Sunday, June 12, 2011

On macro versus micro in discussion.

I was browsing through a standard gender politics debate over at, as I'm so wont to do, when I had a recent revelation.  A former acquaintance of mine once told me that Scrabble wasn't about intelligence, but about seeing patterns.  And I suddenly saw a Pattern in that Tvtropes forum discussion that made it look hilariously familiar.

Gender-related discussions online, at least, tend to center around large and vague concepts.  One side presents an idea - women (or men, to some minority povs) are overwhelming oppressed by the inherent structure of society.  And then naturally someone else, often but not always playing for the other team, tells them they're full of it.  Then both sides start bringing out individual examples and counterexamples of oppression or its lack.  We could apply the same thing to racial politics as well, or to any discussion where a large group of people is theoretically but not necessarily literally functionally equivalent to any other large group of people in terms of advantages and disadvantages.

While both sides may get something to think about from the individual examples provided, at the end of the day it's all anecdotal.  Except for the statistics, which can be pointed out as being misinterpreted or countered by other statistics.  People don't change their positions on a fundamental level because their position are hinged on an overarching ideology that is inherently difficult to prove or disprove.

'Truth' is a surprisingly malleable substance even when all involved parties are doing their darnedest to sincerely find it.

Do you know what that sounds EXACTLY like?

Competitive gaming debates.  No, seriously.  That gamer you look down on for screaming that something he fights against is overpowered, or that something he uses is underpowered, sounds EXACTLY like you when you talk about how bad you have it or how much better the other side has it and they don't even realize it.  And anyone who's watched a gaming forum debate on these ephemeral power levels go on for more than two seconds can immediately realize that it's self-defeating and self-obfuscating.

Take Starcraft 2 as an example.  Is Zerg overpowered or underpowered?  Who cares, when whether something is 'over' or 'under' can completely flip-flop based on a single unit change in a single patch, or a map change, or the dominant strategies at a tournament that shift the metagame, or any of a million other factors?

What you should be focusing on in a game is whether X, Y or Z is FUN or not, and you can only do that by zooming in to look at the micro.  Does a given unit perform its role adequately?  Are win ratios for all races roughly equal for a given map?  Is a particularly ability underused or overused?  Small things, things you can take apart and dissect.  Things that, no matter which race you play or how you feel about it, you can mostly agree on being right or wrong.

Those are the things people should be focusing on in gender debates, too.  If you speak in terms of 'Women are consistently paid worse wages at Walmart,' then you have a specific problem to solve and a specific entity to punish for causing it.  But when you go to overarching ideological things like the very foundation of how society functions and how it all fits together as a whole, you're only going to get a lot of people disagreeing with your premise, which hinders your ability to get anything done.

So drop the premise.  Drop the framing.  Be practical.  Focus on the little things where you know you can make a difference, the things you know you can get other people to agree with you on.  The big things are just collections of lots of small things, and if you keep on working on those dominoes, eventually the big things will tend to themselves, too.

That's not to say that there isn't a place for macro or ideology, but it has to be at a point where the concept involved is just so revolutionary that it challenges fundamental assumptions and biases.  Back when the US had slaves, there was no question that a black man was worth less than a white man.  Saying, ideologically, that a human was a human regardless of skin color was a very powerful statement.  But if equality is close enough that people can pretend that everything's equal, then there's no point in trying to run a premise on an assumption of inequality.  Once you're close enough to squint and not tell the difference, you have to stop looking at the broad ideas and start looking at the specifics, the little details that are easy to miss.

So if you have something that you want to convince people about, stick with circumstances that are immediately applicable and easy to relate to, rather than using large-scale ideas that only widen the gap between your point of view and another person's.  You want them to know how it is to walk a mile in your shoes?  Tell them how your shoes make your toes feel in Dickensian detail.

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