Thursday, February 11, 2010

On Condescension and Bullshit

So, last week I met the Marlboro Man at a Waffle House. I said "Hi. You seem interesting. Can we talk for a while?" He said "Owright," and we ate some cheesy eggs and talked our way through all the issues. He's read his Russeau and his Popper, of course, and can spoke eloquently on any subject. He goes to church, hates gay people, and watches Fox News. He told me why he does these things. His reasons are self-consistent, and hint at the secret logic of Texas.

[Here I elaborate on his reasons for these crimes, and explain that secret logic]

Between hot-button political issues, we talked about family, masculinity, God, Television... He respects my opinions and defends his own. I convince him to read Ken Wilber, and I learned that [...]. We watched a football game (somehow this Waffle House has a big screen TV) and for the first time I cared about it. The whole time, he called me "son." We're now Facebook friends.

Today he called me up to mention that he's been thinking about what I said, and maybe the gays won't burn in hell for all eternity, and he's trading in his 4x4 for a Prius. Also, he's started watching The Wire, and he loves it.

Meanwhile, I have come to understand why George W Bush wasn't a complete disaster of a presidency. I also learned the secret to getting Glen Beck off the air, and soon the whole electoral map will turn blue. George Lakoff, Al Franken, and President Obama sent me a letter of thanks, and we're planning a group hug for when I get to DC.

This is what, on some level, I wanted to write about Texas.

I've been thinking a lot about my "three conversations" mission. I wrote "MISSION: 3 good conversations with Texans about how they see the world." You'll read in a while about some conversations I've had, but I've started to see some real problems with that agenda. 

It's the last bit that really bothers me in the fantasy. Not the Lakoff/Franken/Obama group hug, but the idea of turning the map blue. I'm not here with an entirely open heart and mind. On some level, I'm talking to the people I meet trying to figure out why they're so wrong about everything. I'm for gay rights and against CO2 emissions. Much as I want to understand why some folks disagree with me, I'm not open to changing my mind. That's hardly the way to form a new understanding. 

So that's problem number one. This project is, or at least could be, really condescending. And seeing Texans as some Other, some Foreign Strange Thing, is exactly what I wanted to deny. 

On the other hand, these people ARE WRONG. They are! They're not right. So when I try to talk to them about their reasons, they don't have good ones. When I challenge their reasons they change the subject or don't understand the question. Usually, actually, they think they've answered the question, but really didn't understand it and inadvertently they've changed the subject.

I'm trying to be a sympathetic listener and understand the rationale, but I think sometimes people just aren't rational thinkers. I might be missing it, but I'm a pretty smart guy and I really am trying. Maybe the standards for rational thinking aren't very high in most places. And maybe, even if I agreed with some blue stater's X's and Y's, I still would find that most people in this country don't think rationally.

Maybe, all in all, I'm not being condescending, but I am wasting my time. Maybe they're just as dumb as conventional wisdom told me all along. The resolution of my original problem is just that my team is mostly dumb, too.

Really, I don't think that's quite how it goes. I'm sure I am wrong about lots of stuff that the Marlboro Man is right about, I just don't know what. Maybe it's not the political stuff that he's wrong about. Maybe it's the stuff that I'm not skilled in considering critically. Maybe it's taboo subjects that I'm accustomed to considering uncritically. I don't know what that would be, naturally, but he would be right about it and I would be wrong. This week I've heard arguments from Texans for some kind of eugenics and for communism. Everywhere else I've been, you can't be taken seriously with those ideas, so nobody dares to hold them.

So the problem with this dialogue is that I'm no more capable of identifying and changing my mind about the subjects - and rationales - where I'm wrong than they are. And if I can't change, I can't change others.

I don't know. It's a limitation in the project. I'm not giving up or anything, but I'm adjusting my measure of success.

I promise, I swear, I really didn't come to Texas to find myself. I honestly thought I'd already done that in LA. But here I am, and I keep finding little pieces of me all over the place, tucked away in new experiences. So there's no jumping or shooting or bull-riding in this post, but it's definitely part of the adventure. 


  1. y,

    i love this entry. but i always do.
    i'm always impressed by how gracefully you poke a big scary animal, but then just before it snarls you give it a playful pet -- it never actually bites you. you lion tamer, you.


  2. This was some of what I was hoping to read about your adventure. I might sound over simplistic, because it's hard to have these kind of opinions in blog comments, but I don't think having solid beliefs (like in equal rights) negates your ability to respect an opinion that's different from yours. And I'm happy you continue to find yourself...what a boring life if you knew exactly who you were at 24. ;)

  3. well done.

    idea...maybe you could approach it as a post-colonial anthropologist might, and listen deeply to the stories people tell about themselves, and what that means to their self-view and world-view. and let that be the insight...really, just probing more deeply into this worldview. and when it is all over and you roll out of texas or out of the town, or just out of the conversation, you can pit it against your own worldview and draw appropriate conclusions. even if that conclusion is that there aren't enough rational thinkers in the world. but suspend judgment as much as possible in the moment. maybe.
    just a thought.

  4. That's a good point, Surya, and it's more or less what I attempted to do. But I'm not sure how much of listening deeply involves challenging something I don't think makes sense. To make that challenge may interfere with the other person sharing, but to hold it back feels condescending. Really pitting my worldview against theirs requires giving them access to mine and a chance to respond, doesn't it? I don't know.

  5. if you want to understand conservatives, you should read "A Conflict of Visions" by Thomas Sowell.