Thursday, October 27, 2016

Objectivity is Overrated

I ran across this story on NPR today. Essentially, Adam Crapser was adopted from Korea at age 3, by abusive parents, who never filed his citizenship paperwork and then abandoned him to the foster care system, where he continued to be abused until he was 18. After some struggles, which included jail time for theft and assault, he got his life together, got married, has kids... and is now being deported. The article doesn't say for sure, but based on that life story, I'm guessing this guy doesn't even speak Korean, but he'll be living there soon.

Yes, this is the result of laws that deport felons and other violent immigrants without legal status. Those are generally good laws. In this case, a judge had the opportunity to grant a reprieve and found Crapser's story unworthy of such. We all know it behooves reporters to write one-sided pieces and perhaps this guy isn't a model non-citizen. It's tough to be too harsh on the judge when I wrote just last week about the difficulty of making "good" decisions in the midst of a messed up world.

At the same time, I have to wonder if the language we've come to use with regards to undocumented immigrants, even the words we've come to associate people who break the law, aren't prejudicing those entrusted with carrying out those laws, or even the rest of us who form opinions about these things? That cuts both ways. We want some subjectivity in matter like this. A man who's lack of citizenship is not really his own fault is falling prey to laws designed to rid the country of murderers and otherwise violent people. Whether we like subjectivity or not, the law says once violent, always violent. Criminals generally pay for their crimes long after official punishment has ended.

Although, it's this very subjectivity that makes room for dangerous bias* - both being unreasonably lenient and unreasonably tough. Subjectivity leads to discrimination and our society is, despite the calls against political correctness, terrified of discrimination perhaps more than any other domestic issue. We want to be fair.

We want to be fair, so we turn to objectivity. Do everything the same. Treat people the same, no matter what. This is what every corporate lawyer will tell you. Masters degrees in Human Resources are built on this principle. If someone can prove you treated them differently, they can often win, or at least scare you into a settlement.

I live with a teacher - that profession is increasingly obsessed with objectivity, creating automaton teachers who can regurgitate focus-grouped lessons and provide every kid in every class an identical educational experience. The assembly line plan works really well in some areas. Interchangeable parts have kept costs down and expanded innovation all over manufacturing. Of course, people are people, not things.

Outside of all the life and death talk surrounding the notion of "pro-life," it seems the most pro-life thing to do might be to work for a society in which every person can be treated not the same, but as an individual. A teacher should be doing what's best for each student, not the same thing for each student. No one wants a doctor who treats every illness exactly the same, right?

That's the rub, we don't like objectivity when it applies to us, but we're generally in favor of it when we're talking in general terms. We're down with a constitution that proclaims equal treatment for all, but we'd sure like other factors considered if we were in Adam Crapser's position. That's precisely what happens in education when a child is identified as having special needs - the get an individual plan of action, protected by law, to address their specific needs. I'm all for this kind of care and concern, but it sure feels like the kind of thing every child deserves, right?

That's just it, though, right? It's not really that people are opposed to subjectivity, it's that subjectivity in impractical in a nation of our size. The cost and manpower required to address individual instruction to every child would be near impossible, not to mention the complex logistics to actually make it work. The same goes for the law - yeah, it would be great to consider each individual person, their alleged crimes, and the impact of these actions on themselves and others within the context of their own lives, but who's got the time?

What we've tried to do is set up a system that does both. We have judges appointed to, well, judge. They try to make gracious and earnest decisions about individuals in front of them, but we've also got laws that set parameters for their power (for good or for ill). We're constantly arguing over this system, changing it. We're riding the pendulum of subjectivity and objectivity.

It feels like, at least in this moment, the pendulum is way too far on the objective side. I think there're a lot of good reasons for that, but there are also a lot of difficult results. We could look into this particular case a bit, if we find Adam Crasper deserving, we could work to have the crimes pardoned that are keeping him from getting a Green Card. That's a subjective solution to an objective problem, but there's probably dozens, if not hundreds, of other people in the same boat. This is also where we get all these overly specific, convoluted laws - people trying to ran subjectivity into an objective system.

In the end, we control how we interact with the people around us. Our systems and structures may not be perfect, even as we strive to perfect them, but we, ourselves, can be committed to treating people as people, individuals rather than interchangeable cogs in the machine.

*We should not, though, that subjectivity does not cause bias or discrimination, it merely provides a convenient excuse. We have to guard against throwing out something good, because of how it's being used for evil.

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