Sunday, March 02, 2008

Character and Skill

This is one of those issues that can get philosophical very fast. (Strange, isn't it that philosophical, which used to mean 'love of learning' has become almost synonymous for "blowhards with agendas?") Nature/nurture, the limits of training and back to the old question of "heart".

It is possible for someone to do something badly because they don't know how to do it well. It is also possible for someone to do something badly in exactly the same way because of who they are. One is a training issue, the other a character flaw. One is a relatively easy fix. The other may not be fixable.

This problem hits a lot of buttons in our society. The word "flaw" is very judgmental, and that is frowned on. The idea that some people might not be able to learn something seems clearly discriminatory and possibly even elitist.

These buttons exist side-by-side with other facts, that are rarely challenged but just the same things in different words. All people are different. Personalities are defined as the collection of character traits that last over time. It is okay to say that everyone has a talent (though some seem to very clearly not) and it is sort of okay to say that everyone has a weak spot... but when it extends to 'certain people are incapable of certain things', we glitch.

Theoretical example: a rookie police officer who uses excessive force. It may be a training issue in that he lacks the skills to handle things at a lower level. It may be an experience issue that he doesn't have the confidence in himself to handle things the softer and riskier way. Those are both fixable. But he may also be prone to panic, and when the fear kicks in he lashes out in a blind flurry. Or he just may be mean. Those are character issues and harder to fix, if they are fixable at all. One of the problems is that in an actual incident mistakes or bad behavior can look exactly the same regardless of source. A rookie with training issues can be an asset given time and effort and experience. The same rookie with a character flaw will be a detriment and a danger to everyone for as long as he has access to victims.

It's similar on the criminal side. Every human being has criminal impulses. It would be cool to have instant gratification and if it weren't for this stupid conscience and this nagging, quixotic belief in the humanity of others we could go to town, baby! Relatively few act on the impulses. A smaller number have no hesitation. What would be an impulse in another person is just the way things are- the humanity of their victims doesn't even register... and you get a career violent criminal. (There's more going on there, of course- just an illustration)

So which things are character and which are training? How much of the self-help industry is based on attempting to train away problems that are deeper than knowledge? If someone believes that they are largely jellyfish adrift and controlled by events (what psychologists term an external locus of control) can you really just teach them to take control of their lives and be assertive?

(And this hits another snag in the discussion- there are deeper levels of teaching, some of which can affect character, but often not reliably or it doesn't last. Or people will say or even believe that their character has changed, but their behavior doesn't. Buyer beware.)

How sure do you have to be to declare something a character flaw? When do you take away an officer's gun?
Again, in most lines of work, the difference might not matter much. But in a profession where the person will be subject to high levels of stress and must make high stakes decisions under that stress very quickly a character that freezes or over-reacts can get a lot of people hurt.

Even more, since I am a monkey and have to complicate things- what are the gradations of character and where do you draw the lines? I am very, very good at staying objective under stress. Partially training, a lot due to experience, but much of it is just temperament- for whatever reason I don't feel fear as an emotion with a lot of connotations. I register the adrenaline but it's not a pleasant or unpleasant thing. It just is. So, what about the guys who are just very good at it? Or good? Or okay? Most human traits are scalar, not binary.

This is just a discussion here but in another place and time it is a harsh decision with potentially drastic consequences. As a teacher, as a supervisor how much risk at what stakes with what evidence...


Kai Jones said...

This is the elephant in the room in so many discussions. When others don't even admit the possibility of choosing evil, or character flaws (two different things), then they only seek training solutions. When those limited solutions don't change outcomes, they assume the solution was flawed instead of the original assessment of facts.

This is where the changing social behavior standards failed us in the worst way, because we took out the public behavior expectations and the previous methods for enforcing them and tried to replace them entirely with the legal justice system, and it isn't working. There was value to social conformity and caring about your reputation because what people thought of you affected your choice field; making all motivations internal obviously doesn't create the incentives for ethical behavior that social pressure did.

Mark Jones said...

Yup. the discussion in the comment thread on Scalzi's "Whatever" blog about poverty and shame pretty much illustrates this point. Almost to a man, they refuse to concede the possibility that being poor could be the result of anything other than circumstance. That some people choose to be poor and eke out a living on welfare and/or crime rather than work for a living is anathema. It would require making a value judgment on someone and that's Just Not Done. (Well, unless they're Republicans and other hard-hearted bastards, of course.)

Bobbe Edmonds said...

I’ve never seen a person actually “change” overnight. I’ll grant that it might be possible, but to accurately identify, accept, address and discipline the character flaws within yourself take YEARS. Personally speaking, I pride myself on becoming something better than what I was when I was younger, but the whole process took almost 15 years, several relationships and a whole lot of people getting dicked over in the process. I know your article didn’t put a time limit on how long it was supposed to take, but in the context of your words I wanted to point out that most people look for immediate results. To change something that is a living part of you in a blink? The rookie who has the character flaws you mention might indeed accept your words that he needs to change, but his first inclination will be to struggle against it. “Screw him, the old man’s just busting my balls” he thinks, and goes home to have a beer. In my experience, it usually requires some emotional catalyst to motivate the actual change in someone, i.e. the rookie panics and blows a kid’s head off mistaking a toy gun for a real one. If he makes it past the guilt of his actions intact, he might now be in a better place to accept criticism of his character.

>”The idea that some people might not be able to learn something seems clearly discriminatory and possibly even elitist.”<

See, to me, that sounds perfectly normal. I have a distinct respect for police, despite all the speeding tickets you guys give me. If someone I have hired doesn’t perform well, it doesn’t matter to me if he’s black, handicapped, ESL, a woman or all of the above, I will drop them in a heartbeat. But then again, I work in I.T., and my actions aren’t under a societal microscope like yours are. It must chafe sometimes, I would go crazy.

>”what are the gradations of character and where do you draw the lines?”<

I’d say that’s different for everybody. I might be more inclined for a little latitude to a person with a pleasant disposition who has the occasional hiccup than some ass with an abrasive personality. You know. Like someone who lives in Boston.

Anonymous said...

And 30+ years ago, inflation and greed forced women to join the work force, thereby beginning the breakup of the nuclear family, drugs became the standard recreational diversion, thereby distracting males from their familial duties and the media created a culture where drugs are the answer to all ills and violence is the main interpersonal relationship routine. The answer? Giant asteroid.

Steve Perry said...

Well, at the risk of being contentious, that greed-workforce-drugs-asteroid post is pretty much more of that stuff out in the cow pasture into which you don't want to step.

Wrong on so many levels I hardly know where to begin.

But you know, debate against somebody without a name or a face leaves something to be desired. I think I'll pass unless you want to step and tell us who you are any why your opinion matters.

Anonymous said...

Steve, my friend! What does it matter who I am (just for info, from my computer I am unable to post using any of the options except anonymous - I do not have a blog or URL); I express my opinion politely, mildly, not 'taking exception' to anyone else's postings and, even though some may take exception to my opinions, am accepting of others views. Who has the issues here? At any rate, if you wish to have a more 'intense' discussion, please let me know and I will give you my cell number and we can meet over coffee. I am interested in your views and find them valuable and informative, even though I do not agree with all of them. Mac.

Steve Perry said...

Mac --

The problem is not in the mildness of expression, but in the content. What you had to say, as opposed to how you said it. My issues are sometimes with expression, but more with content. (That posting of double-speak on another thread was by "Anonymous," and the content and expression there were, at best, murky.)

Women began joining the workforce in great numbers during WWII, and while inflation could have been part of the reason for more doing so thirty years ago, the evidence suggests that such a thing was more about women wanting some kind of fulfillment in life other than sitting at home with the kids.

How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?

If the acme of the nuclear family is for dad to toodle off to work, mom to stay home and have a houseful of children for whom she is mostly responsible, then, yeah, I suppose you could say that gets broken up by women who want to work. But forty years ago when I got hitched, almost half of marriages failed, and that number hasn't gotten any smaller, so I'm guessing that the old ways don't play so well.

For many people, the sixties were a response to the old ways.

What was good enough for grandpappy isn't necessarily good enough for his grandson. People who talk about the good old days tend to gloss over things like disease, racism, sexism, and all the other ills that existed. In 1950's Eisenhower America, being white-Protestant-
male was a good gig. Being black, a woman, gay, or pretty much anything else was not so good.

The stuff about drugs and the media being responsible for it all, and violence being the norm in familial relationships? You deal with a different segment of society than I see.

I purely don't agree that a big meteorite is the answer, since the world has been going to hell in a handbasket as long as people have been writing about it.

Happy to see a signature, so I can tell one anonymous from another. That way I don't credit nor blame you for what the other anonymous guys say.

Kai Jones said...

Mac: women have always worked. They've also always been left by men (soldier, sailor, adventurer). The nuclear family of the 1950s was an isolated, short-term, and arguably anti-survival phenomenon. People have also always assuaged their bad feelings with drugs: it got so bad with alcohol we had Prohibition, then in those same utopian 1950s people used pills.