Difficulty at risk and unequal

If inexperience is a proxy for not-knowing, so too is difficulty. There may be more bulletproof typologies for difficulty than that of literary critic, George Steiner, but it’s sufficient for my purposes here. At a quick trot, four types of difficulty stand out for Steiner in making sense of a text (“text” construed now broadly): contingent, tactical, modal, and ontological.

Contingent Difficulties. Here, the text or situation poses obscure terms or notions that you have to “go and look up.” With a little work—you read more or talk to those in the know—you figure out what the term or notion in question means for the case.

As contingent difficulties, “Just what does risk and its assessment or management really mean?” has any number of answers that can be looked up in handbooks, manuals or statutes. What does this or that regulation say about the term in question? The same too for what qualifies legally or officially as “inequality,” income or otherwise.

Tactical Difficulties.  Here the text poses obscurities that are deliberately difficult and not meant to be settled by looking up an answer. Legal ambiguities may be intentionally introduced in documents or situations to make it difficult for any decisionmaker to engineer or cookie-cutter the single answer across cases.

In this way, purposive ambiguity ensures that no single answer exists for “What is risk?” or “What is inequality?” To focus on a theme shared by both questions, just what “market prices” are being talked about when figuring incomes or risks core to inequality: transaction prices, offered prices, prices thought to prevail if there were a trade to observe, prices modeled on the prices of inputs into that model, and/or something else? Or when it comes to inequality, as philosopher Harry Frankfurt, asked, what information are we losing “when treating everyone equally”?

Modal Difficulties. Here “mode” refers not to numerical average or middle value but to “modes of experience.” The text poses difficulties because of the differing experiences of those reading or interpreting it. “Today I am less experienced, less able to adapt to this harsh selfish environment than the average twenty-year-old,” writes essayist Phillip Lopate, “who has grown up without my New Deal-Great Society set of expectations.” It matters that it was Van Gogh who said of his own work, “ it’s the least bad that I can do,” and not someone less experienced.

As modal difficulties, risk and inequality center on the experience of being unequal or in risky situations, and how that experience changes through personal or interpersonal appraisal and reappraisal. “To grow up is to discover what it is one is unequal to,” writes psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips. As modal difficulties, being unequal or “at risk” do not and cannot equate to official classifications of material inequality or legally-assigned “risky behavior.”

Ontological Difficulties. Here the text poses situations so in extremis that they cannot be comprehended whatever the experience. These difficulties have no “answer” because no question is being asked that is answerable.

Few examples remain in media always ready to domesticate every fresh obscenity. Sometimes, though, we get a scorching glimpse. Leslie Hardman, Jewish military chaplain with the British during World War II, tried to describe what he saw when entering the concentration camp at Belsen: “If all the trees in the world turned into pens, all the waters in the oceans turned into ink and the heavens turned into paper, it would still be insufficient material to describe the horrors those people suffered under the SS.” As ontological difficulties, inequality and risk radically alter our humanity. They make us humane or inhumane in ways indescribable and beyond the limits of evolved cognition, knowledge and feeling.

Implications. While the four types of difficulty come brewed together, first-order differences are evident. One, the numerical majority of inequality and risk difficulties are contingent, tactical and modal—that is, they can be addressed, if only over time or at times only provisionally. (Let’s wager that search engines and digital databases will improve people’s ability to deal with such difficulties.)

Two, those who handle these difficulties are often found in teams, groups and networks rather than on individually, since the difficulties are so knowledge-intensive that they require varied experiences with heterodox contingencies. Three, what are taken to be significant inequality or risk difficulties are more likely to be modal than ontological. Modal difficulties recognize complexity, but insist on the importance of different types of experience in addressing them; ontological difficulties are not, by definition, differentiated, at least in that way.

The overall implication is profound: There are costs in asking us to address one type of difficulty and not others. It’s scarcely sufficient to insist the opposite of complexity is simplicity, when the opportunity costs of dealing with ontological difficulties are set by not dealing with contingent, tactical and modal ones instead. (In reality, there’s nothing more difficult than being simple about complexity. “A maximum of simplicity goes with a maximum of difficulty. . .Being simple is not simple; it is attempting the impossible,” wrote French writer, Georges Perros.)

More specifically, the difficulty with “a more equal or less risky society” isn’t that the notion is idealized or reified. Rather the ideal or aim of a more equal and less risky society is not as variably difficult–the scenarios are not as granular–as are inequality or high risk in practice and experience. It’s far too easy to say the right thing—no one should starve when there is food, no one should die of thirst when there is water, no one should bleed to death when medical help could ensure otherwise—and leave it at that.

This is another way of saying that if reduction in poverty and inequality means making “the playing field level for everyone,” those involved must be skilled enough to survive and persist when that doesn’t work. There is a caveat, though.

The more experience with complexity and not-knowing we accumulate, the more we must resist behaving as if our inexperience and its difficulties are also decreasing. What matters the most is the continuing experience that inexperience is always front and center and so too are its difficulties. Accumulating modal experiences as to how complexity remains complex but gets less difficult needs to be constantly challenged by the countervailing sense that we are as artless and craftless as ever in our inexperience with the unknown.

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