Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Temple Grandin for President?

It has often been said that those who lose one sense gain extraordinary capacities in another. Stevie Wonder's genius for music and Helen Keller's refined sense of touch come to mind. In a recent talk at Duke University, Dr. Temple Grandin elevated this occurrence to a general rule: nothing in nature is free. Sheep who have been bred for high immunity have low reproduction. Sheep bred for high reproduction have low immunity. Dogs bred for what owners think are "pretty" blue eyes wind up deaf.

Thinking along these lines, I began to think that Ms. Grandin, an autistic person, might be a more effective politician than anyone we currently have.

On Feb 21, 2011, Temple Grandin came to speak at Duke University. She almost immediately insulted academics, lawyers, and abstract thinkers "on the right and the left." She said something to the effect that all the bad thinking in the world comes from people who work in offices. That hit a little close to home, but I continued listening.

She made in argument in favor of a way of thinking she associated with autism--specifically thinking in pictures. Pictorial thought emphasizes detail over generalization and also, she argues, bypasses verbal language. She also contended that pictorial thinkers are more likely to address consequences "on the ground" and could, therefore, be more attuned to the functioning of whole systems. She portrayed abstract thinking as top-down, proceeding from general ideas rather than concrete instances.

While this depiction is certainly not flattering to academics--and is even, in fact, a false generalization in itself--Grandin nevertheless made a very important point about the pitfalls of abstract thinking: those who adhere to rigid precepts are prone to single-mindedness. That is, they judge success based upon adherence to a single criterion rather than looking at broader effects throughout a system. I have certainly seen evidence of that in my years in the educational system.

To combat these tendencies, Grandin proposed some principles that could be generalized across a broad array of fields, not just her own specialties of livestock behavior, facility design, and humane slaughter.

1) Tests should be based on measurable effects. Get out of the office and go find out how policies are working in practice.

2) A criterion in a test should be what she called a "critical control point," that is, it should be a measurable objective that points to a multitude of sins. For example, a high incidence in lameness among dairy cows could point to slippery floors, a contagious disease, or improperly trimmed hooves. She made an interesting proposal for criteria by which school success can be measured: a) Do children stay out of trouble after school? b) Do graduates obtain employment and then progress beyond entry level positions?

These objectives certainly differ greatly from those currently used to measure the effectiveness of schools, but they seem promising choices to me. Of course, I think there are other variables such as racial profiling and job discrimination that must also be taken into account... arrests and unemployment are not simply measures of whether schools are imparting good citizenship and marketable skills. And it's not clear to me that these questions make fixing the problems easier. Trimming hooves is not teaching grammar, mathematics, and the scientific method. Still, her criteria still seem good reference points.

3) In terms of bringing about social change, Grandin is not for legislation. Experience, she says, taught her that companies change their policies when they are afraid of being put out of business. The voluntary changes she saw in terms of the implementation of humane slaughter occurred because she was able to convince Wendy's and McDonald's to stop buying from houses that did not pass the criteria she implemented.

4) On social media and its influence on politics: In regard to companies, Grandin said that their boards gave far more weight to handwritten letters and individual emails -- real correspondence, not form letters. This makes sense to me. The person who takes the time to compose a personal letter is probably more likely to take the effort to find other buying options than the people who merely click to have their names automatically added to a list.

The only aspect of Grandin's speech that caused me some concern was her repeated statement that she did not have any ideology. This claim, of course, is quite prominent in the US now; it goes under the terms postracial, postfeminist, bipartisan, moderate, secular, and more. Yet, it seems to me that to think that any of these terms is necessarily always 'good,' is to make a grave mistake. People seem to believe that these positions transcend pettiness and provincialism, but to hold them is to escape one micro-ideology while remaining blindly entrapped within another that is only slightly larger, if at all.

For example, there may be wide consensus in the US that Islam wishes to attack modernity by attacking Western targets. According to the typical attack on identity politics or partisanship, this consensus across different groups would be 'right.' Yet, the fact that people of many races and both political parties agreed on the profiling of Arabs does not make the practice any more just or effective. (Law enforcement has said that profiling based on race creates too many false positives and that, therefore, profiling should be based upon behavior, not group membership.) Most of the US response to 9/11, on both domestic and international fronts, received bipartisan support and yielded bad outcomes. The moral: even when supposed opposites (such as blacks and whites, men and women, liberals and conservatives) agree on a policy, it might still be both immoral and ineffective. Of course, the widespread support for profiling of Arabs and for pre-emptive war in Iraq seemed nonpartisan only from a US context; it certainly never seemed impartial to Iraqis.

Once one leaves the frame of national politics to consider the global stage, it seems unlikely that there is such a thing as "not having an ideology." Nevertheless, Temple Grandin does exemplify something unique in that does not fit some predetermined molds. She is an animal lover and advocate who is not a vegan. She enforces oversight of corporations but applies economic pressure and not legislative remedies. However, these deviations would mean she is not a strict vegan or liberal. They would not mean that she has no ideology.

In the academic world that formed me, the term ideology describes the lens or framework through which one views the world. It is certainly taught, but then it becomes largely unconscious, second nature. Ideology is not necessarily the answers to social questions but, rather, the assumptions one uses in composing the questions and pursuing the answers. Liberal/conservative, democrat/republican are examples of ideologies, but they do not exhaust the category, as I understand it. In that sense, it is improper for anyone in a social debate to say that they are free of ideology simply because their ideology is either mixed or contradictory.

It might be worth asking if there is an American ideology and whether or not that is good for the world at large and, in the end, for Americans themselves. As much as I admire Temple Grandin, I hope that the pretense of being beyond ideology that she and people like Jon Stewart represent can be dropped in favor of even more worthy goals. Still, I'd probably support her for President--not that she'd ever consent to being cooped up in an office.

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