Sunday, January 25, 2009

Are You Crazy?

Have you ever had someone look at you with a blank stare (what I call “the look”) that silently asked, “Are you crazy?” Or have you been in the middle of a conversation where someone interrupted, began talking to the person you were talking with, and you were ignored after that? I’ve had this happen a few times in my life, enough to question what caused it and whether it was justified.

Many years ago, after a celebration with some fellow students who had just done some serious social drinking, I was asked why I had been the only one not to drink. I could have brushed it off with a lame excuse, but instead I gave an honest and complete answer: I’ve never consumed more than a few sips of alcohol because it diminishes one’s ability to act responsibly, which is something I’ve always aspired to do (though not as successfully as I would like). From that point on, I got a cold shoulder from these people I considered friends, most hurtfully from the women. I was emotionally aware enough to guess that the reaction was based on a perceived insult, that I felt somehow better than them, though I thought I had been clear that it was purely a personal preference.

Another time that stands out was at a party a few years ago, when I mentioned to the head of a prominent environmental organization my notion that space activists and sustainability advocates have a common goal, the long term survival of mankind. He gave me the look, muttered something unintelligible, and walked away while I was explaining my reasoning. I suspected that it was because I was challenging one of his most fundamental beliefs, that growth in consumption is wrong, and that we must learn to live within the constraints of our own planet’s biosphere. If he had heard me out, he would have learned that I believed we must do both: learn to live within our means AND settle other planets far enough away to escape extinction by a warming Sun.

Most recently, I brought up ecological economics with the leader of a local renewable energy group, and was interrupted by the head of the national organization. After their discussion, the person I was talking to pointedly chose to avoid me. The intentions here were a little harder to read, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether I had once again offended someone because I questioned a core belief. The organization is focused on the promise of a technological fix to our emerging environmental and resource crisis (most directly, global warming and peak oil). Ecological economics, however, argues that we need a more systemic change to overall economic theory and activity, treating economics as a subset of ecology. Ironically, another group we both belong to rejects the idea that there is enough time to implement large scale solutions, focusing instead on helping communities become as self-sufficient as possible. (For the record, I favor all of these approaches simultaneously, including the settlement of space, though to different degrees depending on available resources and how soon they can yield results.)

These and other similar experiences have taught me that challenging a person’s values or world view, no matter how innocently, can cause them to become rude or choose to ignore you. Such a reaction may be justifiable from an emotional perspective as a response to a perceived insult or threat; or from an intellectual perspective, as recognition that you are too ignorant to be worth spending any time with. I reject such an assessment. In my opinion, being rude is morally unacceptable, no matter what the provocation. Ignoring the views of others, if honestly and constructively presented – no matter how radical or ridiculous they may sound – limits one’s ability to learn, grow, and enable them to do the same. This is because ultimately we all have blind spots, things and ideas we are unaware of and may need to know for survival (ours and everyone’s) and we need each other to help us see.

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