The Reductive Seduction of the New

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Courtney Martin writes of an interesting cultural phenomenon at the Development Set blog on Medium. She calls it, "The Reductive Seduction of Other People's Problems." I'll set aside: (1) my major differences with the author on the morality of altruism, (2) the whole notion of "privilege," and (3) how an education that fails to challenge the young might breed this kind of thinking error. Instead, I'll focus on the broadly-applicable:

If you asked a 22-year-old American about gun control in this country, she would probably tell you that it's a lot more complicated than taking some workshops on social entrepreneurship and starting a non-profit. She might tell her counterpart from Kampala about the intractable nature of our legislative branch, the long history of gun culture in this country and its passionate defenders, the complexity of mental illness and its treatment. She would perhaps mention the added complication of agitating for change as an outsider.

But if you ask that same 22-year-old American about some of the most pressing problems in a place like Uganda's -- rural hunger or girl's secondary education or homophobia -- she might see them as solvable. Maybe even easily solvable.

I've begun to think about this trend as the reductive seduction of other people's problems. It's not malicious. In many ways, it's psychologically defensible; we don't know what we don't know.
This phenomenon isn't restricted to the young and idealistic, or to busybodies: It can happen to people of genuine goodwill, and exactly for the reasons Martin notes, be it ignorance of the "unknown unknowns" of the "new" problem or acclimation to (or even a feeling of being overwhelmed by) more familiar problems.

But Martin's altruistic persuasion causes her to miss something anyone can use: The same sort of thing can happen with regard to one's own problems. Who hasn't had a longstanding or difficult-to-address problem and felt the pull of an exciting, new project at the expense of working on it? There can be a sense of excitement, and an anticipation of personal efficacy that can come with embarkation on a new project, and which will make the new seem a refuge from the old. (This isn't always mistaken, but it can be.) But the new project, too, will bring disappointment if it isn't properly addressed, as becomes apparent from Martin's piece. This is not to say that a new project is always a bad idea: If attacked properly, the experience can help on in many other areas of life, including even the problem one ran from or put off before.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

I don't know if you've run across Jane Jacob's Systems of Survival but one of the later chapters details a sociological tragedy that reflects exactly this kind of thinking.

Apparently one of the countries that share the African Rift Valley had wanted to set up a nature preserve. There was a tribal culture there that subsisted by hunting-gathering and were therefore considered an undesirable element in regard to protecting the wildlife within the preserve.

So, banking on the latest anthropological theory du jour, they decided to push them into the next sociological stage; subsistence farming.

Long story short, it was a disaster. They took a relatively peaceful group of people, deprived them of their traditional livelihood, and ended up with a tribe that made their subsistence by raiding and killing neighboring tribes. It got so bad that one of the original anthropologists responsible for the debacle proposed that the only solution was to remove their children at childbirth and foster them with a less violent tribe, letting the more violent tribe die out from natural attrition.

Reductive seduction to start AND finish the debacle.

c andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


Interesting example(s). I had not come across that book, but I searched the title and glanced at the Wikipedia entry. Sounds interesting.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

I tracked down the original source of that anecdote and apparently the thesis advanced by the author of that original source is somewhat controversial among anthropologists today. I asked my brother, an anthropology major, to review it for his take on the subject.

The book is The Mountain People, by Colin Turnbull. It describes, through transcribed oral traditions, the previous lifestyle of the Ik people, and then, through observation, their present condition after being displaced from their lands by Kenya's Milton Obote in the 1950s to form a nature preserve for tourist dollars.

Wiki article here:

c andrew

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, C.

Snedcat said...

Ah, yes, Gus, blast from the past--the Ik. I remember telling you about them a bit over 20 years ago when I was reading the Turnbull book.

Gus Van Horn said...

Ack! The Ik! I now vaguely remember that. Your intellectual travels are like my in-laws' global ones: Chances are high you/they have been wherever I'm thinking about.