Status Quo, Baby

The other day I went to a chamber music recital at Whitman College. Three groups performed, including my wife’s scholarship quartet from nearby Walla Walla University (they played second, and they were great).

As I listened to the final group perform their final piece (the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence”), I noticed that a long hair from the first violinist’s bow had snapped and was waving wildly from the tip of the bow. It was distracting for me, and, as I later learned, much of the audience also took note of the flailing filament. This got me thinking: it wouldn’t take much for the distraction to be removed, and, in the grand scheme of things, the time commitment would be negligible.

But the violinist was in the midst of a particularly vigorous section of a piece that already had her playing almost without ceasing. For her to remove the wispy whisker in the middle of the performance, though it would have taken only a few seconds, would have meant either 1) she would need to cease playing while the rest of the group continued without the melody, or 2) the entire ensemble would have to halt their performance momentarily.

Both options were ridiculous, of course, given that the twisting tendril represented at most a discomfiting distraction for the obsessively compulsed. So the performance went on unhindered.

What would have justified one or all in stopping their performance? I suggested to my wife as we left later on that the spontaneous combustion of one or more instruments would qualify. Such an event would constitute an obvious hazard to the player and probably the audience, too. But a stray strand? Not so much.

That flagellating flyaway is worth thinking back on, though, because it is a good visualization for maintaining the status quo.

Take double-entry bookkeeping as an example. The practice of accounting transactions in terms of a debit from one account corresponding to a credit to another dates back nearly two millennia and is considered fundamental in the historical rise of capitalism (which, in turn, is responsible for the unprecedented levels of human prosperity we enjoy in the twenty-first century).

Yet, the origin of this practice has been attributed to the institution of slavery in the American South. It doesn’t matter that such an assertion is utterly false. The important point is that its association with slavery is meant, at best, to undermine the morality, credibility, and desirability of double-entry bookkeeping as an accounting method. At worst, it’s a condemnation of the practice and a call for its abrogation.

But a genesis in perpetuating the subjugation of an entire race, if it were true, would be a self-evident moral irrelevancy. That the practice continues in the absence of the enslavement of African-Americans is prima facie evidence that its start in slavery would have been a meaningless historical happenstance. The two things aren’t simply unrelated, they’re utterly independent of one another.

In other words, double-entry bookkeeping’s (false) origin in American slavery is a billowing braid that no more than distracts the mentally disordered. It is no justification for halting the concert*.

Or take shaving. Some have argued that the modern norm of women maintaining smooth legs and underarms is sexist in its origin because men don’t bear the same social expectation.

But even if the origin and expectation of women maintaining hair-free bodies were sexist, it wouldn’t follow that shaving is immoral and undesirable, or that women should stop shaving en masse. Given that maintaining smooth legs and underarms is the norm, a call for a cultural shift** away from shaving bears the burden of proof for why that status quo ought not be maintained. That many women would continue shaving in the absence of social pressure suggests that sexist origins for the convention constitutes a waving wisp rather than an instrument inferno.

There are plenty of other examples I could draw upon: Western culture, the institution of marriage, and Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, all have things in their respective histories that most (rightly) find objectionable, but it would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater to upend the status quos surrounding them on the basis of those objections.

*One could decide not to practice double-entry accounting, of course. However, given its eminent usefulness in maintaining one’s private and (especially) business affairs, one must bear the costs associated with thus putting himself at such a substantial disadvantage.

**An individual obviously has the power to decide, on the basis of her own preferences, not to shave her legs and underarms. However, making that decision in the context of a society in which shaving is the norm means bearing the social “costs” associated with it. The question of whether having to bear such “costs” is unjust, is a different–though not unrelated–question, one which I intend to explore another time.