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Friday, July 26, 2019

Lessons from a popcorn fire


If you've worked in an office, chances are good you've experienced the popcorn fire. That happens when someone microwaves popcorn for longer than they should have and the popcorn burns, creating enough smoke to set off the fire alarm and force the building to evacuate.

But the hard thing about a popcorn fire is that you usually don't know at the time that it's a popcorn fire. When it happens, all I know is that the fire alarm has been activated for some reason and that it's time to decamp from the office. Most of the time, I never even see or smell the smoke from the fire, so I walk calmly out of whatever exit there is and enjoy the unexpected break from my work day.


Except one time. I was on the 10th floor of a high rise office building. When the alarm went off, I could actually smell the smoke. Instead of calmly walking to the exit, I walked briskly to the exit. I didn't panic, but my goal was to escape and not just leave.

I didn't panic, but I also didn't follow certain procedures that had been discussed by our building manager. Those procedures advised us to knock on every office door on our floor to let people know there's a fire alarm and to see if anyone needed help. I didn't do that. I just walked on out and saved myself.

I was still technically following the procedures. The fire safety procedures always had this proviso: leave right away if you feel your safety is threatened. Ergo: don't be a hero. I had no difficulty following that part of the procedures.I should also state that while I had smelled smoke, the smell wasn't very strong, and I don't think I actually saw smoke. In other words, I probably could have at least knocked on doors while I left. But I didn't do that much.

So, I didn't exactly cover myself with glory.

What did I learn from this episode? Well, it reminded me that I'm not really brave. I needed the reminder, and I still need it. I've actually had other reminders throughout my life. It's not always a popcorn fire. (Actually, other than the episode I'm relating here, it's never been a popcorn fire.) But it's usually an opportunity to show some bravery, and I fall short. Usually--almost all the time--the opportunities in question are as dangerous as a popcorn fire.

And it's more than just "showing bravery." If simply "showing bravery" is the goal, then it's not a very good goal. I could do that by exaggerating known popcorn fires or (if I were ambitious and a little bit criminal) manufacture my own popcorn fire. But usually "showing bravery" is coupled with doing something to help others or with doing the right thing.

When minor emergencies like popcorn fires aren't happening, I tell myself, mostly sincerely, that I'll do what I'll need to do if an emergency arrives. The reminders tell me not to be so confident.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Outsourcing judgment, and taking good conscience where you can get it

In a recent post at Ordinary-Times, Will Truman makes the argument that Donald Trump and many of his supporters are racists. It's of course not new for someone to make that argument, and Will of course has ready evidence at his disposal. But that post is post is different because Will rarely makes "X is a racist" declarations.

In his post, Will refers to some of the ways that Trump supporters dodge the racism issue. One of them is 

usually something about crying wolf and how liberals call everyone racist. That’s sometimes true but beside the point. The fact of the matter is that I do disregard what a lot of leftwards have to say on the subject. They have proven to be unreliable and I have responded accordingly. It would, however, be the height of intellectual laziness to simultaneously outsource all of my judgment on racial issues to them and then reject their opinions. If you don’t have your own opinions on what constitutes racism, that’s on you. [bold added by me]
I am similarly guilty of outsourcing in two ways.

The first is pretty much what Will is referring to. I too often take the opinions of my liberal-leaning friends and coworkers and use those opinions as a gauge to measure my own (usually contrarian) response to whatever issue they're opining about. The upshot is that I too often resort to the "but actually" and the "well, you have to understand" approach to the bigotry of Trump and his supporters. But Will's post reminds me that ultimately I have to decide to call something for what it is and to reject the pleasures of contrarianism.

The second way I am guilty of outsourcing my judgment is evidenced by my willingness to embrace what Will is saying in that post. There are some left-leaning people at Ordinary Times with whom I have a frosty relationship. If one of them had written a similar post calling Trump a racist, I would have had to stifle the temptation to contrarianism. But I have a lot more respect for Will than I do for them. When he speaks out on any issue and especially on this issue, I'm much more willing to agree, and not reluctantly, but with (shall I say?) enthusiasm.

In a sense, I'm using him as a moral compass, as a standard by which I measure my own notions of right and wrong. I'm "outsourcing" at least some of my own morality to the example of someone else. In choosing Will as one of those someone else's, I believe I'm choosing wisely. I could certainly choose worse. But the racism that Will is calling out would remain racism even if Will had not called it out, and even if Will denied the racism instead of naming it.

At the end of the day, Will is only a human and has the failings of a human. I shouldn't tether my morality to his views or to anyone's views. But even if I am making a mistake, the mistake fosters (I hope) my own good conscience so that in the future, if I ever have to choose in the absence of a good example, I might choose rightly.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Clarification on that Alabama law

Rereading my recent post on a couple recent abortion laws in Illinois and Alabama, I realize I was unclear about why, exactly, the Alabama law bothers me.

It isn't only the law's draconian penalties or its absence of almost any exceptions. Those are concerning features, and I'd call them cartoonish if they weren't so scary and the stakes weren't so high.

Rather, it's the fact that the Alabama law signals a real possibility that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. It's obviously meant to create a test case, and the reason it's plausibly a test case is that the Supreme Court is at a point where it might plausibly overturn Roe. Because overturning Roe is possible now in a way that it hasn't been at least since the Casey decision (and as it turns out, more plausible now than then), I am compelled to clarify my own stance in favor of access to legal abortion. Even though I am deeply conflicted about that stance, the Alabama law compels me to take sides in a way I haven't had to before.