Without Luck, We Cannot Hope To Solve A Problem If We Don’t Understand It

Light bulb

Image found here.

One of my favorite problem-solving or solution-finding heuristics was articulated by Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon as follows:

“…solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make its solution transparent.” — Herbert A Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial.

To the extent that understanding a problem and representing it are more or less the same thing, and taking luck into account, I think Simon’s core principle can be reasonably and more colloquially paraphrased as:

 Unless we get lucky, we cannot hope to solve a problem if we don’t understand it.


Privilege-Shaming, Whiteysplained

Young man with a beard

Note: This is not a picture of the author, who is much, much older, and inclined to see this younger fellow as something of a stunt-double. Image found here.

First, congratulations to the inventor of privilege-shaming, and especially to all of the underprivileged human beings who feel empowered by this potent tool of civil discourse.

Notwithstanding my autistic neurology, which has been quite the bull in the china shop of my life — strewing it with the embarrassing barn stink and colorful porcelain shards of countless relationship failures, job failures and financial failures — after all that foamy, taurine ruckus, I am nevertheless a college-educated white man of middle-class upbringing, which is to say a man of no small privilege and thus a bona fide member of the group that is really the primary target of privilege-shaming. And writing as such, I must tell you that I am impressed with the acidic sting of this talk-weapon, in particular its ability to make me feel ashamed of myself, and for a reason that is totally different from all of the others that I already have.

To clarify, it doesn’t make me feel ashamed simply for being lucky enough to win the privilege lottery — after all, we really can’t fault someone rationally for getting lucky — but rather because I have spent so many years mindlessly, shamelessly, and yes, selfishly benefiting from my genetic and cultural inheritance, and will probably continue to do so, unless I can figure out what the heck else I should be doing with it. Rest assured, I am quite sure the problems I’ve had with my autistic neurology would have been much worse had I been born black, say, and maybe female, and perhaps two-months premature, with some sort of horrifying physical deformity, and maybe an HIV infection, and perhaps a crystal-meth addiction, and on top of all that, as an orphan.

Yes, and all I have to whine about is autism, and relatively mild autism at that. I know indeed that many, many autistic people have it much worse than I do, and somewhere out in the world I’m sure at least a few of them are crystal-meth addicted, HIV infected little black girls with horrific physical deformities and dead parents.

Yes, it’s all quite humbling, to say the least.

The relevant catch-phrase here seems to be “check your privilege“, which I take to be a modernized, smug-free and possibly more aggressive version of “noblesse oblige“, or as the character of Uncle Ben said it in an old Spiderman reboot: with great power comes great responsibility (YouTube clip). To the extent that this is true, then “check your privilege” is basically a reminder not to take it all for granted, or let it go to my head, or maybe an invitation to pause and acknowledge that there is no virtue in merely getting lucky. To have any claim to virtue, luck must be shared with those less lucky.

But in seeing it this way, I think it’s important also to recognize the unfortunate resemblance “check your privilege” shares with Rudyard Kipling‘s now infamously racist and pro-imperialist exhortation to the United States, made in 1899 following the Spanish-American war and the subsequent American take-over of the Philippines, to….

“Take up the White Man’s burden
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child….”

But I think this resemblance must be superficial. I seriously doubt that asking someone to “check your privilege” is really anything like asking (more or less) to “please use the fruits of your good fortune to care for me like a pet monkey”. That strikes me as a straw-man, and probably a cheap tactic for licencing oneself to dodge the requested privilege check.

No, to my view “check your privilege” is for the most part a blunt reminder that good luck is best shared, and really nothing to brag about.


[Note: A few weeks after I wrote the above, I realized I had more to say on the subject, which I posted here.]