Some kind of -topia

I regularly hear about “social engineering”, in both positive and negative connotations. The idea, however, seems to be to improve society. At the same time I see society growing increasingly permissive, relaxing mores, and discarding traditions, and I can’t help but wonder if we’re going about it all wrong.

Suppose you’re trying to improve the quality of cars you produce. It seems obvious that any such program should include looking at the parts you use. Can you build a better car by relaxing the standards on the parts you accept? Do you want softer metals for your pistons or crankshaft? Do you let it slide if your brake calipers vary in width by a millimeter or two? No, in pretty much every Six Sigma or process improvement program I’ve ever seen you end up tightening standards (that is, after all, the very definition of Six Sigma).

So why is it we think we can improve society by relaxing our standards on people? Do we really think that lowering the standards of discipline, self-sacrifice, and responsibility is going to somehow make society better? Do we really think that lowering our expectations will increase people’s drive to exceed them?

It occurs to me that while we seem to be relaxing our standards across the board, there are still some areas where we resist lowering expectations. Sports is one of them. I almost never hear fans express a desire that their team not worry so much about losing and just get out there and have fun. No, we expect our favorite teams to do better each year, even though the law of averages indicates that only half of the teams will actually do so.

Nor do we plop down $200 for a Broadway play expecting to see actors miss entrances, forget lines, or sing off key. If Hollywood started producing movies using special effects that were state-of-the-art in 1970 or actors just pulled in off the street we’d all stop going to movies (the great exception to this being reality TV).

We want to have our cake and eat it, too. We want things to improve, while holding ourselves to a lower standard. I’m as guilty as the next guy. I want everything my parents had without having to show the same fiscal discipline they did.  I want to have all the nice things other people have without having to work as hard as they did. It’s human nature.

But since when has indulging human nature resulted in better humans? The best of our race, the greatest of the great, as a general rule achieved that status not by giving in to every human whim, but by denying themselves in many areas so that they could excel in the areas it mattered most. They may have tolerated imperfections in others, but they held themselves to a higher standard.

So pardon me if I am distrustful of much of the social engineering I see around me. No society achieves more by expecting less. Perhaps in many areas we need to aim less for tolerance and acceptance and more for pity and disapproval. How can we know that our behavior should change if no one ever tells us that we’re not okay just as we are? It seems the only people we’re willing to send that message to are those who are opposed to relaxing the standards.

I’m sorry, but I think we’ve got things backward. We’re working our way toward some kind of -topia, all right, but I suspect it’s one that should be “dys-ed”.

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One Response to Some kind of -topia

  1. It usually seems to be that the ones who want to ‘improve society’ are never interested in starting with themselves. And of course, few people can agree on what better looks like.

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