Later, Key shared a personal story about the son of a family friend who had begun acting out in school. The boy’s mother had come to Key for help. When Key asked the boy what was going on, he replied, “Well, they said I’m not going to be smart anyway.”If behavioral research teaches us anything, it's that believing you are a stupid failure almost guarantees that result. Kevin Drum comments:
“These kids are internalizing the messages about how the lead is affecting them,” Key said. “If there is a direct correlation between lead exposure and the cognitive ability to handle stressful situations in a reasonable way, and we see more violent trends, can you imagine the pipeline of youth who are going to be going into the corrections system?”
This is yet another tragedy. Children in Flint had mildly elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream for about a year or two. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, but the effects of this are fairly modest. To put it in terms most people will recognize, it means that some children in Flint will lose about one IQ point. Maybe two. That's a tragedy, but it's an even bigger tragedy if kids and their parents respond to this by thinking their lives are permanently ruined. The truth is that in nearly all children, the effects will be barely noticeable.I remember reading something similar about PTSD in the military. As I have written here before, combat has terrible psychological effects, especially prolonged combat. I think that ought to be widely known and political leaders should consider it before sending soldiers into battle. On the other hand the traumatic effects of war seem to have gotten worse since we started talking about it all the time, which in the US was around 1970. Not only were more Vietnam vets psychologically damaged than vets from earlier wars, but those who fought late in the war did worse than those who fought in 1964-1967. Telling people "my god something horrible happened to you and you're likely to be scarred for life" is not always a great way to help them recover.
I don't know what the right response is here. On the one hand, nobody pays attention unless you yell and scream and demand attention. If it weren't for this, authorities would have ignored Flint even longer than they did. On the other hand, the effects of all this yelling and screaming can be disastrous in the long term if residents end up with the belief that Flint's kids are now all destined for a life of misery and cognitive decline.
This is just a special case of a widespread, profound problem, which is that the political and psychological approaches to life are often at odds. Sociology and economics tell us that people who grow up in poor neighborhoods are vastly more likely to end up poor, and we talk about this to agitate for a political solution. But on a personal level, the people who do make it out of bad neighborhoods are mostly the ones who believe, despite the evidence, that they can achieve anything they put their minds to. Or consider "micro-aggressions." I can certainly believe that a lifetime of small snubs, often unintentional, can add up to a serious problem. But on the other hand focusing on those slights is exactly what psychologists tell their patients not to do; as I always say, the world is full of thousands of messages, so why focus on the negative ones when there are plenty of positive ones out there you could dwell on instead? Carried to an extreme, believing that the people around you despise you and keep letting their scorn slip in little ways is mental illness. But if we give everyone the psychologically correct message, can we ever do anything politically about the problem? If we don't yell and scream and demand attention, the problem probably endures, but every time we raise our voices we give people more reason to obsess about slights, real or perceived.
The only answer I have to these conundrums is to be reasonable, honest, and fair, as best we can. But then people like me have been saying that for centuries.