Right now, if you were to ask me what I want carved into my tombstone, I think it might be “But what’s your policy position?” And I don’t mean that in a federal policy or legislative context all the time, although sometimes I do, but I mean it more of a general sense. I get so impatient with conversations that go on and on about how everyone is feeling about something, without anyone actually clarifying whether they think there should be a policy change.
Don’t get me wrong, feelings are important, and those conversations are important to have. In certain contexts. But if I don’t know you, I’m not really likely to care a whole lot about your feelings on a matter. I’m much more inclined to care about whether you advocate a particular policy (or policy change) that affects me or the people I do care about. I just don’t have enough energy to care about the inner feelings of every person on the planet. I can maybe summon up energy to care about policies that affect people, though. Maybe it’s because I’m an erstwhile computer scientist, and we are all about multiple levels of indirection. But anyway, this is all very abstract. I’m going to provide a couple of examples – they happen to be from the parenting universe, but this issue comes up all the time.
Example 1: Rob Rummel-Hudson got trapped in a heated discussion in a comment thread about whether parents of disabled children should be considered part of the “disability community.” I find that question to be completely bizarre. Someone on twitter linked to the thread, posing this question, and I asked: Would resolving this question foster better policy/health/care/education outcomes for disabled individuals? Because really, isn’t that the fundamental issue? (I get that drawing lines around who’s in and who’s out of various communities can be an important exercise, especially when it comes to self-determination and such. But whether or not you’ll let me in a particular club, or fuss at me about how I self-label, I still think the policy question is more important. The labeling issue comes up in feminist communities, too – I find it singularly uninteresting, but maybe that’s just because I’m getting old.)
Example 2: In the infertility community there is (apparently) an uproar over a woman confessing to the New York Times that she chose to reduce a twin pregnancy achieved through assistive reproductive technologies. As usual, A Little Pregnant had a good take on it. But I was troubled by her conclusion. She said: “Except for the staunchest absolutists, it seems we judge reproductive choices based on the motives behind them.”
Now, that’s probably true as far as it goes. But again, I find it baffling to focus on who’s judging whom and why. That probably puts me in the staunch absolutist camp. Go ahead and be all Judgey-McJudgerson all you want. Maybe it means you’re a jerk. But whatever. As long as you’re not advocating a policy that in some way affects whether this or any other woman could make the choice that she did. I don’t much care. Well, I mean, I care that people are jerks and assholes online (and offline), and I try not to associate with such people, but I do not find endless discussions about, say, how everyone feels about selective reduction to be all that interesting unless a) you’re someone I care about and/or you want my opinion about your situation or b) it’s about policy (health policy, healthcare, reproductive rights, legality, that sort of thing). But a hundred people spouting off about what they think about this woman’s individual decision? What? Why do we do that? You know, I’ve been on these here intarwebz a long time, I can probably write that conversation down before it even happens.
Oh, here’s another example. The #nymwars and Google+’ ‘common name’ policy. Now that is a complete clusterf*** meriting a whole other post. I’m deeply troubled by what Google is doing and believe it has far-reaching and negative implications. Here, I care a great deal about the policy. But I find completely uninteresting the people who say: “Well, I’m fine with using my real name” or “Google can do whatever they want.” Well, good for you and good for Google. But it’s not about you individually, it’s not about what Google has the legal ability to do, it’s about what the policy should be and how we come to that determination. And policy should not be based on any one individuals’ particular fee-fees!
None of this is to say I don’t judge. I’m human. I have opinions. And if I don’t have an opinion about a topic and you ask me for it, it’s not going to take me too long at all to come up with one. But far, far too often there is a massive conflation between what people think or feel about some other individual’s choices or situation, and what people think about a general abstracted policy or suggested course of action. Even worse, are people who translate their distaste for an individual or behavior into advocacy for policy without thinking through the broader considerations. That way also lies madness. Case in point: people shrieking about how everyone who gets foodstamps should be drug-tested (or whatever the latest foolish Facebook meme is). The fact that you don’t think poor people who happen to use drugs should have their food subsidized is perhaps an interesting moral calculus you’ve made, but that doesn’t mean it’s good policy or that it will even result in the goals you claim to espouse (e.g., saving taxpayer money.)
And I recognize the hypocrisy in grumbling about these sorts of conversations while also not wishing for any sort of policy mechanisms against them. Sure, of course, talk about whatever you want. It can be very useful to have enough self-awareness to be able to articulate one’s own emotional reaction to something. And depending on how close the issue is to one’s life, it may even be necessary. But I think the next step also matters: to ask the question, “So what?” What should change? How should my own actions be different? Should they? Should there be a policy change and do I need to or want to advocate for that? And so on.
More and more often I find myself wanting to push people spouting off on the Internet to clarify their policy position instead of their emotional reaction. I typically don’t, because that’s… kind of rude, I suppose. And I do care about and want to hear about my friends’ feelings, of course. But these two things–emotional reactions to a situation and recommended policies/actions–are not (and shouldn’t be) the same in all cases. And that distinction matters.