Quick! What do e-cigarettes, fossil fuels, and Downton Abbey all have in common?
E-cigarettes are great – if you used to be a heavy smoker and managed to switch your nicotine addiction entirely to e-cigarettes, which are much less likely to cause lung cancer. E-cigarettes are kind of terrible, though, if you’re a teen who tried them a few times then found yourself hooked on nicotine, which is not without its own health risks, and which can pretty much control your ability to feel okay, once you’ve let it. And all too many people who use e-cigarettes end up using regular cigarettes too.
Fossil fuels? Obviously we’d rather be using Earth-friendly renewable sources of energy, but if the year is 2022 and you find yourself suddenly needing to cross a continent or ocean in a matter of hours, then fossil fuels will come to your rescue.
E-cigarettes and fossil fuels are both what we might call “ambiguously valenced” products – good for some people in some circumstances, bad for other people or in other circumstances. Other examples could include, hm, beef, whiskey, morphine, guns. I’m sure there are many others. (And there are also ambiguously valenced activities: abortion, jumping from airplanes…)
The trouble is, “good sometimes, bad sometimes” involves more nuance than we generally want. Nuance takes mental effort. We’d rather like or dislike something than have to call on more complicated feelings.
Sometimes, something many people think is bad turns out to be somewhat good. Both cannabis and chemicals classified as “psychedelics” may have valuable medicinal properties.
And sometimes, something we think of as good turns out to be not so great, like Bill Cosby.
When things are ambiguously valenced, it’s harder to deal with them. People who want to quit e-cigarettes get less support from others, because those others may think there’s really nothing wrong with e-cigarettes, especially compared to the alternative. (It’s also hard to get funding to help people quit. Grant reviewers don’t necessarily see the need for it.)
Why am I thinking about this, and what does it have to do with Downton Abbey?
I finished reading an interesting book yesterday: Orwell’s Roses, by Rebecca Solnit. It’s an exploration of the life of Eric Blair, the man who wrote under the name George Orwell. We know him best for two of his novels: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four; he also wrote other books and lots of essays. Solnit tell us that he was also very much interested in gardening and nature, especially the English countryside. She points out that many see these two sides as incongruous, as if someone who is obviously passionate about worrisome trends toward totalitarianism should not also have a gentle, quiet side. (Again, a binary, as if people should be either one way or the other.)
Solnit writes about being an Anglophile. She doesn’t mention Downton Abbey, but that manor house lifestyle, those rolling hills, the tea, the “biscuits,” the queen – that’s all part of it. I can relate. My mom was so Anglophilic that she wouldn’t have anything to do with France. After all, it had been England’s rival during the Plantagenet and Tudor eras that she’d read so much about, and that the vast majority of her ancestors had experienced first-hand.
Downton Abbey is all about nostalgia, creating a longing for a beautiful past, as if it were our long-lost home. And yet, as Solnit points out, this is the very same England that conquered much of the planet, resisted Irish independence for generations, and even waged war to force the Chinese government to let the British freely sell opium there. (Imagine if some country decided to force the United States to accept heroin merchants!)
As Solnit put it, “When I got older and learned more about class and imperialism and the British-ruled Ireland my mother’s grandparents fled, I didn’t exactly get over Anglophilia but I did get a dose of Anglophobia to counter it.”
I’m not writing this to pick on England. The point I’m making is that the very same ambivalence applies to many countries, including the United States.
It’s okay to be ambivalent about our country, to love its land and its ideals, but also to want to hold it to a high standard, and to recognize that much of its history has been deeply flawed.
America is one of three modern countries founded by immigrants with an idealizing mission. The other two? Israel and South Africa. In each case, there were people already in the land they settled, and whom they’ve been slow to come to good terms with. In each case, the founding ideals have been at odds with the exploitation of an economic underclass. The fact is, using ideals to create a nation takes extra work.
So, what can we do about this problem of ambivalently valenced things?
First, although it’s easy to say that we should think things through rather than operating on heuristics, that is, knee-jerk decision rules (like reducing everything to binaries), the fact is that we almost always use heuristics. We simply don’t have the time and mental resources to think everything through, every time we need to make a decision.
But we should question the heuristics we start with, or that we learn from our friends and family, and make sure they’re informed by our principles and values. We can update our heuristics and choose them explicitly. They can be rules we set (sometimes made into laws, like, “no whiskey for children”), or commitments we’ve made. If we want to quit e-cigarettes, we can set rules for ourselves like, “no nicotine” or “no inhaled products unless prescribed by a doctor.”
Likewise, our intuition may say, “Americans are people who look like me and speak my language and go to church on Sundays.” That’s an intuition we should think twice about! Instead, try, “Americans are people who have become citizens of the United States, either by birthright or because they’ve passed a difficult test.” Whenever we find ourselves using that first heuristic, we should correct it, until the second becomes more natural. Right?
Or, rather than thinking, “America is great!” or “America is terrible!,” let’s work on building an America that meets the needs of all Americans and acts responsibly with the rest of the world. We can say, “In this context, America is fantastic, but in that context, America made a horrible mistake and hasn’t yet made amends.”
If we treat good-to-bad as a continuum rather than either/or, we can decide where it’s fair to draw the line.