Ideology Is The Enemy: The Competing Cancers
I promised myself that I wasn’t going to write or read anything remotely connected to the men’s right movement for a few months as a kind of reward to myself for writing about it at all. Against my better judgment, I’m going to briefly dip my toe back in for just a moment, after having received no less than thirty emails from MRM members in the past twelve hours about the average waiting times for breast cancer surgery vs. prostate cancer surgery.
There are essentially two reasons for me breaking my promise to myself: First off, it would be nice if I could cut this off at the bud. Second, it dovetails pretty well with a couple of pieces I’m working on right now with my ongoing Ideology Is the Enemy series. The emails are a pretty great example of how narrative trumps data when it comes to ideology. Which is to say that although these particular emails came from MRM members, they might as well have come from Tea Partiers or Occupiers.
Each of the emails in question either attaches or links to this chart:
[Note: It’s hard to read, but the gist is that the average waiting time for men to have prostate surgery is longer than the average waiting time for women to have breast cancer surgery.]
With the exception of the obvious sock puppet, everyone that emailed this chart to me did so respectfully and with earnest concern, hoping that I might report what they see as the most obvious conclusion to be drawn: The medical establishment is conspiring with feminists to kill men while saving women. After all, the waiting time for surgery for a cancer that kills women is consistently less than a cancer that kills men. What other conclusion can you possibly reach, they ask.
It’s a good question. What other conclusion, indeed?
As it turns out, cancer is one of those things I know more about than I’d prefer. Both of my parents battled and eventually lost their lives to cancer. (My father actually had several different kinds over a fifteen-year period.) In fact, most of my extended family members who lived long enough to die of natural causes fell to cancer. I, too, will be a victim of cancer if I’m not unfortunate to perish in an accident or act of God before my time. (It is an odd thing to know with certainty the method of your demise, even if its timetable remains hidden.) But one of the side benefits to my family history is that I have a smattering of layman’s knowledge on the subject. For starters, I know that all cancers are not equal.
For example, patients being treated for a cancer that is localized (that is, has not yet spread) have high survivor rates. Those patients whose cancer has regionalized (that is, spread to the lymph nodes) have a significantly darker outlook. Those whose cancer is distant (that is, spread not only to the lymph nodes but to other organs as well) are looking at very long odds indeed. What’s more, different cancers regionalize and become distant at very disparate rates. As a case in point, thanks to the untimely loss of a beloved friend, I know that pancreatic cancer is almost always terminal — because by the time you are symptomatic the cancer is usually already distant. Because of the disparate regionalization and distancing rates, different kinds of cancer are treated with varying degrees of urgency.
Which brings us back to the average waiting period for breast cancer patients vs. prostate patients.
Breast cancer tends to regionalize rather quickly once it has reached the stage where it is symptomatic. In fact, four out of ten breast cancer patients have reached the regional or distant stage by the time they are symptomatic enough to be diagnosed. This is why the recommendation for a procedure as shockingly invasive as a mastectomy is usually given so seemingly quickly: the odds of regionalization are simply too high.
Prostate cancer, on the other hand, regionalizes at a much slower rate. In fact, if you had to choose a cancer to get at sometime in your lifetime, prostate cancer would be a pretty wise choice. Eight in ten victims will be treated while the cancer is still local — and this despite the fact that men in the United States are notoriously bad at getting regular checkups in general, and agreeing to regular colonoscopies in particular.
And therein lies the answer as to why men on average wait longer to be scheduled for prostate cancer surgery than women do for breast cancer surgery: triage.
For me, there are two fascinating aspects to this chart people keep emailing me. The first is how quickly it appears to have been allowed to become a meme in the ideological camp for which it was created. The links provided among some of the emails suggest that this is being “reported” on many of the larger MRM vehicles right now.
The second is how easily the question posed by those trumpeting the chart can be answered. I’d say that a call to an oncologist might have quickly cleared it up, but I actually think just a call to your primary care physician or a quick conversation with a nurse would do the same. (Not to mention two minutes with Google.) In fact, I’m willing to bet that among those that consider themselves members of the MRM, there are probably more than a handful who have had to deal with cancer at one time or another. Which is to say that a lot of the people who are feeling a very real and true outrage about this statistic already know in another part of their brain why it’s not outrageous.
This is the inherent danger of attaching yourself to an ideology in the Internet era. Last May, when discussing how a much-respected evangelical leader could reach a place where he could advocate slavery, I wrote this:
We still physically live in diverse communities, but technology is largely eliminating the need to interact with those different from ourselves. More and more, those who are politically involved are finding that they can eliminate all other viewpoints from their field of vision. Liberal, conservative or libertarian, you can now choose to be kept up to date on everything in real time, and yet still have it packaged and delivered in a way that never challenges or contradicts your ideology… Every event that happens will feed into your growing certainty that an unwavering loyalty to your ideology is a thing important, urgent and necessary. Every bit of data you have chosen to receive will remind you that things only ever go wrong when you compromise your blind faith in the strictest reading of dogma. Increasingly, all you consume will seduce you into believing that the world will burn unless you forsake judiciousness for consistency. Technology is slowly separating your ideology from the observable real world and limiting it to mere academic theorizing – worse than that, it’s academic theorizing performed in an echo chamber. Technology is making your ideology into a cult.
The impulse, I know, is to simply label and dismiss the MRM an extreme fringe and inconsequential group. But the ability to allow ideology to trump data isn’t just a men’s rights thing. What, really, is the difference between the cancer chart meme and Tea Partiers’ absolute certainty that that Barack Obama was going to make Christianity and Judaism illegal last February — and never bother recalibrate their thinking when it did not happen? What’s the difference between the cancer chart meme and Fox News viewers’ belief that the UN was going to come in and confiscate their guns in late 2012? Or, for that matter, leftists who insist George W. Bush ordered the destruction of the twin towers?
More and more, wherever I look, ideology is being used as the filter to determine whether or not data is trustworthy, rather than data being used to determine if an ideology is. As I hope to write about next week, even the Wall Street Journal and the NYT/NPR — neither perfect, but each still a gold standard in journalism — are beginning to be eschewed and abandoned by the right and left respectively for not properly bowing to ideological dogma.
As I continue to say over an over, ideology itself is becoming dangerous in this country.
 Though it should be noted, nine of the thirty emails are obviously from the same guy using different randomized email addresses. Each of the nine is oddly lengthy, uses the oddly CHOSEN TECHNIQUE of USING ALL CAPS in seemingly random PLACES in SENTENCES, each contains either the phase “FUCK YOU, no seriously — FUCK YOU” or “Oh, and FUCK YOU” at least once, several make the claim that the writer has extensive “medical background training” (which is good, because I was just thinking that we don’t have enough professionals with the training to be quality medical backgrounds), and two actually go so far as to preemptively swear that the writer is writing just this one email, not several like I might think, and letting me know that he will publically call me a liar if I suggest that he has.
Still, even twenty-one people all emailing me on a Saturday morning about cancer is a wee bit odd.