Sunday, June 28, 2009

truth is flat. spin is bumpy.

thomas friedman wrote a book called, the world is flat. 

not having read that book, i can't comment on it.  

but what i also think is flat is truth.

spin is what gives things peaks and troughs.

truth is actually flat.  that's why few people embrace it.  it's not exciting in most cases, by most people's standards.  

often, truth is just common sense.  

sometimes truth is uncommon sense.  but that's usually just because people get so mired in complexity (people love complexity), that they miss the simple, common answer.  hence it takes a contrarian to cut through the muddiness and state the obvious.  and the obvious, in that context, is sometimes referred to as "uncommon sense."

last year, a young girl was killed on a bicycle near where i do yoga.  for some reason, i decided to go to the memorial, where a white, spray-painted bike was chained to a pole at the site of her death by dump-truck.    randomly, a news anchor spotted me in the crowd afterwards and asked me for an interview.  below is the TV clip (if it doesn't play, i apologize):

less than a month later, i came across an area bicyclists' blog, and a blogger wrote that they'd been by the memorial and seen that someone had scribbled over the memorial sign in marker.   the blogger was outraged.   

and rightfully so.  

i, too, found it disgusting. how could some asshole scribble on a memorial?

but as i read further, the blogger went on to suggest that some jerk in an SUV must have done it.  (if that sounds bizarre, you have to know the background.  some bicyclists dislike SUVs, for various reasons.  they're big, they guzzle gas, they are symbols of wealth and fossil fuel consumption, and waste, etc.  i know, i'm an urban bicyclist and former bike messenger.   i'm acquainted with the mindset).  

anyway, this blogger raged on about this presumed SUV memorial-desecrator.

at first, i was swept away by my own rage, and felt compelled to commiserate with this blogger (in my head).  i found myself thinking, "yeah, what an asshole.  who would do such a thing?"  a few thoughts later, i was resenting SUV owners.

it wasn't until my bitterness subsided until i stopped and thought:  "hold on.  is it really all that likely that someone in their car would stop at that intersection (it's busy as hell), get out (with an indelible marker albeit), scribble on the memorial, then get back in their car and drive off. 

is that the most likely scenario?  

not to mention, it's not just someone in a car, it's someone who happens to be driving a sports-utility-vehicle.

i mean, maybe. 

but are there other, more plausible explanations?

what about some high school kids who happened to be walking by and had a bent towards vandalism?

i mean, i knew a kid in high school who wrote on tombstones with a marker.  

that--the high school vandal scenario--seems, to me, to be more plausible than someone in an SUV.  high schoolers on foot would seem more likely to do such a stupid, irreverent thing.  an SUV driver seems a little less likely.  not to say it couldn't happen.  but the chances are slimmer.

so, why does this matter?

how does this connect to other ideas?

well, the error that the blogger makes is all too common, in all to many arenas of life.

in fact, large populations of people can be mobilized to believe all sorts of unlikely things--just like this--when one person passionately makes a vaguely plausible claim that taps into people's anger and sends it in a certain satisfying direction.

it initially persuaded me, as a reader of the blog.

and i wasn't the only one who was persuaded.  i remember at least one other blogger getting on that bandwagon of resentment.  

but, aside from the persuasion, why might that blogger have jumped to that conclusion?  well, i bet it had something to do with him not forcing himself to look at the most plausible explanation for the vandalism.  


one reason is that the more plausible explanations (such as, a random teenager with a marker) are less emotionally satisfying to believe because it's not as satisfying to channel your anger towards some random teenager, especially if you've harbored resentment towards SUV drivers, and now feel a beautiful opportunity to vent your resentment has presented itself.

by now, if not earlier, you may have thought:  "this whole discussion is much ado about nothing."  

you are right.  one blogger's rant about SUVs is totally no big deal at all.  its cosmic importance is utterly miniscule.

but what's not miniscule is the fact that the thought-error behind the blogger's rant is an error that people all over the world have likely made and an error that has likely caused much mischanneling of negative energy towards people who probably don't deserve it.   

a more controversial issue was last year's public outrage toward exxon.  if your remember, during that summer of high gasoline prices and a plummeting economy, people were furious that exxon was still raking in billions in profits while gouging the average car driver who was throwing money away at the pump.  as a commuter who has to drive 30 minutes to work each day, i too was feeling the pain.  i couldn't even afford to fill the tank.  heck, how could you not hate exxon?  especially when the media was fueling the fire.

but like with the SUV situation, i finally stepped back and thought:  hold on, why do i resent exxon?  is my resentment legitimate?

so i started digging a little deeper.  i started asking some questions:

first of all, why were their profits so high? 

what are the costs involved with oil exploration? 

what is the demand for oil?

once they've paid for all the research, exploration, operational costs, taxes, shareholders, etc., is what might their net profits look like?

some people thought exxon was deliberately keeping their prices artificially high.  if that was so, why would they do that?  in business, a deliberate decision to keep your prices artificially high usually hurts you, since your competitor will simply offer the same product at a lower price, and therefore start stealing your business.

obviously exxon was making a killing, but when i forced myself to look at some of the common sense, plausible explanations, it didn't seem like there was as much room for outrage.  

even if, at the end of the day, exxon was making billions in net profits, did it make sense to resent them?  because the reasoning looks like this:  the economy sucks; i'm struggling; your corporation is not struggling, in fact, making a lot of money; therefore your corporation is evil. can i really stand behind that reasoning?  is it really fair to hate a corporation just because they're making profit?  especially when i'm a customer.  

i mean, if i'm really that pissed at exxon, i guess i could get my gas at shell, or citgo, or whatever.  but what if they're making lots of profits too?  am i supposed to expand my hatred to cover them as well?  

do i then resent all the oil companies?  or only the ones that are making good profits?  

do i then praise the oil companies that are not making much profit?  would they somehow be acting fairer?

once i started really asking the tough questions, and started taking the spin out, the truth seemed much more flat.  the common sense answer seemed to be that exxon was simply a big corporation that sold oil that lots of people bought, and therefore they made a handsome penny.  was that really all that evil?

i mean, i'm just as eager as the next person for us to transition away from fossil fuels altogether and move into clean energy, but until we get there, the reality is that exxon will probably be a part of our lives.  so i can either choose to take an honest look at the reasons why i resent them, or not.  

if i do take an honest look at my motives and still decide to resent them, then where do i channel my resentment?

the current CEO, who just happens to be the hand on the tiller, and whose job is actually to make the shareholders and the company money?  or do i resent the management as a whole, since they're the ones with the biggest salaries?  or do i extend my resentment towards joe blow who works on some oil rig on the ocean?  or do i lump it all together and resent their entire corporation (the whole team of employees who work there--from the guy who cleans their bathrooms to the guy who runs the entire show)?  

if after all that, you still want to resent all, or some, or one of the exxon employees, then by all means, go for it.  

be angry all you want about someone or something, but first just make sure your motives for anger are:

1) fully honest
2) thought-out
3) channelled towards precisely the correct person
4) not just the result of unrelated, long-harbored resentment towards someone or something

otherwise, you may be acting on dishonest resentment. 

this is unhealthy.

and it's not fair to the person or people being inappropriately blamed--even if you have harbored resentment towards that person in the past, for other, yet unrelated perceived wrongs.

regardless, people fall into this error all the time.

has it ever happened to you?

1 comment:

  1. It may be dark and extreme, but the first thing that hit me after I read this was - Holocaust. How could it have happened in plain sight? Misplaced blame, Mischanneling anger. Tapping into preexisting predjudice and running with it. It's the dangerous process you write about played out to it's fullest possiblitiy! It may have been biker vs. SUV in this instance, but you remind us that it's the error in the mindset. Dave. Cool blog. Keep up the good work.