It’s hard to admit it, but I’m not perfect. Yeah, yeah… I know that comes as a shock. After all, I fill these columns each month with so many admonitions and encouragements to my fellow Americans to be kind and empathetic toward each other, therefore I most certainly must practice what I preach, right?
Er… ah… um… no, not really. Not that I don’t try my best, but I often fall short and fail to follow my own advice.
In our current society, we tend to take sides on both important matters and the most trivial ones: sports, religion, politics, etc. We seem to want to enter into conflict on these and many other topics. Sometimes we’re driven by a desire to convince others to come over to our point of view, but most of the time it appears that all we want to do is engage in a battle of words. And I’m no better than the rest. But I’m working on it.
You can’t start a fire without a spark
When it comes to how each of us developed a taste for arguing, you probably need to go way back to our first experience with socializing in a group of our peers. For most of us, that would be Day One of elementary school. In that moment we were all The New Kid, dealing with the anxieties of trying to fit in while also trying to stand out. It didn’t take long to figure out which were the quiet kids and the ones who were likely to be a major topic at the family dinner table that evening.
We also learned very quickly who among us would be the bullies and the usual victims. Of course, it typically started with good natured teasing — “Wow! You sure have a lot of freckles!” — but it often advanced to the point of hurt feelings and shedding some tears. Those who found themselves on the receiving end had to soon learn to laugh it off or, if they were brave enough, come up with a response that was as least as creative as the first round.
I was The New Kid three times as I moved and changed schools. Each time I found ways to develop a thick skin (so the taunts would mostly bounce off) and build up a hefty supply of comebacks that I was sure would put the other guy in his place. Like everyone else though, sometimes I’d take it too far and I’d find myself isolated as one of the bullies. Man, trying to say you’re sorry when you’re a smartmouth kid is tough, even when you are sincere in your apology.
Looking back, there are a few words I wish I’d never said. While you can’t change the past, you can do better moving forward. But even with good intentions, we all stumble from time to time.
While our feelings are often the result of having direct knowledge of someone’s feelings by witnessing their words or actions, there are times when we allow ourselves to be taken in by false perceptions. We can be too easily influenced into accepting as truth something for which we have no personal experience, often because we allow a person we trust to shape our attitudes rather than figuring things out for ourselves. That’s peer pressure, where we willingly accept what we’re told. We relinquish control over our thoughts and feelings.
One surefire way to recognize that in ourselves is whether we get caught up in stereotypes. I’ve written a few times about our tendencies to label people, especially those who have opinions or belief systems that seem to be the opposite of our own. You don’t have to actively categorize people yourself. You’re caught up in the trend if you silently approve of another person’s use of labelling as a means of dividing and attacking.
It’s pretty easy to spot it in action. Look and listen for a few key descriptive words, especially those ending in -ist or -ism. Most of the time those words are used to attack people, to lump them into a category of unsavoriness, as if they should not be welcome members of society. But I encourage you to look more deeply into those comments. Often the attack is wrongheaded, built upon something other than facts and truth. Our country suffered through that during the McCarthy Era when half-truths and out-and-out falsehoods were employed to cause otherwise good people to be falsely accused. Careers and lives were ruined all because the loudest voices in the room (in that case, Sen. Joe McCarthy and his cohorts) were allowed to run the show.
We see much of that today. Commentators on radio and TV and opinion writers in print can and do use those -ist and -ism words to persuade you into believing something that your logical mind would otherwise reject. You have to ask yourself: is this argument worth all the trouble?
Well? Is it?
Look, you have every right to disagree with me. I welcome that, as long as you do so with a clear mind and a solid foundation for your argument. But if your opinion is based solely on what other people pressure you to believe rather than taking the time to decide for yourself based on the facts, then I’d suggest you stick to debating the nearest fence post. At least then it would be an even matchup.
(Originally published in the August 6, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)