I have a pyramid and I know how to use it.
In the wake of the tragic Arizona shootings this past weekend, there has been no shortage of loud voices seeking to claim explanatory preeminence. Though the reaction certainly shouldn’t have taken us by surprise, the emotional elements of our current political discourse have risen to shockingly high levels once again. Well, while politics tends to take emotion past the point of being effective- I tend to err on the side of taking reason too far. Since, at the moment, the balance is clearly tipped towards the former, I’d like to take a moment to reexamine the pyramid analogy in light of the situation we are faced with…
(As a brief and far-from-polarizing primer on the reaction to Saturday’s shooting, I’d recommend Ross Douthat’s piece in the New York Times, United In Horror.)
Imagine that we have two pyramids in the desert and, say, a pile of bodies lying out in the sand. The left pyramid wants to say “look, those bodies are suspiciously close to the right pyramid” or “look, those bodies clearly fell from the right pyramid”, while the right pyramid wants to say “look, those bodies are off in the distance, and could not have possibly fallen from any of the pyramids we know about- or, if anything, they could just as well have fallen from the left pyramid”. Douthat points out, rightfully, that we’ve discovered bodies in the sand on a number of occasions before- and it’s often turned out that they do lie off in the distance, separate from either pyramid.
While I agree with Douthat’s call for caution, I think that it’s important to actually measure the distance between the bodies and all known pyramids. We will never know with absolute certainty which pyramid they fell from, if any at all (remember the significance of the vertical plane- the raw, untouchable nature of the sand itself). I think Douthat wisely points out that it’s too early to tell the distance between the bodies and the pyramids. But it’s also too early to tell that we can’t deduce the distance at all- or to say that attempting to deduce the distance is futile.
The appropriate approach, to me, is this: We must make an attempt to measure the distance and honestly deal with whatever results we find. The reason this is so important is that if the established proximity is close enough to one pyramid that we can find it sufficiently likely that the bodies fell from this pyramid, then we have an obligation to address the ultimate cause for them falling (primarily because there are a lot of other bodies that could potentially fall in the future). It’s true that sometimes bodies just pop up in the desert- this is the result of the human condition. And we will never change that. But bodies that fall from pyramids are different. The pyramids are our intentional creation- and with these, we must be aware of any emerging patterns.
At this point, I really don’t think anyone who is being intellectually honest can be convinced that the bodies fell from the right pyramid. But if it turns out that they really are lying suspiciously close, we must be ready to confront the pyramid that caused their fall.
The only complicating factor to this is that when someone has been looking at a particular pyramid for a long time, has seen a particularly slippery slope forming, and is continually warning about the possibility of slipping- it’s a lot easier to say “I told you so” when one day a pile of bodies turn up on the bottom. If we legitimately see a slippery slope that genuinely forms a path ending where our bodies now lie- this is another factor that must be considered when weighing the likelihood that they came from one pyramid or the other. All other things being equal, the presence of a slippery slope provides slightly more evidence that the pile came from that pyramid. (I want to be clear that I’m not saying that both pyramids- left and right- don’t have slippery slopes. I’m referring to a single pyramid and various scenarios in which we may encounter this specific pyramid. If at point A the right pyramid doesn’t have any severely dangerous slippery slopes and at point B it does, then I’m more inclined to attribute the bodies to the right pyramid at point B than at point A- and that has nothing to do with left vs. right pyramids, both of which have their fair share of slippery slopes).
The point here is that if we remove politics from the equation (which, admittedly, we can never fully do), the picture becomes much simpler. We honestly analyze the facts of the situation, determine if causal relationships can be rightfully inferred, and act accordingly if a destructive causal relationship is established. In our current situation, it may or may not be possible to establish such a relationship. Furthermore, such a relationship, if established, may have no real remedy. But that doesn’t mean that we call off the search and it doesn’t mean that we act on our hunches while we wait for confirmation.
Though the sand is difficult to see clearly, it must not be ignored as a critical element in the pyramid analogy.