Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Just because a man dies for something doesn’t mean it’s true

Resisting the Tides and Winds of Others’ Storms

by Alan Weiss

One of the most difficult positions to occupy and defend is that of being yourself. Every day, individuals, groups, and the mores of society are laboring to assault individuality and toss us into the blender.

Normative pressure—the impetus to be part of the “in crowd”—is pervasive and severe. We punish mavericks and those marching to the beat of that distant drummer. And then we often shoot the drummer. This tendency is insidious, and occurs even within those groups which consider themselves “outsiders,” whether beatniks, heavy metal, bikers, Goths, or Young Republicans.

There is no one as ardently conformist as the avowed non-conformist in our midst. When hundreds of thousands of people are wearing baseball caps backwards, and millions are listening to “alternative” rock, it’s hard to tell what’s mainstream and what’s not.

So most of us stagger along the shore, dragged by the wind and drenched by the spray, trying to find shelter, or at least the most comfortable route. And that desire—to belong, to take beaten paths, to avoid the backwash of those racing past in other directions—is precisely what dooms our best intentions and dampens our greatest talents.

A typically debilitating statement goes thus: “Well, I’ve heard from quite a few people close to you who prefer not to be named, that your handling of the committee is not inclusive. I’m telling you this for your own good and because I want to help.”

In actuality, you’re being told for the purveyor’s own good (“Gotcha!”) and because they are seeking to denigrate you. These passive/aggressive statements cause many people to lose their bearings, sleep, and good intentions. Of course, the correct response should be: “I never pay attention to anonymous feedback, and I’m surprised you’d stoop to being the middleman. If you have something to say yourself, say it. Otherwise, don’t bother me with rumor and hearsay.”

We refrain from making that last statement because we don’t want to offend, even though we’ve just been offended! This is not a situation where the “high ground” means staying out in the open and allowing ill-meaning people to shoot at you. The high ground here is the ethical and pragmatic high ground of named sources and observed behavior. (“Why do you start the meeting 15 minutes late every week? Many of us are having trouble maintaining our schedules.”)

Oscar Wilde said that “Just because a man dies for something doesn’t mean it’s true.” No matter what the passion or claims made by others, take the time to evaluate whether the point of view, critique, or suggestion is valid based on logic and evidence.

Like your mother used to say when you claimed you had only run into the street because your friend did so first, “And if she jumped off the cliff first, would you do it?!”

Herd behavior is for sheep. And yet the wolves still get them. Wolves, of course, run in packs.
But there’s always a leader of the pack.


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You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.

Harlan Ellison