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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Sibling Estrangements

About 15 years ago, give or take, one of my sisters and I had an argument that led to a year-long estrangement. Eventually we got over it. (While we were not speaking, I don’t think my parents knew we were not.) Sometime between then and now, my two sisters had an estrangement that went on a considerable length of time. The igniting factor in the first instance was a disagreement over children’s behavior; in the second instance, there was dog behavior involved. 

How we raise our children, how we raise our dogs, how much attention we expect brothers and sisters to pay to our kids and pets and what kind of behavior we expect them to accept from those kids and pets – these are some of the knottiest issues between adult siblings, probably more problematic than money issues.

But money is sometimes involved with kids, too.

My father had two brothers, an older and a younger. The oldest of the three boys (their sister died shortly after World War II) had no children. When the youngest child of the youngest boy, a son, married and was looking for a house to buy, his uncle, recently remarried after the death of his first wife, offered to sell him the house he had lived in for years. My uncle’s price for the house was less than what he would have asked on the open market, but his sister-in-law, my cousin’s mother, thought our uncle was asking too much and thereby taking advantage of his nephew. What began as a family gesture of goodwill gave rise to bad blood that went on year after year of my two uncles not speaking to each other.

My father tried several times to play peacemaker, but it must have taken a miracle to get those two brothers back on speaking terms before one of them died. All those years wasted!

Two men we know, brothers, were estranged for several years, and it seemed as if they would never acknowledge one another again. Their father died before their rapprochement took place. Happily for their mother, she lived to see it. They are now business partners, all the bitterness and rancor buried with the hatchet.

Then there is the question of how much emotional support siblings expect of one another. When expectations don't match up, it can make for resentment.

But really, what is “unforgivable” between siblings? Is there anything? The long silences are hard on everyone, and it is never only the two feuding parties in the family who are affected. Whether or not other family members take sides or make every effort to remain neutral, there is a lot of collateral heartache. 

Is it any wonder people from different backgrounds have trouble getting along?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Trouble With Too Many Facts

Imagine the following:

Imagine someone describing conditions of a town under siege and looking to allay the fears of those within the town. Let’s call him the Prophet, because the example will be easier if we have a name for him. The Prophet loves facts and has enough numbers and lists of numbers and statistics to fill thousands of written pages. “The situation is challenging, without a doubt,” he says to the people, “ but we are educated and intelligent and have all history and technology on our side to help us overcome our enemy.”

Tons of grain in warehouses, fresh water in wells and cisterns, herds of livestock and flocks of poultry, stores of preserved fruits and vegetables and spices and sugar – all this and more has been meticulously catalogued by the Prophet’s clerks, along with records of past sieges and their outcomes. Additionally, the Prophet cites what he calls the “Home Ground Advantage.” Those outside the walls, he reminds his fellow townsfolk, are sleeping on hard ground, far from their families, not in comfortable beds at home.  They will not want to continue forever in thankless discomfort.

But the Prophet’s chief message lies in his facts and numbers. Whenever a dubious voice is raised, the Prophet rains down a flood of facts upon the questioner’s head. He does not simply say, “Look at all we have!” but enumerates tirelessly until the questioner is overwhelmed by the sheer force of the wall of facts. The questioner feels stupid and falls silent.

What’s wrong with this picture? Are facts not important? Should we want not to be “confused with facts”? Should we instead make up our minds about what to believe and what to do without reference to reality?

I do not intend my example as opposition to facts or reality. What I see too often, however, is a blizzard or tsunami of facts thrown up as a smokescreen -- because when facts come in a blizzard or in a tsunami, they can be overwhelming and leave a crowd speechless with amazement. Historians are often guilty of this technique, but so are writers on economics, politics, and just about any other topic under the sun. Any “expert” with infinite facts at his fingertips can silence an audience – and, worse, can paralyze thought, which is my main concern.

“I'm only saying it because it’s true.” Have you ever heard anyone say that? What did it mean to you? Did it shut you up?

Here's something else that's true: The number of true sentences that any of us can utter at any given moment is infinite. We do not, therefore, make any statement simply because it’s true: we make it for some purpose. To make a statement is to begin to stake out a position, and to make thousands of statements is to stake out a huge area of ground.

As listeners, as readers, what do we need in addition to statements of fact?

If someone lays out a book-length position, complete with chapters and footnotes, bristling with dozens of facts on every page, I want to know: What is the basic line of argument? What am I being asked to conclude, and where, in the jungle of facts, are the lines of the argument? Sometimes the author has not constructed an explicit argument, and I as a reader have to infer it from hints. Other times an argument is explicit but rests on unstated or unexamined premises. Is there a hidden premise that, if brought forward, because false, defeats the conclusion?

Facts are important, but so are arguments. So too are values that lurk behind arguments.

Imagine another situation: One hundred people survive the siege, and the barbarians at the gate have all gone home. One survivor has a net worth of $1 million. The 99 others have nothing. The per capita wealth of the survivors is $10,000. This group of people is in pretty good shape, wouldn’t you say?

I hear someone saying yes, they’re in good shape, because the millionaire will need the labor of the ninety-nine and will have to pay them for their labor if their civilization is to enjoy a renaissance. Ah, but does survival necessarily entail a renaissance? And what if the millionaire can get work done – planting, harvesting, sewing his new clothes – simply by providing enough food to keep the workers’ bodies and souls together?

The number of survivors is a fact. The per capita income is a fact. Interpreting facts, predicting outcomes and making decisions based on available facts – that is something else again. That will depend on what you are trying to prove and what you want to see happen.

It is not enough to question facts. One must question the beliefs and purposes and values of people presenting facts. If no argument is given, an important question to ask might be, “What’s your point?”

Stop the tsunami in its tracks, freeze the blizzard in midair. Why are you giving me all these facts? You are trying to convince me of something. What is it?

[Just realized this is my 100th post on "Without a Clear Focus."]