I’ve been troubled, lately, by something that I find challenging to explain.  I’ll illustrate with three recent examples:

  1. A young friend of mine recently told me that students at his school regularly accuse teachers and administrators of racism when giving consequences to minority students.  He said that they specifically cite implicit bias.
  2. There is nothing worse, as a school administrator, than the day before a big break. Substitutes are always problems, and the students can smell weakness better than sharks can smell blood.  One student–who is typically not a problem–did some fairly despicable things, including calling a student “ISIS” because of her middle eastern heritage, and telling another student that he is “an immigrant” and “I hope you get deported.”  When I entered the room, two female students were crying because they had been targeted by this student.  When asked the offender, he angrily replied “Can’t you tell that I’ve been triggered?  Are you going to ask them what they did to trigger me?!”  I was taken aback, but I asked anyway: what triggered you?  “They said I’m lazy, and I don’t do my work.”
  3. I recently saw a friend of mine–a brilliant, compassionate, and kind friend, no less–accused of mansplaining on social media.  To be clear, it may have been accurate–I didn’t look to find out, and I suspect no one else did either.  The tone was to condemn, not correct. When he responded, someone replied “Omg, is he still talking?”

These three anecdotes share a common thread–tthey are examples of ideologies that have good things to offer, and are careful about the way that their ideology is viewed and applied; but they are not careful about the way that their ideology is misapplied.

I take issue with most of social work and psychology (as fields, not as individuals) for this exact reason: because my middle school student has been taught that it is not his fault when he does bad things *if* he is triggered beforehand.  Now, I know many good social workers, and many fabulous psychologists who would never let such a thing stand (and nor would the staff at my school, for the record).  Nonetheless, he has gotten the wrong message, and it has come from somewhere.

Similarly, I have very little problem with the concept of privilege–indeed, the whole thing seems pretty self-evident, and poised to do some good, if considered thoughtfully.  But that’s just it: conversations around privilege are rarely considered thoughtfully.  Most of the time, I see people who know just enough to use the buzzwords and feel empowered enough to get themselves into a mess.

As such, I have a test that I think is worth considering, should you ever find yourself in the business of propounding specific ideologies:

The Misapplication Test: How bad is the worst-case scenario if my ideology is misapplied by those who are ignorant, incompetent, or misanthropic?

I don’t think that passing this test makes an ideology good–but I think that failing this test should give proponents pause in their propagative efforts.

Consider:

  • Both libertarianism and communism have, as intended end states, vastly improved societies.  Hypothetical worst case libertarian zealotry: not enough public parks, and far too many gold commercials.  Hypothetical worst case communist zealotry: Million die because of (and in) the U.S.S.R.  *Technical note: not actually hypothetical.
  • Returning to the issue of privilege (or white privilege), I worry that Milo Yiannopoulos is thriving precisely because those who brandish the concepts of privilege are doing so like a 10-year-old would brandish a lightsaber: with confidence, with gusto, and with precisely zero cognizance of the long-term effects of the wielder’s incompetence.  Each bad mansplaining incident spawns another few alt-right groupies.
  • There is a difference between the ideas of one person in a field (an individual social worker or psychologist) and the ideas prominent within that field; there is a difference between hotly debated topics and the consensus view.  I call it the center-of-gravity of a given field of study.  I do not criticize every professor of critical theory, feminism, or race, just as I do not criticize every professor or practitioner of social work or psychology (or, for that matter, economics).  I do criticize, however, the center of gravity of these fields, precisely because the misapplication effect is so large that it makes one wonder if it is really misapplication.

It is possible, however, that I am misunderstanding something myself: maybe ideologies, by their nature, always have converts that are both reasonable and dangerous.  But something tells me this isn’t true–that there are systems that are better at recruiting and policing membership than are others.  I also wonder if this is measurable.