Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Two sides to everyone?

I was in Philadelphia a few years ago for a national Green meeting. It was 2002 and the party was rolling along at that point, preparing for the upcoming midterm elections and generally feeling pretty positive about where we were. It was an interesting collection of communication experiences for me, most of them positive.

There had been some turmoil within the California Greens concerning some supposedly misplaced funds and procedural irregularities. Many of them felt that it was going to tear our largest state party apart. But that's the kind of melodrama that many political activists like to wield in order to justify themselves or their actions. I don't think it was quite that serious, but it was sufficiently distracting to the national party that they put together a committee (my upcoming book: Life by Committee or Why Suicide is an Acceptable Alternative) to try to sort it out before the internecine warfare in California became the only topic ever raised on the national lists. I was on said committee with a couple other non-California Greens and one person that the GPCA insisted be present in order to have their voice in the middle of things.

When we sat down and went over what seemed to be the facts and reviewed communications both on the national and California lists, we came to the easy conclusion that most of the trouble was caused by personal animosity and had little to do with any genuine crimes with one exception wherein the state party violated its own bylaws, perhaps inadvertently. The role of the one California Green on the committee was simply to object to the casual dismissal of the "crisis" that the rest of us found to be plainly evident if everyone involved would just invest in a Valium or two. I gave the report to the national committee meeting in Philly and was immediately lauded for my efforts afterward by many people. I was baffled. We really hadn't done that much and the conclusion we came to didn't smooth over any of the hurt feelings. It simply exposed them. Perhaps that was sufficient, but it seemed like a pretty foregone conclusion to me. My profile as a "communicator" within the party skyrocketed after that for an effort that I found to be pretty trivial and over a matter that was equally trivial.

What that spotlighted for me, though, was the seeming inability of many people, even those within a small group of like-minded individuals, to simply talk to each other; to relate to one another on terms that they both understand. Both sides of that issue came into it with a predisposed attitude toward the other side and refused to abandon it, even when confronted with the facts. It took complete outsiders to get them to cease fire. This is a phenomenon extant in many situations throughout history, both large and small, national and personal, and I've always found it to be mildly irritating that people can't come to the obvious conclusion without someone, indeed, pointing out the obvious.

A different situation arose a couple days into the meeting when I, my wife, and a couple friends decided to grab dinner some distance from the hotel. We hopped into a cab out front, the three of them in the back, and me in the front. Our driver asked what we were doing in town and I told him and immediately struck up a conversation with him about politics, the Eagles, and life in the city, in general. We got to our destination and my wife mentioned to me that all three women in the back had sat there and kind of marveled at my ability to get into an easy discussion with someone I'd met 10 seconds ago. I did my Leonard Nimoy thing (arching my eyebrows: "Plainly not logical, Captain.") and wondered: Why? Because I'd just met him? Because he was black (whereas all of us were and are white)? Because he clearly had no idea what the Green party was but I could talk to him about the NFL? Some combination of those?

He was an average guy driving a car around town who felt like doing something other than driving, so he talked to me. And I talked to him because he was talking to me. That's what people do... or would do if they weren't taught to suspect and fear each other. It's really not that difficult but a lot of people shy away from it or assume that people won't want to communicate with them. What makes this phenomenon even more ludicrous is that we're currently enmeshed in the greatest communication tool ever created: these here Interwebs. People communicate, in the strictest sense, probably more now than they ever have before and on more widely varying topics. But people also use the shield of anonymity provided by the Internet to display opinions that they would never release in public. Does that make them less likely to communicate with their neighbors and casual acquaintances because they can't "be themselves"? Or is their Internet personality the Hyde to their Jekyll, rather than the converse?

When I talked to some of the California Greens about their troubles in Philadelphia, they were almost all reasonable and cooperative people. But on the national list (that tool we all used to coordinate between the states), many of them were fire-breathers. Was that sociable cabbie I talked to on the way to dinner a raving lunatic on ESPN's Eagles message board? Or was he always himself? Was I lauded as a problem-solver because I refused to dance around anything? I've been told many times that my tendency to be... direct is problematic. But that's what helped solve the CA issue.

I'll be coming back to this.


  1. This confirms something I once read on the Intertubes: smart people don't think they're smart, they think everyone else is an idiot.

  2. It's not like you didn't know that about me already. Take solace in the fact that there are a few people I except from said status. That's why I like hanging around them... ;)