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Sunday, April 17, 2016

The imperfections of simplicity and the perils of complexity

I know I am not alone in yearning for a simpler world at times. The latest point of contention revolves around "bathroom" laws.


Each of us operates in the world by simplifying many decisions. If we had to reflect deeply about every decision we make, we would become paralyzed and use huge amounts of scarce resources to do what would ideally be done with minimal conscious effort. Central to many of our decisions and routine interactions are the concepts of sex and gender. For the sake of simply being able to function, we have historically adopted simplified rules to facilitate interactions between people, including men and women. However, there is nothing inherently simple about any of this. Don't let anyone convince you to the contrary.


The rules are not perfect and they are evolving over time. Using the simple binary sex/gender model, we have had a very difficult time trying to sort this out as human society has changed markedly over the past 100 years. Moving to a much more nuanced view of sex/gender/sexual preference results in a geometric increase of complexity overlaid on an already complex domain of human interaction.


What we are talking about is defining acceptable rules of human engagement. Even under the best of circumstances, this is extremely difficult and will always be fraught with what seems like less than desirable outcomes. This has also been a moving target.  What I find remarkable about this discussion is how certain parties can be so sure of their positions. We have only recently been medically and surgically intervening to "transform" selected individuals from one gender to another. We have been trying for thousands of years to refine the rules of engagement between man and women and we are still flailing to some degree. There is clearly less than perfect consensus looking out across the world in general and this is based upon a simple binary model (man and woman).


When we inject this new complexity into the sex/gender world, whatever routine we have used to simplify our dealings with sex/gender issues is disrupted. What will replace it? I have no idea. What are the rules of engagement? Again, I have no idea. What rules which have used historically will also work in the new world? I don't know.


This is important but it is not simple. It is not a black and white issue. Desegregation in some respects was much easier to deal with. It actually simplified the rules and removed distinctions where no distinctions were needed. The rules of engagement do not need to be contingent upon the color on someone's skin. Relations between men and women require rules of engagement which are inherently different, at least in great part because of the biology of sexual attraction.


It might be argued that the different rules of engagement are really not dependent upon gender or sexual phenotype but sexual orientation. That might have some element of truth but we have used sexual phenotype as a proxy for this for a very long time for the simple reason is it is a simple and generalizable (but not perfect) rule. Even with this simplification the rules are very complex (VERY COMPLEX). In my opinion (and it is just an opinion), it is not realistic to expect rapid, widespread adoption of new rules governing interactions between sexes/genders to happen without a great deal of discussion and contention. It is not fair or constructive to the parties involved to vilify everyone with opinions which may differ from your own.


Step one....listen

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