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Is an FPP workable if it requires having read a specific book?
September 15, 2012 5:40 PM   Subscribe

With this FPP as a starting point, I wanted to ask: Is an FPP where every attempt at discussion is impossible because you have to read a book about the subject first, a good FPP?

There seems to be a lot of "you can't understand this if you don't read the book", "you're misunderstanding/oversimplifying, go read the book" and so on in the comments. If the FPP can't be understood/discussed without having read a book, maybe it doesn't work?
posted by Joakim Ziegler to Etiquette/Policy at 5:40 PM (77 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

Or... maybe you should read the book!
posted by carsonb at 5:41 PM on September 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


Seriously, though, there was a lot to read in that post that wasn't the book, and plenty to discuss. Anyone being dismissive probably shouldn't be.

But really, it's a good book. Give it a shot.
posted by carsonb at 5:44 PM on September 15, 2012


With super popular books, this is okay. With less popular books there should be some way to point to more information about the book so that people who haven't read it can also participate. I know it's tough when this sort of thing feels like a popularity contest, so it's important to be able to sort of gauge the audience if at all possible and try to write to their level. It's tricky but I think there are a lot more posts like this than people realize, they just get all the references and so it doesn't seem like inside/outside culture stuff. I also feel this way about almost every post on sports, but I manage to muddle through some of them anyhow, and usually it's worth it.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:46 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, it's an obituary, so there's that. And it's always okay to *not* comment in an fpp if it becomes clear that having some background in the subject would be helpful, or to comment in a way that's not all presumptuous/fighty/declarative. I mean, I'm not going to go into a thread about p=np or whatever that damn equation/concept is that I don't understand at all and make comments like I know what I'm talking about, because I don't. Other people have deeper knowledge, and it's cool to sit back and listen to them talk sometimes. Or I go watch the latest cat video if I get bored or frustrated or just lose interest.
posted by rtha at 5:47 PM on September 15, 2012 [25 favorites]


There seems to be a lot of "you can't understand this if you don't read the book", "you're misunderstanding/oversimplifying, go read the book" and so on in the comments.

I agree that these comments aren't helpful. However, they could be replaced with "read TFA". I strongly suspect the person these comments are directed at hasn't read all the links (though it's clear they've read the NYT link) and/or isn't arguing in good faith.
posted by hoyland at 5:52 PM on September 15, 2012


Also, Joakim, thanks for taking this to meTa.
posted by rtha at 5:53 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Posted this in the thread instead of here. Here it is in duplicate.

It's entirely possible to talk about it. What's not so possible is to arrive at a conclusion like "the family was to blame because they believed in magic" based only on the information contained in the links. The book is widely read - in this thread alone you can see how many people either read it on their own or for an assignment - and had a lot of impact.

You could make the same comment about To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn, and we've had threads about those books.
posted by Miko at 5:54 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or Game of Thrones, which we've had so many threads about that I now practically feel like I've read all of them and seen the show even though I haven't.
posted by rtha at 6:05 PM on September 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


or Infinite Jest ...
has anyone actually read that?
posted by philip-random at 6:09 PM on September 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


I read the 'Praise for David Foster Wallace' part on the back cover, so that makes me practically an expert on the book, I think.
posted by Ritchie at 6:13 PM on September 15, 2012


Or Game of Thrones, which we've had so many threads about that I now practically feel like I've read all of them and seen the show even though I haven't.

BUM DUM DA DA DUM DUM DA DA DUM DUM DA DA DUM DUM DA DA DUUUMM DUM DA DA DAUUUUUUM DUM DA DA DUUUUM (dum dum da da dum dum da da) DUM DUM DA DA DA DA DUM
posted by nathancaswell at 6:15 PM on September 15, 2012 [11 favorites]


I agree that this one was tricky. There is an awful lot of nuance in the book that is hard to capture in a comment or a FPP. I typed and erased a bunch of comments to try to explain, but didn't post because it was pretty futile to try to refute some of the more inflammatory comments without writing a mini-thesis.

Also, I've not read or seen Game of Thrones and I just skip those posts, so maybe more people should be doing that.
posted by kamikazegopher at 6:23 PM on September 15, 2012


This is my first MeTa post, so be gentle!

And I think this is a bit different from posts about sports or GoT or whatever subject like that. If you're not interested in that subject, it's better to skip it, of course. But this is a post about a very specific case that plays into something of general interest, which is "culture clash in the context of medical treatment". I find that subject pretty interesting, but I haven't read the book (nor heard about it).
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:30 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


(The book sounds interesting, btw, so I'm not saying I won't read it, but that discussion will be closed by the time I do.)
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:32 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


oh man i am working on the best fucking GoT post right now i tell you what
posted by elizardbits at 6:32 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


This seems less of "you've got to read the book to understand" and more of "spouting off about how people are assholes without actually knowing what you're talking about is a bad thing." If some people feel as though their ability to spew GRAR all over is impeded by not immediately having all the facts, that actually seems like a good thing to me.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 6:33 PM on September 15, 2012 [14 favorites]


I read the post, and I backed out, although I do have some limited Hmong experience, but not related to the book.

So what is your point? That no one can make a good FPP because you haven't read the book? I used to work at a bookstore, two, in fact, but I have not read every book out there.

Give me some Xanth. I can comment on that. Piers Anthony wrote me a personal letter, in fact.

I have no knowledge of Game of Thrones, nor do I wish to, nor do I comment on those threads. It's just not in my bailiwick. Why don't you make a FPP in your bailiwick and consider it a done deed?
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:34 PM on September 15, 2012


oh man i am working on the best fucking GoT post right now i tell you what

Jesus $#%#, spoilers please! Thanks for ruining the post.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:35 PM on September 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


There are plenty of FPPs where someone steamrolls everyone else with their experience. This one just has a lower bar to entry, and for some reason, more vociferous insisters that the experience is absolutely critical to being able to discuss the issue. The fault is not with the FPP writer, but some of the commenters (on both the have-to-read and haven't-read sides) need to step back a little.
posted by Etrigan at 6:39 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


And I think this is a bit different from posts about sports or GoT or whatever subject like that. If you're not interested in that subject, it's better to skip it, of course. But this is a post about a very specific case that plays into something of general interest, which is "culture clash in the context of medical treatment". I find that subject pretty interesting, but I haven't read the book (nor heard about it).

It seems like you think this is different from threads about sports of GoT because you have no interest in those threads, so you'd skip them anyways. I think that people who are interested in sports of GoT could come up with a blurb similar to "culture clash in the context of medical treatment" that would make threads about sports or GoT seem like things of general interest, too.
posted by 23skidoo at 6:45 PM on September 15, 2012


I would just like to applaud the use of the word bailiwick.
posted by Glinn at 6:47 PM on September 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


We're a literate enough community that posts based around books work for a decent percentage of the site's members most of the time, though we do have two problems -- those who don't RTFA or RTFB & want to comment, and though it doesn't seem to be happening in that particular thread, those who hate the book, are are dismissive of its author or premise, and feel a need to declare so. That's just a site culture thing though, and not a problem particular to book threads.

The Moby Dick audio book thread, for example, is going quite well, even if it's a bit quiet. No one at all has barged in to complain about Melville going on too long about the whales. Yet.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:55 PM on September 15, 2012


This seems less of "you've got to read the book to understand" and more of "spouting off about how people are assholes without actually knowing what you're talking about is a bad thing.

That's how I see it. I think there are a lot of great things to talk about in this story, and about the book. And I think if you haven't read it, there's a lot you can say about related ideas, stuff like this, stuff in the links. And there are also essentially limitless questions you can ask about it, and a lot of people who give some sort of answer.

more vociferous insisters that the experience is absolutely critical to being able to discuss the issue

I don't insist that at all. I'm only objecting to one thing: the idea that you can make a decision on how to apportion blame for the subject's death without having the information you would need to do that in a reasonable way. That information's mostly not in the links.

It's not that it's critical to read the book at all. There was a good discussion going on before that clash happened, among those who had and hadn't read it. It's that someone suggested - no, insisted on - an interpretation of the events described in the book, but without knowing what those events were.

I honestly think that in discussions of books, media, phenomena, etc., it should be fair to say "you're not on solid ground because you aren't working with the full information." In the same way, I think it would be fair to say that to someone who had never read Huckleberry Finn, but asserted it was racist because it contains racial epithets.

It's not about having read/not having read, it's about the assertions.
posted by Miko at 6:56 PM on September 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


My father was an English teacher. I was regularly subject to Tennyson quotes at random. "Onward, the 600!" "She left the web, she the loom, she made three paces, through the room, she looked down toward Camelot. The web flew out and floated wide, the curse has come upon me! cried, the Lady of Shallott." Greek plays and other literary references abounded in my family. Bailiwick is just a word from my childhood. Sort of a leftover. Nothing astounding.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:13 PM on September 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Generally, an obituary thread is about someone whose achievements or work are well known or at least easily searchable on the Internet. Lia Lee is only known outside her circle of family and friends because of the Fadiman book and coverage of the book.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:13 PM on September 15, 2012


I was going to say that because my library has a copy at least it's better than the plethora of NYT links that I can't read because the links are behind their paywall yet seem to get a pass unlike pay sites like JSTOR but I see that the post a) does indeed have a NYT link and b) for some reason it's not blocked for me me.

So I guess a vote for posts that at their heart are accessible for free on the webinternet.

But then I'm more of a fan of the "This is cool" Metafilter than the "Here's an essay on a topic" Metafilter.
posted by Mitheral at 7:15 PM on September 15, 2012


Don't be so hard on yourself, Joakim. The epic FPP lies betwix Who cried when old yeller died?, "Yeah, this happened." "Shirley, you've seen this.", "Cats, how do they work?", "Hold my beer and watch this.", "That fuckin guy wrote something, whoopie doo.", "Your music sucks.", and BOOM! "this looks interesting, perhaps I shall read the linked content and partake in a discussion."
posted by vozworth at 7:35 PM on September 15, 2012


"you can't understand this if you don't read the book", "you're misunderstanding/oversimplifying, go read the book"

I've frequently gotten this same injunction in basically every religion debate with certain usual suspects. It does seem to be their go to response doesn't it?
posted by Chekhovian at 7:37 PM on September 15, 2012


more vociferous insisters that the experience is absolutely critical to being able to discuss the issue

I don't insist that at all.


Please, allow me to amend that to "more vociferous threadsitters".
posted by Etrigan at 7:41 PM on September 15, 2012


It's interesting that you characterize this as a "religion debate," Chekhovian. Would you say more about that?
posted by Miko at 7:48 PM on September 15, 2012


I did not think you had to read the book to empathize with the family, their loss of a vibrant child, and their final loss. Encountering other cultures is bound to end up in culture shock. After more than forty years in the States, I still have occasional moments of disorientation and alienation.
posted by francesca too at 7:52 PM on September 15, 2012


Sorry, I phrased that poorly. What I meant was that you've given me the same response in our several prior separate debates, which IIRC, were usually about religion.
posted by Chekhovian at 7:52 PM on September 15, 2012


I don't recall that, but if in those threads you asserted conclusions about the content of material you hadn't looked at, I certainly would have said the same thing. For me, conclusions hat are arrived at by a process of reason require evidence.
posted by Miko at 7:56 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Had you read my comments carefully, you would have noticed that they were phrased in conditional terms, eg If something, then something, else something different. So no I haven't read the book, and the NYT obit doesn't make any grand pronouncements about explicit causation, and who can really know in the end anyway?

And there's this weird disconnect between our respective uses of language, in that I've tried to talk about the distribution of blame, with in my mind the fundamental point that all the parties were responsible to some degree, which many people in the thread seemed to take as implying that any blame allocated to a party meant that that party deserved all of the blame...or maybe that no one should be blamed for anything in anyway? *Sigh*

But none of this is really what we were arguing about, was it? Wasn't it just our usual sparring over the merits of moral relativism?
posted by Chekhovian at 8:12 PM on September 15, 2012


Or dare I say it, subjectivism, even?
posted by Chekhovian at 8:14 PM on September 15, 2012


But none of this is really what we were arguing about, was it? Wasn't it just our usual sparring over the merits of moral relativism?

I think it might have been when you implied that she was overeducated.
posted by liketitanic at 8:15 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Mefi has always been about the links. If the link is good, then it is a good FPP, even if there is nothing to discuss. If you think about how many comments there are and how much traffic this site gets, most people do not comment. I know that I read many posts, read the links and then do not comment. A FPP is not bad merely because the subject of the link is challenging to digest.
posted by caddis at 8:16 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wasn't it just our usual sparring over the merits of moral relativism?

If you're at the point where you're having a "usual sparring" match with people, that sort of thing probably needs to be taken more quickly to MeMail.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:21 PM on September 15, 2012 [9 favorites]


The fixation on blame struck me as strange, especially after bilabial's informed comment, and appeared to me as though you were taxing up the anti-religion axe for a nice grind. I wanted to counter your characterization of the family as"primitive" and "unfortunate," given that these are loaded terms that reflect a bias and don't accurately describe the family, and also wanted to emphasize that, if there is a process of adapting to American medicine that we agree is beneficial, the conditions of this family were such that they couldn't yet have been expected to adapt to them.

Your discussion of the family, which seemed to center on judgment and blame, just seemed to be something that wasn't coming from any degree of familiarity with who they actually were or what happened to them - just what you were speculating might be the case, based only on the article.

I don't recognize that we have "mutual sparring over the merits of moral relativism." We've crossed paths on the topic of religion a couple of times that I can recall, but it's not a huge part of my participation here and I certainly wouldn't describe it in those terms, and don't go looking for it. I'm talking about the post topic, not sparring. On preview, seeing Jessamyn's comment, I would not really want any MeMail conversations; I'm not interested in "sparring" with you.
posted by Miko at 8:25 PM on September 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


in that I've tried to talk about the distribution of blame, with in my mind the fundamental point that all the parties were responsible to some degree,

When talking in the fpp about the Lees, you use language like "primitive" and "ignorant" and "magic" and "unfortunate cultural heritage." When talking about the Western medical staff you use language like...nothing, because you don't mention them at all. You did not discuss "all" parties, and only apportioned blame to one.
posted by rtha at 8:29 PM on September 15, 2012 [12 favorites]


Well, I admit, my comments were based around the NYTimes obit which says next to nothing about the Western medical staff [so much for the paper of record it seems]. But you're discussing what fraction x is a of 1, there is kind of an implicit 1 - x that goes along with it.
posted by Chekhovian at 8:36 PM on September 15, 2012


Chekhovian, what's your goal? Do you want to discuss cultural relativism in general? Do you want to figure out where the disconnects happened in the Lee situation? Where those disconnects happen in medical settings even where all the parties share a cultural background?

Your language in the fpp is really loaded, and you seemed to be coming down hard only on the Lees, and you didn't seem interested in engaging with the nuances that other commenters were talking about. So what do you want?
posted by rtha at 8:59 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


my comments were based around the NYTimes obit which says next to nothing about the Western medical staff

There were six links in the post. That obit was the last one. The others discuss the cultural barriers, diagnostic delays, etc. But even the Times piece mentions these issues:
Lia’s story, as few other narratives have done, has had a significant effect on the ways in which American medicine is practiced across cultures, and on the training of doctors.

“A lot of people in medicine were talking about that book for a very long time after it was published,” Sherwin B. Nuland, the physician and National Book Award-winning author, said on Wednesday.

He added:“There’s a big difference between what we call ‘disease’ and what we call ‘illness.’ A disease is a pathological entity; an illness is the effect of the disease on the patient’s entire way of life. And suddenly you read a book like this and you say to yourself, ‘Oh, my God; what have I been doing?’ ”

...as hospital wards across the country become ever more diverse, seasoned doctors, too, have found there is much to be learned from Lia’s story. Among them is Dr. Nuland, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who received his medical training in New Haven in the 1950s.

“Most wards were filled with Italians, Irish and Jews,” he said, recalling those years. “We had an occasional Gypsy, an occasional Chinese person and some Hispanics, and we would walk among them with our lordly presence. You’d learn a couple of words of Italian, a couple of words of whatever, and you’d use them with patients and think you were being very clever.”

He added: “In our day, the whole thing was to assimilate, to look and act like a WASP. We could have provided so much comfort to patients who looked like our parents. And we just didn’t.”
The lesson medicine seems to have taken from this and many similar episodes, if any, is not "It is productive medicine to blame people from different cultures for their failures to adapt to our ways immediately," but "It is productive medicine to pursue understanding of our patients' cultural contexts that will enable an effective, realistic treatment plan that is honestly understood, agreed upon, and followed to the best of their ability by all parties."

That seems to me the most humane response.
posted by Miko at 9:01 PM on September 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


Also, I'm on my way to a bar for a friend's birthday. There will be drag queens and Pansy Division's John Ginoli is DJ-ing, so I reckon I'm out of this for tonight.
posted by rtha at 9:08 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Moby Dick audio book thread, for example, is going quite well, even if it's a bit quiet. No one at all has barged in to complain about Melville going on too long about the whales. Yet.

I'll be honest, I thought that comment when I saw the post, but it didn't even occur to me to pollute the thread with it.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 9:25 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chekhovian, what's your goal?

There are goals in internet chats? I suppose it would be interesting to answer mdn's original point that started everything. My solution is that (blamehmong/blamechristian is much less than 1), given the same theoretical circumstances with the only real difference being less cultural impedance mismatch with the christian family. The benefit of debating the ratio and not the actual number is that we don't actually have to discuss the magnitude of the actual numbers themselves. Cool huh?

Or we could just pile on the NYT's coverage. Which in retrospect seems remarkably poor. Screw you old gray lady!

But either way, I'm pretty much out for the night myself.
posted by Chekhovian at 9:34 PM on September 15, 2012


I think it's impossible to answer mdn's question. It's a total hypothetical with no detail, as opposed to an enormous fat endnoted book about a specific thing with a ton of detail.

mdn says "it seems like one could bemoan the difficulty of communication, but not support the choices ultimately made."

he book is unflinching in its examination of the doctors' and child services peoples' choices, too, and we might not support the choices they actually made, either. But mdn doesn't seem to be focusing on anyone's choices other than the family's, as though the family alone was responsible for the entire outcome.

Focusing on a family's actions, while excluding all attention to the doctors' actions, is a form of bias. It reinforces a medical assumption that the patient's duty is to follow orders, and that just because a doctor has communicated a set of orders, that set of orders has been received and understood. All of that excuses the doctors before the data has even been examined.

And that bias amounts to a fairly dangerous blind spot in medicine; one that, if not brought forward critically as a routine part of practice, endangers patient outcomes across all kinds of communities - whether their communications disconnects are complicated by ethnicity, religion, ability, finances, age, intellect, psychology, etc.
posted by Miko at 9:50 PM on September 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ok, OP here, after spending a lovely day in the sun away from MeFi...

When I read the news that Lee had died, it was surprising to me because I hadn't even considered the fact that she'd lived long after the events of the book. It made me think that this was a good time to take stock of the impact of her story, 15+ years later. My assumption was that this widely enough read and there was enough distance between its original publication that the tone of discussion wouldn't be on the details of what happened, but rather what have we learned since then? I really hadn't intended to generate a discussion of the specifics of this case and probably the posts I selected didn't focus enough on the *impact* of the book. Talk to anyone who has been to medical school or nursing school in the last 15 years; odds are, everyone's heard of the book, and many have been profoundly influenced by it.

It's pretty silly to argue about who was right, who was wrong in this instance, *particularly* among people who haven't read the book (whom I presumed would skip right over the post). That's very obviously not the point here. Now, with the perspective of 15 years, everyone ought to agree that there are no easy answers and assigning blame is a fool's errand. The lasting question from the story is: how can medicine, in fact how can the dominant culture in general, do better at understanding cultural minorities, and what can be gained by doing so?

It was pretty revolutionary at the time of publication, but many of the lessons have been internalized and incorporated into medical education, and isn't that a terribly interesting thing, particularly in light of the fact that Lia's family continued to quietly care for her the best they knew how all these years?

Personally, I'm not convinced that her family's interpretation of the cause of her symptoms is any less true, or helpful, or yields better results than that of the doctors. There are plenty of kids with intractable seizures or other degenerative neurodevelopmental problems who do much worse than Lia, even following the best of medical advice. When it comes to human suffering, I don't believe in objective reality and this has been incredibly important in how I practice medicine. If the validity of anyone's particular interpretation of what causes illness and suffering is predicated upon how that interpretation improves the outcome, Modern Medicine's treatment of Lia fails miserably. The whole of human experience is big and difficult to comprehend; a practitioner of healing arts would be well advised to approach problems like Lia's with a mind wide open. It is at least as important as knowing which pill to prescribe.

I have written much more about how my life and career has been influenced by Lia's story here.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:47 PM on September 15, 2012 [14 favorites]


or Infinite Jest ...
has anyone actually read that?


This is my scowly face.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:51 PM on September 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


"among people who haven't read the book (whom I presumed would skip right over the post)"

No, I haven't read the book, was interested by the post, read all the links, and kind-of wished people posting had gone a bit more into depth about their reads of and reactions to the book, or talked about similar things they'd seen in their work, etc. When people were saying, "You really have to read the book ..." I was thinking, "Yes! I'm going to! But this is interesting so tell me a little about it now!"

The "assign blame" derail was irritating, but I was sad more people who had read the book didn't talk substantively about it.

I read (and do not comment on) many posts, and their comment threads, where I know nothing about the topic at hand, because that's how you learn interesting stuff. I think you should rather presume that there will be "intelligent laymen" who know nothing about the topic at hand reading the post and the comments, even if they don't make themselves known by commenting themselves.

Not that I think anyone in particular needed to do anything differently, just that in the aggregate it could have been more "Well, since you haven't read it, let me tell you some of the ways the book talks about that issue and what I found particularly interesting."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:44 PM on September 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think there may be a large set of people who don't regularly comment who do not think that a post's "discussability," or whatever we might want to call it, makes much of a difference as to whether a post is a great FPP or not. If an FPP points people to something they haven't read or watched or heard or thought about, that can be a great FPP. A post need not have many comments or a fascinating discussion to be a first rate post. So suggesting a post may not be a good FPP because people may not be able to comment on it doesn't seem to be a compelling argument for why something shouldn't be an FPP.

And seriously, while all of us that comment I'm sure love to see our words up there in type, it's only a very small set of comments that are really really awesome, anyway, right?
posted by MoonOrb at 11:58 PM on September 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't think that this was necessarily a bad FPP, but as someone who's never read the book, but was interested in the subject, I found most of the links to be pretty thin (through no fault of the OP).

The links in the post (and the first few that came up on Google when I tried researching further) seem to have done a pretty half-assed job of telling the story at hand. We get an introduction and some conclusions, but not really much to logically connect the two.

Those who have actually read the book probably don't notice this, but it's weird and disjointed for the rest of us. I have no idea why, but this book seems to completely defy any sort of coherent summarization. I saw lots of phrases like "it's an interesting ethical quandary" or "that's complicated," but nobody really attempting to justify the book's conclusions without leaning on those crutches.

Metafilter is capable of nuanced discussion. I don't expect you to reprint the entire book in a comment, but we're perfectly capable of understanding a few paragraphs of text. "RTFA" is not a good response, and I don't believe that it's okay to denigrate another user's comments because they haven't read a particular book (unless we're actually talking about literature). That's a pretty high burden to cross. If we set similar standards to all our threads, almost nobody would be considered authoritative enough to comment on any of them.
posted by schmod at 1:12 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would just like to applaud the use of the word bailiwick.
I found it demesne-ing
posted by Abiezer at 2:59 AM on September 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Just wait til you read the book, and then people start on the "you didn't read it properly" line.
posted by zoo at 3:27 AM on September 16, 2012


I found it demesne-ing

M&Nt domain is the usual fix here.
posted by Wolof at 4:25 AM on September 16, 2012


Just wait til you read the book, and then people start on the "you didn't read it properly" line.

Someone once sent me a nasty message on Goodreads for giving that book a negative review. That's basically the only interaction I've had on the site with someone I didn't know.
posted by hoyland at 4:38 AM on September 16, 2012


I've read the book. As slarty says, it was revolutionary and controversial and raised challenges to preconceptions and established methods when it was published. I favorited the post, but the links didn't say much more than I already knew. I suggest it highly to anyone interested in the subject.

Will not be commenting in the thread, because after reading the comments, I don't feel like going 10 unproductive rounds with people (yes, the "usual suspects") who have an axe to grind about religion.

It is wearying, trying to be a moderate , voice in such discussions, only to be shown repeatedly that you're wasting your time.
posted by zarq at 5:13 AM on September 16, 2012


The "assign blame" derail was irritating, but I was sad more people who had read the book didn't talk substantively about it.

The links in the post (and the first few that came up on Google when I tried researching further) seem to have done a pretty half-assed job of telling the story at hand. We get an introduction and some conclusions, but not really much to logically connect the two.


The trick is, this is not a book that lends itself to summarization. Since the Moby-Dick analogy came up, we might as well compare it to that. You can't really summarize Moby-Dick. You read and absorb it, or you just don't know what everyone's talking about.
Q: I haven't read this Moby-Dick but it sounds interesting. What's it about?
A: It's about whale hunting. A guy with depressive tendencies is at loose ends and goes on a whaling voyage. He finds himself in a constellation of cross-cultural characters, led by a megalomaniac obsessed with revenging himself on the whale that took off his leg. This captain's pursuit of the whale takes the whole crew on a deadly mission. Also it's a narrative tour de force, discursive, with multiple perspectives and voices, and a lot of people consider it the best American novel.
That's about the level of plot summary you can get in the articles about the book in the FPP. But is that an accurate representation of what Moby-Dick is? Can you understand the experience of reading Moby-Dick through this plot summary? Heck no. This is the skeletal outline of the tale. Any meaning you would make from the narrative is in the detail level and in the unfolding events as related by the other.

I'm sure that people would have given more detail if they were asked more questions about it. Eventually I tried to after it seemed there was a sincere question in that direction. But it seemed instead that a couple people went right for the question of "who's to blame" and were drawn off into the religion aspect, at which point it became not "please tell me more about this interesting book" but "let me tell you how these people are wrong and caused their daughter's death." Which is a hard conclusion to draw if you do have the detail level.
posted by Miko at 6:50 AM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


or Infinite Jest ...
has anyone actually read that?


Only the first two thirds or so. The edition I bought was missing the ending for some reason.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:39 AM on September 16, 2012 [7 favorites]


I don't expect you to reprint the entire book in a comment, but we're perfectly capable of understanding a few paragraphs of text. "RTFA" is not a good response,

There was enough detail in the links to outline the nuance of the story, and the revolutionary and problematic nature of Fadiman's telling of it. If we're perfectly capable of reading a few paragraphs, then reading the links should likewise not be a problem. Reading the book is the ideal, but this wasn't just a SLNYT obit thread.

I don't believe that it's okay to denigrate another user's comments because they haven't read a particular book (unless we're actually talking about literature)


I don't think it's okay to make incorrect factual assertions about a work of non-fiction when much of the information is available in the links and from other commenters. And why is it okay to call someone out for opining on a work of literature they haven't read but not a work of non-fiction?
posted by rtha at 8:48 AM on September 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


But mdn doesn't seem to be focusing on anyone's choices other than the family's, as though the family alone was responsible for the entire outcome.

I hope I didn't come across that way. I am not interested in assigning blame at all; in fact this may simply have been a medical tragedy that was unavoidable, in which case the question of cultural relativity is pretty much irrelevant. But even if the family made an unsupportable choice that doesn't make it a reason to condemn them.

If there was a medical solution which was rejected due to spiritual beliefs, it is unfortunate for the child, whether the spiritual beliefs were Hmong, Christian, or something else. As I said, it's entirely possible and indeed likely that in this case there was no medical solution. But I am not a complete relativist. I think knowledge is flexible and that cultures learn differently, but some knowledge has greater utility, and if a culture rejects a tested and working solution due to a mythological and traditional system of dealing with something, then I would advocate for introducing the new and more useful answer. That's all I was trying to express.
posted by mdn at 9:15 AM on September 16, 2012


some knowledge has greater utility

How do you determine "utility?" What is "utility," independent of a cultural context?
posted by Miko at 9:34 AM on September 16, 2012


then I would advocate for introducing the new and more useful answer

Sure. But there are ways to this that are more effective and ways that are less effective. Education (.pdf) in cultural competency seems to be pretty standard in American medical schools, which is encouraging. Less effective ways lead to worse outcomes for patients, and act as barriers to care.
posted by rtha at 9:51 AM on September 16, 2012


Yeah. I was mainly interested what role language and religion played here. Was the issue that the family genuinely didn't believe in the doctor's advice, the lack of good translators, or idioms that didn't translate cleanly between languages?

Surely there are good discussions on this subject that don't revolve around the book? My point (again) was that the FPP links were a bit thin, and that I was having difficulty finding good background reading on the subject that weren't chock full of broad, unexplained assertions.
posted by schmod at 10:01 AM on September 16, 2012


Was the issue that the family genuinely didn't believe in the doctor's advice, the lack of good translators, or idioms that didn't translate cleanly between languages?

Those were all issues. They're issues when an English-speaking patient goes to see the doctor, too - medical language can be very opaque and intimidating even to people who ostensibly share the same language and culture as their medical practitioners. The lack of translators is made explicit just in the NYT obituary.

AskMe is full of questions from people about meds they've been prescribed that they don't understand why they're taking them; and about how the OP is full of anxiety or depression but wants some way to get treated that doesn't involve pills or therapy; and about how the OP is experiencing XYZ symptoms but can't get a doctor to take them seriously. You don't need to be an illiterate animist to experience strong cultural disconnects and barriers to care when you enter the medical system.
posted by rtha at 10:28 AM on September 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


If there was a medical solution which was rejected due to spiritual beliefs, it is unfortunate for the child, whether the spiritual beliefs were Hmong, Christian, or something else. ... but some knowledge has greater utility, and if a culture rejects a tested and working solution due to a mythological and traditional system of dealing with something, then I would advocate for introducing the new and more useful answer.

Well put, mdn, and I agree with you.

However, as you may know, the Hmong are famous for their weavings.

Their hempen weavings.

Made with hemp from cannabis sativa.

When I Googled this last night, I didn't find an authoritative source which asserted directly that the Hmong use, or have traditionally used, a lot of marijuana, but I think there are some good reasons (one surprising indirect one in the thread, about Advil overdoses) to think they do, or at least did.

In the thread, I suggested that the Hmong community might have a greater prevalence of epilepsy than other communities, and as you also may know, there is a lot of discussion on epilepsy forums, such as this one, about the usefulness of marijuana in controlling seizures, with a preponderance of comments asserting that it does, and very well, though once again there is a dearth of formal study to guide us.

So in this case, in which a severe seizure disorder tragically kills the daughter of a Hmong family, I think there is a real and persistent question about whose culture "rejects a tested and working solution due to a mythological and traditional system of dealing with something ..."
posted by jamjam at 12:43 PM on September 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


With this FPP as a starting point, I wanted to ask: Is an FPP where every attempt at discussion is impossible because you have to read a book about the subject first, a good FPP?

That doesn't seem to describe that FPP, though, where plenty of discussion took place successfully, either with or without the book having been read.

The first suggestion that someone should read the book came in response to schmod saying:

I haven't read the book, but I'm not quite sure that I understand the praise for her family. Yes, they treated her with an incredible amount of love and care after she became permanently disabled, but weren't they largely culpable for that disability?

Other respondents did indeed seek to answer that question, although not so completely as the book presumably did, and often couching their answer in the broader context of the utility of reading the book... in that case "you should read the book" was a response, although not the only response, to a specific question, which was specifically asking for more information than was available in the articles linked to in the FPP, that being how are her family not largely culpable for her disability?

The second major incidence of "you should read the book" was in response to Chekhovian saying:

You have to forgive me Miko, not all of us are blessed with a masters degree in moral/cultural relativism.

I think it's worth taking this into account - the response, again, was not arguing that discussion was impossible without having read the book. It was saying that it was not wise to adopt a particular position - that Lia Lee's suffering was the fault of her parents, or in this case her culture more broadly - without having considered the available evidence, and that reading the book (rather than getting a Masters' degree) would be a good level of familiarity with the evidence to have.

So, yeah. I don't think the thread proceeded as described in this MeTa, so from a practical perspective I'm not sure what conclusions one could draw in terms of moderation or deletion of FPPs based on this...
posted by running order squabble fest at 1:52 PM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Someone asked a question in that thread. The reply was that it's an interesting question, and if the asker would like to really understand the very complex answer, the best way to do that is to read the 300 page book he's asking about.

That seems fine to me. It mostly seems fine to me because I am now inured to that response, having been told in 600 comments in 27 posts over 10 years that in order to understand David Foster Wallace, I have to read Infinite Jest. I am correspondingly okay living in unenlightened intellectual gloom.

Does MeFi have a corollary to Godwin's Law for DFW?
posted by DarlingBri at 2:56 PM on September 16, 2012


How do you determine "utility?" What is "utility," independent of a cultural context?

I understand the tendency toward cultural relativism and am not disagreeing that there can be a lot of nuance and complexity in these things, but I'm still gonna stand by the basic idea that early death and intense pain are things people prefer to avoid. And I think it's evident the family here wanted to avoid these things too, despite a cultural context that allowed for embracing epilepsy in certain ways. If they wanted their child to live and be healthy, but thought they could achieve that by sacrificing a pig or going to a shaman, then they just had less information about the causes of their daughter's problems.

Western medicine has gained slightly more information - not a huge amount more, and a lot of our experiments are completely blind in understanding and have nasty side effects, but still, slightly more - than some traditional cultures, so it's good to share it. If they don't want the same goal, that's another story, but if they are trying to achieve the goal by a method that is not going to be effective and we know a method that will be, providing information is good. I would want the same if I were in culture that had potentially life-saving information that was unfamiliar to me (e.g., what to eat in a jungle).

I think there is a real and persistent question about whose culture "rejects a tested and working solution due to a mythological and traditional system of dealing with something ...

If pot works I have no trouble introducing it. I was certainly not suggesting western culture has no mythology left.
posted by mdn at 4:49 PM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm still gonna stand by the basic idea that early death and intense pain are things people prefer to avoid.

On the whole, yes. I just think it's also important to bear in mind that Western medicine is built on certain assumptions - things like ' our role is to preserve life in almost all cases,' 'suffering is never worthwhile and should always be minimized,' 'illness always has a physical cause, measurable in the body,' 'illness can be cured; we have found many cures for disease and will find most of them eventually,' and so on. That these assumptions aren't actually held in the same ways by every culture or even every individual means that there are periodically clashes. Even within the Western context, there are people everywhere, including right here, that don't accept all these premises.

I think that if the treatments had been immediately effective and productive, and the family had felt understood and been effectively communicated with, the outcome would have been a lot different. But those things just weren't the case at the outset of this family's first real experience with Western medicine.

If you asked the villagers what to eat in the jungle, and they said "the purple berries," and you spent the next three days wracked with cramps and diarrhea and throwing up, chances are you would not ask those same villagers for further advice on what to eat.
posted by Miko at 5:06 PM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I haven't read the book, but enjoyed that post, especially for giving me a ideas on a new book to read.
posted by nile_red at 5:13 PM on September 16, 2012


We're a literate enough community that posts based around books work for a decent percentage of the site's members most of the time

Many posts in the thread talked about how it was a widely-assigned book. It wasn't when I studied sociology/anthropology in the UK. I'm interested in the case but the thread is difficult to understand when so much of the discussion is about what happens in the book.
posted by mippy at 3:43 AM on September 17, 2012


I think that's a useful analogy Miko, although I was a little put out that the Hmong-jungle was the only connection posited but here goes:

In the absence of more information on what the guy from the USA is asking about berries, the answer he gets is not specific enough so he eats the wrong purple berries. After cramps people say, "but those purple berries aren't edible! why would you eat those ones?!" in response to his upset questions.

it reminds me of communicating with my Aspie son. I can never assume he gets the things a neurologically typical person would understand as common framework, in teaching him how to make an omlette I forgot to mention turn off the gas when you're finished. I just did it without thinking and of course, he left it on when he flew solo.

Communication in medicine is so vitally important, literally vitally important, and the framing of issues can always be improved. Some hospitals here have a Allow Natural Death (AND) instead of a DNR protocol and the response has been pretty amazing from patients and their relatives. It's not so long ago that women who endured the trauma of repeated miscarraiges were known as "repeat aborters" (sight of her notes led to at least one patient suicide in RC Ireland).

I really liked the original post and I had not read the book although I've seen it referenced many times in medical education but I did find some of the comments off-putting so I didn't post soke thought on communications in a medical setting that I had wanted to. I need to frame an FPP or GMOB!
posted by Wilder at 9:02 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was a little put out that the Hmong-jungle was the only connection posited

Just borrowed it from the person who came up with it to carry the analogy forward.
posted by Miko at 9:17 PM on September 17, 2012


To be clear, I never made any reference to the Hmong, and had not thought Miko meant to either. I just off-handedly referred to a standard example of how western culture may need the expertise of cultures whose knowledge is different. The point is, cultures may have different kinds of information, but that doesn't make it all equivalent. It is not a case of hierarchical cultures or superiority complexes. It's a question of sharing what's been learned.

Once again, in this case it's all basically irrelevant. No one had good information. That doesn't mean that good information never exists.
posted by mdn at 10:47 AM on September 18, 2012


But I think the example does show well that once trust is destroyed, it doesn't matter what information exists. It doesn't matter that the purple berries are actually good to eat but only after you de-hull them and boil them, everybody knows that, you dumb Westerner if they forgot to tell you that and make sure you understood the process; now you just don't trust them at all and will look askance at just about anything they say, because you simply can't get what you need from them given how badly their assumptions and communication style mismatch your own. It doesn't matter if good information exists if human communication prevents access to it.

That's a separate problem even from the one in which no one ultimately has a perfect solution for some epileptic conditions.
posted by Miko at 1:55 PM on September 18, 2012


I know it's like a week later, but just as a data point I wanted to say that I have not read the book, and I didn't read a single comment in response to the FPP (I rarely do), but I did read a few of the links and thought they were fascinating. I was not aware of the Lee case previously, or even of the existence of this whole issue in medical education and practice, and now I look forward both to reading the book and to learning more about its influence in the intervening years. So for me at least, it was a very successful FPP, and I am grateful to the OP for creating it. (Not to imply that this wasn't a valid MeTa or that JZ was wrong to raise the question--I just wanted to share a different reaction from someone else who hasn't read the book.)
posted by désoeuvrée at 3:21 AM on September 22, 2012


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