July 1, 2022: Measuring Sticks

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked. Lewis Carroll

Living in the moment might be easier if we used fluid instead of static measurements. Hoo-nōs

Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. Stephen Jay Gould

Lewis Fry Richardson, who died in 1953, was a researcher who studied peace, among a number of other areas. Though he apparently believed war was about borders (I humbly think it’s about resources, freedoms, and gaining power, which have to do with crossing borders), he realized the way humans measured things, including borders, was an issue. For instance, the smaller the “ruler” the longer the border, as measuring around rocks and cliffs, etc. expands the measurement. Conversely, the longer the straight edge of a “ruler,” the shorter the border, as that measurement does not take into account all the ins and outs of the environs.

There are broader issues here that also concerned Richardson, like measures of the economy and population.

Stephen Jay Gould, quoted above, wrote The Mismeasure of Man (1981), which was required reading in stats and other classes I took. That work also pointed out that we can make any number of errors, from small to egregious ones, when we take up measurements.

Every person, every culture has a “ruler” to measure standards of intimacy, morality, sexuality, civility, criminality, economies, achievement, etc. With the exception of time (mostly we continue to think about time as a linearity despite current understanding about the effects on time given speed, space, and mass), those measures and standards can easily change over the years, reflecting the Ortgeist (spirit of the place) and Zeitgeist (spirit of the time) of peoples and cultures.

If we consider about how much human thinking can change over time, it appears that all human categories are actually an arrangement of perceived and selected “data points.” I wonder what would occur if we realized how much our views, and hence our standards, are governed by the way we measure as opposed to what we think are objective truths we’ve discovered.

As we continue to research the bases and interactions of biology, environs, social, and psychological variables, it’s becoming increasing difficult to believe that any one of those four variables is the driver and the rest merely “software.” Even the present favorite preference as the driver, biology, has far too many exceptions to be wholly believable. For instance, the notion that genes are drivers is not holding up as we’ve learned from viruses if nothing else. It also appears that in some cases, trauma can be passed along for perhaps a couple of generations (e.g., PTSD and children conceived after that trauma). Additionally, stress can change the way genes work, as in triggering genes off and on.

The point is that having developed a biology is not the same as biology creating everything else (fish didn’t create water nor did land beings create the atmosphere). But it is a powerful imprint. We are learning that there are biological areas in us that seem to order memory and our sense of time (e.g., the hippocampus and basal ganglia). There are biological areas that seem related to our rhythms and cycles, to social and psychological needs, developed in response to environs (e.g., migrations). Neurologically speaking, it appears that neurons activate not because we choose, but before we do. But we’re beginning to understand that what appears to be “hardwired” is not without its own mutability, that how we measure does not mean we’ve discovered a base or origin, but that one was created—and that which is created, takes on a life of its own (e.g., how matter and antimatter pop into and out of existence). We cannot ignore that life, but we cannot assume that any measure, any standard, any life, any perception becomes all that is, even if it exists for a moment or two. It’s like we are beginning to understand and expose the vulnerabilities of embracing linearity and reductionism as the litmus test in comprehension.

The recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade can serve as a practical example of measurements that have a major impact on all of us (as did a previous SCOTUS decision that allowed abortion), whatever our stance on this issue. And that decision can also prompt all of us to make our measurements of such issues much richer and more salient.

Standards of individuality and privacy as a way of limiting the power of government to control individuals, seem disingenuous given the advocacy of giving near unconditional rights to an unborn despite the origin of that conception, the condition of the unborn, or the danger to the woman (even the very real criminalization of pregnant women and health care workers). Yet children who have been born are not given such protections—child hunger is apparently only the purview of the parents? And the argument that any conception is a human life pales to those who dehumanize. In other words, it’s as though the unborn have more equality than the born. The standard of human life used to call abortion murder ignores the evidence of treatment of those born as well the rights of the only sex to carry a child. Equality has been achieved? Nope!

Yet it also seems impossible to ignore that the rights of an individual woman to do whatever she wishes can have terrible ramifications on others besides the unborn. Nonetheless, in criminalizing abortion, do we also criminalize a pregnant woman for alcohol consumption, for smoking, for not eating well, etc. There are many human behaviors that have major negative impacts on the rest of us and though we may not appreciate nor advocate for those behaviors, does that mean we now get to be the moral guardian, when we too engage in moral contradictions (who will cast the first stone?)?

Some argue that abortion should be left to the individual states to decide. This seems an unconscionable argument, given we’re supposedly all governed by a Constitution and Bill of Rights, including an equal-rights amendment. States do not get to decide questions of who’s human and who isn’t. Does this mean we should have a Federal anti-abortion law? Pregnancy is the one condition no one besides a woman is capable of having. That’s pretty unique and requires serious consideration.

The right to privacy clause was used as a weakness to overturn Roe. But it’s not an excuse to proceed with the measurements now being promoted by so many state legislatures. It is incumbent upon all of us to understand the nuances involved, not to proudly and self-righteously be pro-life or pro-choice. Privacy and equal protections are part of the bedrock of the Constitution. We have to be inclusive and nuanced, whether we like it or not, to include us all, from the unborn to the born, even while recognizing there will be terrible decisions to be made. We are obligated to do all we can to avoid those terrible decisions in the first place. We are not presently doing it, especially when we are so contradictory about how such standards are applied.

If we take a pause, perhaps we’ll stop seething and start seeing and that shift will make it impossible to use belief as an angry cudgel hammering others into one standard and applied to “on the fly.”

The SCOTUS decision, whether we agree or disagree, should provide zero relief to any of us. But it does serve as a rallying cry to get it right, to improve the measures we use to guide us all. On the issue of abortion, like many other issues, it’s long past time to get busy. To sit on our laurels moping or celebrating is to keep the hell alive.

The Bumper-Sticker Corner: Taking the Measure of Measures, Part I

A reliable measure is not the same as a valid one.

Change the “ruler,” change the outcome.

Memory is fine, if not of one kind.

The Wizdum Corner: Taking the Measure of Measures, Part II

“What is time?” a ponderer asked.

“A measure,” came the answer.

“What is morality?” asked the ponderer.

“The same—a measure,” came the answer.

“Is there any standard?” asked the ponderer.

“An agreement,” came the answer.

“Is an agreement forever?”

“Not likely.”

“Then what’s the point?”


“And what if it’s wrong?”

“Change the agreement.”

“So, there is only what we decide?”

“Yes. No.”

The Personal Corner: Taking the Measure of Measures, Part III

I was having dinner with a couple recently. They are both about 65-years old. The woman was telling about a recent concert by a band who have been around for many years. She said the lead singer, a male, was dressed sparingly, revealing his aged body. She was shocked and offered that no one of such age should dare to be spare when it came to clothing. I lightly cautioned her as I am nearly 75. My physical being was not what it used to be. But, didn’t we all have to learn compassion for our physical body, especially since changing bodies bring questions of personal and social identity? Besides, standards of beauty always vary in time and culture.

Her face clearly showed a conundrum. She was about 65 and women seem to bear the brunt of physical aging. Maybe it wasn’t about the male singer?

I thought of a line from the Leonard Cohen song Closing Time: “She’s a hundred but she’s wearing something tight.” I quoted it. Nada. Another line from the same song came to mind: “The Gates of Love they budged an inch I can’t say much has happened since.”

I like this couple. I like them individually. I loved the irony of the moment. And after a bit, that irony was not lost on any of us. A relief, as clothing doesn’t really do much to fool others, especially when it comes to age. And of course, I am one who whose sense of identity is in flux. And I’m not just getting older, I’m without a home, and I’m retired.

Measurements reconsidered. Maybe love and compassion for ourselves and others moved a little more than an inch.

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