Our Vigilante Society: Stating Your Opinion Is One Thing, but You’re Not Always Right (Part 2 of previous blog)  

vigilanteI recently walked myself off a cliff by listening to the adamant opinion of a person on a committee with me. Despite lessons learned through personal experience and a thoughtful review of the situation and its facts, I thought my recommendations were wrong. The strength of her beliefs and her swift, smooth delivery seemed to trump my judgment. After following her instructions, complete failure threatened. Fortunately I had time to pull my irons out of the fire, which allowed me to implement my assessment and complete the project successfully.

            Goes to show, though, that just because someone thinks he’s right, he isn’t necessarily. Yet along with our obsession with stating our opinions constantly (see previous blog), we also think we’re correct in every thought, and all and sundry should follow our advice. If they don’t enthusiastically endorse our suggestions, we go overboard in our insistence about being right.

            According to the psychological principle of cognitive dissonance, humans experience psychological discomfort when exposed to contradictory beliefs, ideas. An individual exposed to inconsistency (dissonance) is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance—as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it. He often becomes more committed to his favorite, obdurate in defending it.

            The result contributes to a polarized society, a situation in which you’re either with me or against me, no middle ground. The result is laws that emphasize the dichotomy between interests, not their common ground. The result is stand-offs during discussions, not solutions. The most obvious result is failure of many political efforts. Rhetoric trumps intelligence.

            How have we gotten to this state? It’s been said students in the US are the most self-confident in the world. Notice, not the most knowledgeable or best-trained or smartest. Parents constantly receive advice to build self-esteem in their children.  Our laws and procedures and many leaders both political and social strive mightily to insure diverse opinions are given the credibility of a public forum, whether they make sense or not. Life coaches drone on about sending positive messages to ourselves.

            I’m concerned because I’m wondering if a surfeit of self-confidence creates a vigilante society. My local elist, to which neighbors can subscribe, exhibits this periodically. One person posts about a dark car parked on the street with someone sitting inside. Within hours, others have responded with similar spottings, advice, and demands for a police check. Another time, a poor couple strolling down the alley were targeted as potential thieves, suffering the discomfort of dozens of eyes tracking their every action. Fortunately, responses stopped short of calls for lynching.

            Another reason for a watchdog atmosphere is social media and the speed with which we can communicate. Colorado has one toll-free phone number to report child abuse and neglect 24/7. While the goals of this program are laudable, I wonder how often someone gets reported because of the appearance of abuse (think about how often a two-year-old falls and scrapes his head) or the groundless spite a neighbor might hold. A neighbor once reported us to the authorities for our efforts to control squirrels, perjuring themselves to claim we’d violated city ordinances.

            I’m guessing Big Brother watches because of a combination of the two. We’re accustomed to instantaneous communication plus many of us have the self-confidence to assume our every idea is correct and should be immediately implemented. WRONG. There’s something to be said about “measure twice, saw once;” and “look before you leap.” An advice columnist recently ran a letter from a woman who’d accused her niece of stealing some jewelry, wrote about it on social media, then found the missing piece in the pocket of her own coat. She would have spared herself massive embarrassment and kept her niece as a friend by using a go-slow approach.

            There can be more at stake than winning an argument or defending what we think is the truth. “Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not to be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth.” Teddy Roosevelt

Strange Bedfellows

bed In my rabid youth, I judged my friends by their politics and philosophies. I figured if someone wasn’t at least a left-leaning semi-socialist, they neither cared about the good of society nor read literary novels nor hugged trees. I didn’t want to be around them. I’m sure I had acquaintances who didn’t fit, but I carefully side-stepped discussions in which certain issues might come up.

Fast forward post-marriage and babies, and my outlook changed. Radically. Perhaps it was the consistent disruption of my nights by noisy if anti-war neighbors or the littered mess similar folks left in the wake of their parades and demonstrations. Perhaps it was the lackadaisical attitude of clerks in natural foods stores and cafes, who placed more importance on chatting with their friends than providing service.

I’ve come to believe that walking the walk absolutely over-rides talking the talk. Courtesy is critical, the kind of courtesy rooted in respect, not necessarily in etiquette books. Does an individual cut me off in traffic? His numerous bumper stickers supporting the candidate of my choice don’t prevent my knowing he’s a rude ass. The advocate for the homeless who dumps construction materials from his remodeling all over the alley gets zero points from me for his philanthropy.

This is especially true for people who make hard and fast stands on ethical issues. Puh-leeze. You’re not going to convince me by screaming. Just because you think the system of tipping service staff is patronizing and outmoded, you can’t force me into neglecting a gratuity. So what if you love dogs and want them prancing leash-free around the park? I’m scared of them, and I’ll continue to scold dog owners who don’t restrain their pets. And if I want to snitch a few fronds of dried greenery at the end of the summer from a neighbor for an arrangement, don’t excoriate* me as a thief.

To my surprise, I’m finding some of the nicest, most thoughtful people I know are ones whose choices on the ballot wouldn’t come close to replicating mine. Yes, people should express their opinions. Yes, they should live their lives and conduct their personal affairs as they wish. But as we struggle to walk, run, jog or crawl the rocky road through life, we’d be wise to value the oil that keeps our society functioning smoothly. The most important thing to bring along on the trip is human consideration and compassion, not opinions.

While politics can make strange bedfellows, civility brings even stranger fellows into bed. But to my way of thinking, at least the sheets are clean and the blankets tucked in properly.

* Excoriate: to criticize harshly, condemn