Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Tall Essay


I am about 6 feet 2 inches tall. I have never thought of myself as particularly tall. When I was in elementary school--one time in life when relative size seemed to matter, where the phrase “size places” had meaning—I was of middling height. I hit my growth spurt in high school, along with everyone else, so though I may have grown faster than some of my peers, I did not notice. The management guru, Morris Massey, posits that our core values are laid down by the time we are seven years old. It may well be that I formed the impression that I was of medium height early on, and nothing in the subsequent periods (Modeling [ages 8-13] and Socialization [ages 13-21]) disturbed that impression. That is itself a disturbing discovery. What other operating assumptions from when I was 6 years old have survived unquestioned for six decades?

A logical first step would be to determine by some objective standard whether I am tall. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the mean height of a male over 20 years old in the United States is about 5 ft. 9 in. At 6 ft. 2in. I am in about the 94th percentile of men. So when I am in a crowd of a hundred random men in the US, there are likely to be no more than 6 men taller than I am. It also means that in a crowd, I know where I am because I can see all around me. My spouse is 5 ft. 2 ½ in. tall; she is in about the 35th percentile for U.S. women over 20 years old. The 5th percentile for men begins at about 5 ft. 4 in. That means that when she is in a crowd, 65% of the women and over 95% of the men are taller than she is, and many are tall enough to obscure her vision completely. She does not like being in crowds. How stupid do you need to be to to not realize the fundamental difference in our experiences of crowds? I have realized it from time to time, but it is not a consistent part, a necessary part of being with my spouse in a crowd.

No, I never forget that I am taller than she is, but wrapped in the misconception that I am not that tall, I figure everyone is seeing about the same thing I am; therefore, I don’t understand that what I am seeing has anything to do with my height. Do you see how this works? Because I do not see myself as tall, I have been unaware of what should be clear evidence that I am tall. I must believe I am tall before I can understand that what I see in a crowd is evidence that I am tall.

Since the 2016 presidential election, like many crestfallen progressives, I have been thinking about how people can ignore facts and evidence and logical reasoning. Reflecting on my height problem has made me more sympathetic to someone who might ignore evidence when deciding how to vote. Breaking the habit of thinking of myself as of average height did not happen because I got more information; it happened because I looked at specific situation from the point of view of someone I cared about and did it enough times and with increasing attention so that I understood the situation differently.

But saying that looking at a situation or idea or problem from another point of view may be crucial in understanding a situation is not saying that truth is relative. Evidence supported by facts must the bedrock of our understanding of the world. Taking into account another perspective does not mean that facts are irrelevant to arriving at the best understanding of a situation, but ignoring another point of view may make facts invisible. In my case empathy preceded evidence. And even with the empathy and the evidence, it still takes a conscious effort to think of myself as tall.

So my sense of superiority in thinking that I voted based on logic and evidence, and those who voted differently did not, assumes that my decision is rooted in self-evident facts. But perhaps those facts were not just unpersuasive to some people, they were invisible, and the evidence they based their decisions on was invisible to me. Understanding the difference this way does not change what I think of the decisions, but it does mean I can be less puzzled about why people made the decisions they did in the face of evidence compelling to me but invisible to them. Their decisions no longer seem blatantly illogical since they do not ignore facts; they don’t see them.

My height problem suggests that over the next months, as the changes resulting from the 2016 election play themselves out, if people experience some changes directly or indirectly through what happens to those they care about, their views of the situation may change, and facts may begin to appear, like the letters in Wheel of Fortune, until the message pops into place for them. I will be guessing and spinning the wheel too, and we will see who among us is most surprised by the results.