Big Issues vs Small Issues

I often start my postings with a joke, and I’ve come to see that the reason is that jokes that stay with me are ones that teach a lesson, and that the lessons are often relevant to the issues we discuss here. Here’s one version of one of my favorites:

An elderly woman is discussing gender-roles with her liberated granddaughter. "In the old days," says the grandmother, "the man wore the trousers and his wife respected him like a king. Take me and your grandfather, for example. All the big decisions were taken by him, while I was in charge of all the small matters." The young woman is horrified and asks for explanations. "Simple," says Granny, "your grandfather had the last word on the big issues, like the global oil prices and the cold war between the Soviets and the West. I took all the small decisions, like how to manage our family budget, what furniture we should buy and how to educate our children…"

The joke is funny because of what it says about gender roles, but it also reminds us of our tendency to spend large amounts of time and energy on issues that we have no real control over. I don’t know if it is true, as the joke suggests, that men are more vulnerable to this flaw, but it is certainly widespread. Many people spend time worrying about "the big issues" like war and peace, political and social policy. While these discussions may be entertaining and interesting, the reason for engaging in them cannot be what it superficially seems. We don’t need to figure out what the best policies are on these various issues, because we have essentially no influence on them.

Rather, these discussions, arguments and debates must be about something else. It must be the social interaction itself which drives our interest in the big issues. It gives us a chance to show off, to test and demonstrate our mental skills. It lets us display our commitment to the common values of our social group. It gives us an excuse to denigrate those who disagree and so boost our own self-esteem. These kinds of reasons must be the true source of our interest in big issues.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with doing things for these reasons, but the problem is that for most of us, our own motivations are obscured. Most of us don’t realize that is why we are arguing about the war in Iraq or international trade. We are deceiving ourselves, and if we are going to overcome this bias, we need to recognize the truth.

To ourselves at least, we should recognize that the rational answer to questions about the big issues is, I don’t know and I don’t care. It’s out of my hands, so what does my opinion matter? I just won’t worry about it and focus on things that I can control.

It’s funny, but as I write those sentences, it does sound more like something a woman would say than a man. I do think the joke has a germ of truth in its recognition of how this bias especially affects men. Those of us who are male need to be particularly watchful for this "big issue" bias.

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