“It’s a mystery,” said the plumber. “Your toilet is overflowing. I have no idea what this could mean.”

“You’ve got something unique here,” said the doctor. “I can’t imagine what would cause you to have a fever, headache and chills.”

Unless they’re kidding, these aren’t experts in their fields. Experts know how to diagnose common problems from symptoms.

I saw the movie Precious last night and this morning a friend sent me a New York Times article on the controversy it stirred. The opening line: “A reinforcement of noxious stereotypes or a realistic and therapeutic portrayal of a black family in America?” In other words, does this movie’s emphasis on the most severe problems in black culture contribute to the problems or to their solution?


Unlike my plumber and doctor, the New York Times reporter had seen the symptoms before. The color purple (1985) was a similar film in that it portrayed the lowest lows of black culture and people wondered if it only perpetuated stereotypes or instead called mobilizing attention to black plight. Apparently this is a recurring problem in black culture.

One could generalize further. Blacksploitation movies like Shaft and Foxy Brown affirmed our stereotypes and either contributed to complacency or educated us about the suffering in the Ghetto. Gangsta rap is controversial for the same reason.

We’re all experts on social interactions and culture. We should be pretty good at diagnosing from the symptoms—shocking realism about the plight of blacks is double-edged. Just as “clogged toilet” and “flu” are diagnostic terms familiar to true experts, you would think this now familiar controversy within black culture would have a name.

More to the point, you would think that we experts would be able to see this controversy everywhere, not just in black culture. There’s nothing exclusively black about it. It’s an issue any time we wonder whether to bring our attention to disappointing evidence.

The controversy is framed as two-sided but it’s actually three. When we see a movie like Precious, we’re motivated to overcome what’s wrong. We’re motivated to accept what’s wrong or we’re motivated to stop seeing movies like Precious and thinking about any evidence that points to the underlying problem.

There are three basic responses to any evidence of a discouraging, disturbing or disappointing situation:

Try to change the situation, accept it, or ignore it.

Fight, surrender, or flight.

Beat it, join it, or get away from it.

Improve it, take it, or leave it

Courage, serenity, or escape.

Uphold your standards, lower your standards, or vote with your feet.

Optimism says, “We can improve on this. Let’s get to work.”

Pessimism says, “This will never change. We have to live with it.”

Possumism (Playing possum: Playing dead to avoid confrontation) says, “So, do you think the Sox will win the pennant this year?” In other words “Can we please think about something else?”

When we are exposed to evidence of inner city problems, we join the effort to fight it, we accept it as inevitable, or we move further into the suburbs.

When I wince at disappointing evidence of some persistent character flaw or bad habit of mine, I’ll increase my effort to overcome it, I’ll develop new ways to stop wincing and accept myself as I am, or I’ll develop new ways to steer clear of the disappointing evidence and deny that there’s a problem.

When exposed to evidence of the growing climate crisis, we mobilize to address it, accept it as inevitable, or build new defenses against thinking about it.

When reminded of our own mortality, we fight harder to preserve our youthfulness, cultivate more acceptance of it, or develop more ways to distract ourselves from thinking about it.

When, early on, the world learned of Hitler’s atrocities, people contributed more to the resistance, accepted and justified the atrocities, or developed ways to deny that they were occurring.

When we see a movie about what’s wrong with corporate conquest of nature (Avatar), the plight of US soldiers in Iraq (The Hurt Locker) or the meat industry (Food, Inc.), we join campaigns, we accept the problems, or we stay away from movies about these problems.

If your smoke alarm sounds, you can look for the fire to fight, accept that your house is going to burn down, or shut out the problem (unplug the battery, use earplugs).

No matter what the situation, those are the three choices. And though this three-way decision shows up everywhere, we treat each case as unique, or we compare it to only a few other related cases. We’re like the doctor unable to diagnose from these symptoms even at the height of flu season, or at best like a doctor who sees these symptoms in an African-American and diagnoses too narrowly: “You’ve got black person’s flu.”

Of course, each case is unique in its details. The details guide us to the appropriate response. The smoke alarm, for example, could simply be broken. If it goes off every day then it’s not a symptom of fire, but of malfunction. Like the boy who cried wolf, its credibility is shot. It should be dismantled and replaced with a more reliable alarm. Don’t go looking for fires to fight, or accepting the incineration of your home. For the time being unplug the smoke alarm or try the earplugs.

If instead, it goes off rarely, you smell smoke, and you find a pan on fire in the kitchen, fight the fire.

And when the alarm wakes you to a house engulfed in flames accept that your house will burn down and get out ASAP.

In other words, each of the three options has its place. You have to try to figure out which applies when.

Mistakes can be costly.

About eight years ago, I was working in my home office and heard dripping. When I went to investigate, I discovered my living room’s plaster ceilings gushing water. I went upstairs and found the bathroom floor flooded. The toilet had overflowed. I jiggled the handle and got the water flowing again. About 18 man/hours later I had re-plastered and painted both ceilings. By the time I was done, I just wanted to get back to work so I jiggled the handle a few more times and diagnosed the toilet overflow as a fluke. I ignored the evidence that something might be fundamentally amiss with my toilet.

Seven months later, the exact same thing happened and I had to re-plaster all over again. You’d think I would have investigated more carefully, but the toilet was flushing fine and besides I had to get back to work.

The third time it happened, I hired someone to re-plaster and concentrated instead on a better toilet diagnosis. I found the flaw, the tiniest bend in the hook that connected the chain to the handle. I haven’t had to re-plaster since.