbs all that cost.

Unless he is a full-time firefighter whose department is witless enough to buy a "trained" dog and expect to just graft it on to a dog-ignorant handler and make a "team."

Unfortunately, this is the direction many task forces are taking -- further demoting the dogs to the status of fancy equipment, without any comprehension of what a real dog and handler team can accomplish.

Fortunately, FEMA task forces are fairly irrelevant to life-saving canine response. They come too late to do much -- local responders have already found and accessed the live casualties.

There's never been a live find on US soil by a FEMA-deployed canine team.

My captcha word today is "mornac," which I love.

Rocambole said...

See, I thought that the handler absorbs the cost, so the FEMA ad just didn't make sense to me at all.

The ad was very confusing to me as I couldn't quite figure out what they were asking for -- put on a cute puppy (does anyone even use Goldens for detection?) and ask for money and hope no one asks to hard just what the money is for?

I figured it was a hot topic in your circles, but if you haven't seen it, do check it out -- I don't get it at all and I would figure I was the "target audience"

Our town's police force has a detection dog, but the dog was donated as a puppy by a local breeder and the puppy and police officer received a grant to do to training together. I don't see them very often, but they seem to have a good reputation in town.


Ken Chiacchia said...

For the record, I limited my own FEMA bashing to suggesting that some of them had thin skins ... The rest is all yinz's!

Anonymous said...

Anecdotal evidence never proves much, but I attribute my inability to become a conservative largely to my disgust at certain conservative policies and behavior. I was against torture before I was a torture victim (I can't say long before since I was 13 when it happened), and the subject didn't even used to be on the damn table before the Bush administration made it respectable. Then there's the dedicated GOP opposition to science whenever a science issue could result in regulation of big business -- tobacco, global warming, pollution in general. And let's not forget creationism. I love science, I have loved it since I was a kid hooked on dinosaurs and an eight-year-old watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. The idea that science is dispensable when politically inconvenient fills me with disgust.