I bring this up because a friend of mine recently offered me a very nice compliment, though I doubt he realized how positively I would take it. Specifically during a conversation, I observed that I couldn't comment on someone being nervous because I'm pretty high-strung myself. High-strung has, I think, a much nicer sound than, "total f-ing spazz." In any case, my friend responded thusly:
"Well, yeah, you're high-strung, but you don't freak out. When things happen you just say, 'Ok, fine, we can do this.'"
I take that as a very, very nice remark about my character. It actually ranks up there with something another friend once told me:
"You know what, Drek? You're just really handy to have around. You get stuff done."
I don't bring all this up to brag, although goodness knows I'm pleased, but rather because it lets me make a point: one of my goals in life is to be useful to my fellow humans. Seriously, that really is one of my goals. I aspire to be useful, and take great pride in being told that I am.
Some of you, who know me only through my blog, might not find this terribly shocking. I have, after all, spoken at length about my habit of donating platelets. This might have given you an unreasonably positive view of my character. Folks in my program, however, some of whom read my blog, probably find this a little harder to believe. I am one of the least activist-oriented graduate students in our department. Hell, I'm one of the least activist-oriented in any department I've visited. For many people, this would seem to imply that I don't much care about other people, and am just trying to make my narrow way through the world.
The truth is, that isn't really the truth! I'm just as idealistic as the next grad student, it's just that I'm not idealistic about the same things. Many people get involved in sociology because they want to influence the world somehow, and believe sociology will help them do it. There is a student in my cohort who came in intending to earn her Ph.D. and then join a policy institute to fight for liberal policies. There are others in our program who joined up (Which makes it sound a little militaristic I suppose) out of a desire to develop tools to make social movements more effective. (This is, no doubt, in the belief that more effective social movements would be a good thing, which may or may not be true depending on the movement and the moment.) I didn't get involved in sociology for any of those reasons.
I got involved in sociology because I think that our organization as a society is important to our survival, and our growth as a species. In my view it is increasingly apparent that the problems of the world stem not from a technical inability to satisfy material want, but from an inability to organize ourselves in such a way as to make the global satisfaction of that want possible. In short: our material technology has advanced more rapidly than our social technology, and we are now suffering from that imbalance. In this, I probably don't differ much from most of the activists. The place where I DO differ is in my belief that we don't know how to solve those social problems yet. Perhaps strengthening social movements would be good, perhaps not. Perhaps policy work would help, then again, maybe it wouldn't. I don't believe we have the answers yet and, while I don't think we have to wait to dot every I and cross every T before we do anything, I do think we need people looking for those answers.
I got into sociology because I think that science is, itself, a way to influence the world in a positive way. Science isn't about morality, it isn't about what we should do, it's about finding out how the world works, and learning to change that working. Science is about providing the knowledge and the tools to make positive changes possible. Society at large decides what those changes should be, but we as scientists provide the means to make them. In my view, mankind has never suffered from knowing too much about our world. We have never been injured because we understood things too well. If anything, our suffering seems to have come not from our knowledge, but from our ignorance- of the world, and of each other.
Some of you are probably shaking your heads and thinking about products of science like mustard gas, the hydrogren bomb, and the holocaust. "Aren't these," some of you ask, "examples of what science can do? Doesn't this mean that science isn't all good?" To that I respond with this: I never said that all science was good. Of course, then again, I never said that all science was bad either. In fact, I wouldn't say that science is good or bad. Information is information, facts are facts. We owe some of our knowledge of how much physical punishment humans can withstand to the Third Reich. Brutal monsters though they were, they produced findings that are correct and accurate. Are those findings bad because they were acquired in a horrific manner? No. I deplore what was done and could not, and would not, condone experiments such as those performed by the Nazis in the name of science, yet the knowledge they gleaned plays a role today in our ability to save lives. The knowledge that allows us to construct hydrogen bombs also allows us to make use of nuclear medicine, which saves many lives, and may permit us to one day build fusion reactors, lessening or eliminating our dependence on polluting fossil fuels. Science produces knowledge, but society must decide how to use that knowledge.
It is probably for this reason that I don't mind the debate about stem cell research currently raging in the United States. As it happens, I am firmly on the pro-stem cell side of the issue. I do not believe in a soul and do not believe that the embryos used for stem cell research are sufficiently advanced to warrant protection under our laws. I am less certain about the virtues and vices of the genetic engineering of humans, either for enhancement or the correction of defects, but we are not yet ready to cross that particular Rubicon. Yet, despite my support for the research, I think that the issue of how we use our growing technology and scientific know-how to explore the very substance of human development is a decision to be made by society as a whole. Science tells us how we can do a thing, but just because we can do a thing, it does not follow that we must do that thing. The decision belongs to all of us, not just to scientists and not just to moralists. If we truly desire to make knowledge more democratic (For more on this, see Paul Lachelier's essay in the most recent Political Sociology section newsletter. I'm not saying I agree with his point, by the way, I'm just saying you should read the article and make up your own damn mind) we need to stop pretending that we are qualified to decide how the world should be for other people. We can tell the world how things work, and how we may change that, but we cannot tell the world whether or not such change should happen.
Some of you are probably also laughing at my seeming naivete. Go ahead and laugh, I don't mind. I laugh at people all the time, it's only fair that I let y'all laugh back. However, as you're laughing, perhaps you should consider the fact that you don't eat meat for "environmental reasons," or that you insist on using the painfully awkward pronoun "s/he" to avoid unintentionally reinforcing gender norms. Am I really so naive in comparison to your tremendous wisdom? I don't mean to be insulting (Well, only a little) but my belief in the power of science to allow us to make informed decisions is no more or less silly than your belief that you, as an individual, can make a difference by not eating meat, or watching what pronouns you use.
Which is, of course, to say: not silly at all. I like being told that I'm useful because of a simple belief about the world. I believe that if people act in a collaborative, cooperative way, the world is a better place. I believe that if people would give to each other more freely and willingly, if they would assist each other more readily, we would all live in a society where we could be happier. I also believe that such a world cannot exist unless we labor to build it, and work to keep it up day by precious day. This is, in part, why I give blood: I think it helps make things just a little better. This is also why being told I'm useful is, to me, an enormous compliment: it means I'm carrying my weight.
What that also means, though, is that just as one person going vegeterian for environmental reasons won't make a difference, and one person refraining from "sexist" pronouns won't alter the gender order, a whole lot of people doing either of those things might. I can't solve the platelet shortage by myself, but I can sure as hell join with hundreds of others to put a pretty goddamn big dent in the thing. Together there is strength. Why should it be any different for science?
Individual scientists are weak and flimsy, much of our work will never see print beyond the cloistered halls of the academy. Yet, still, we are making our mark on the world because we are part of a collective enterprise. By joining the ranks of science I am giving my strength to a collective effort to push back the cloak of ignorance- an effort that has endured for centuries and, if we are fortunate, will endure for more centuries still. It may seem as though I don't care, that I'm focussed only on my work and on some inconsequential piece of social life, but that simply isn't true. I am as idealistic as any of you, I am as activist as any of you, I simply have a different foe. You fight poverty, racism, sexism, elitism, and environmental degradation. Those are not my enemies or, at least, are not my true nemeses. My enemy is the ignorance that grants strength to your enemies. Every day I work with countless other scientists to bring that big son-of-a-bitch down. Every day science labors to bring us one step closer to the end of ignorance. And every day I find myself asking just one question:
Who wants to help?
Disclaimer: Okay, so, yes, really I was just looking for an excuse to brag about a compliment I received. The rest of this post is just pseudo-intellectual justification for what would otherwise be an exercise in vanity. Fine. You caught me. Aren't you bloody-fucking brilliant? I mean, seriously, you're the Belle of the Ball as it were. Gimme a break here, all right? My personal life is a revolving door of disaster, my faculty advisor is in another state and won't return my calls, and the students in my class seem to alternate between thinking I'm an asshole and thinking I'm some kind of circus clown. Come to think of it... that would make me an ass-clown. Goody. In any case... I have no point. I'm really just admitting I was bragging, and telling you that if you have a problem with that, you can bite me. At least I took the time to TRY and wrap it up in an