Friday, March 25, 2016

Window Dressing

This point was not inspired by a particular news story.  It is more of an accumulation of observations over a long period – OK, I’ll admit that it’s a pet peeve.

I am getting pretty tired of hearing people presented in the news as a representative of some category, as if that were one of their most important qualities.  Take for example this website that lists firsts in America.  It covers about 70 categories and almost half of them are based on a person’s outward physical characteristics:  first woman, first African American, first Hispanic American.  It includes a reference at the bottom:  for more information see first Asian Americans.  Other lists of firsts are similar.

In some cases we have people who qualify in more than one category.  Where do these lists of firsts leave Loretta Lynch?  She is neither the first African American Attorney General nor the first woman Attorney General; but wait, she is the first African American woman to become Attorney General!  Will we just continue to add categories and combinations?  At some point will it begin to seem pretty silly, like we are stretching to create a way to celebrate a person’s appearance, ancestry or preferences.

Personally, I think this approach detracts from a discussion of the person’s great performance or outstanding job qualifications and leads to many questions.  Why are they bringing this up in the first place?

Is it a celebration of the cracking of another (real or imagined) glass ceiling?  If so does it really show competence on the part of the person or is it merely the voters or appointers attempt to advertise how open-minded they are?  Will the person selected always have a haunting feeling about the objectivity of his or her selection?  (When an African American is nominated for an Academy Award next year will he or she think it is for an outstanding performance or perhaps at least partially as a payback in light of the fuss this year?)

Does this type of publication promote a victim mentality among others in the category - the feeling that it’s about time someone like me got a break because I never have?  As such, does it promote the very limiting belief that my role model has to look like me?  Isn’t it difficult enough these days to find people of excellent character and courage for role models without adding hurdles of race, gender or predilection?

 Does this emphasis instead show progress toward some goal; and if so, what is that goal, and who decides when it has been achieved?  Is it when we have some kind of equal representation?  If so, the concentration on categories and outward characteristics persists, and it will become an exercise in accounting rather than objective judgment.

At some point will we as a nation get over this obsession with background and appearance and just be grateful to get an individual most capable of a competent performance?  Or will we continue to feel the need to celebrate and recognize individuals as icons of a certain category of formerly unaccomplished or unrecognized people?  Again, who has the authority to declare which categories are eligible for distinction (and which are not)?

In the end this is a lot like curb appeal for home sellers.  Make your house look good as people drive by so they will slow down and consider buying it.  Plant red flowers, have cookies baking when potential buyers come in the door.  These are all tricks that fly in the face of critical thinking and practical analysis.  Smart people are not distracted and make decisions based on overall qualities – just as they should with other people.

To me, presentations of this kind (e.g., first Native American lesbian?) bring to mind the idea of the old circus side shows, an arrangement of tents with performers whose primary claims to fame were based on unusual or extreme physical characteristics:  tiny or overly large people, bearded ladies, etc.  I think it will be a healthy thing when we can totally drop the labels.

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