I got the rare chance to spend an hour talking to one of my oldest friends last night. We text and drop facebook comments regularly, but actual conversations are exceptions to the rule… and that’s ok, because we’ve known each other so long now that we can basically pick up exactly where we left off no matter how much intervening time is involved.
Because we are who we are, the conversation almost immediately turned to politics. Even though he’s somewhere left of center and I’m somewhere to the right, we somehow managed to talk about the most divisive topics of the day without the whole thing devolving into a shouting match. It’s how I remember people talking about politics when we were young and dinosaurs roamed the earth. It’s what adults use to be able to do.
It turns out it’s still possible when you’re not keeping score or determined to get in one more zinger. It’s literally possible for two grown adults with differing opinions to talk like decent human beings and still like one another at the end of the conversation. You’d never know that from much of the discourse taking place in the social and professional media.
That state of the world may have been the topic of the day yesterday, but the conversation really could have been about anything… or nothing at all. As nice as it was to have a conversation about the world that wasn’t being shouted at full volume, sometimes, especially on a hard day, the more important thing is just hearing a voice from the past.
1. Shipping. If you’re selling a book as a “rare first edition” in “like new” shape, don’t be surprised if I call raising three kinds of hell when it arrives at my house with a shredded dust jacket and mangled pages. especially when the only shipping method you offer is “dumped in an unpadded plastic envelope, slap a shipping label on it, and hope for the best.” There are entirely too many options available to justify dealing with a company that clearly has no regard for their own product. 0/10. Would not recommend.
2. Disagreement. There’s a trend that has always been built into the internet – stretching back into the dim mists of newgroups and chat rooms – that is constructed around the idea that if you don’t agree with every single point of my 12-point statement, you are a communist Nazi heathen enemy of humanity whose father smelt of elderberries and we can’t be friends. I suppose it’s fine if you feel that way, but I generally like my discussion and opinion to have a bit more nuance that’s more fitting in a world where virtually nothing is ever 100% one way or the other. Whether you agree with me or not, I’ll continue to state my opinions in what I hope are reasonable and constructive (and often sarcastic) ways. What I won’t do is feel any compulsion to defend my opinion from someone having a “come at me bro” moment. If I do engage in that discussion, I promise, it’s purely because of the entertainment value I’ll find in it.
3. The rules. In this place there are many rules. I did not write them. I am not making them up on the spot. The rules were here before I arrived and will be here long after I am gone. The fact that there is a rule (or rules) preventing you from doing that which you want to do is one of those facts that is interesting, but not particularly relevant. While I may share in your frustration, you’re really going to need to find someone with the authority to change the offending policy, regulation, or law before there’s a damned thing I can do about it.
1. Loaded Thursdays. A few weeks ago I thought it would be a good idea if I loaded Thursday from top to bottom with meetings. Getting them out of the way, having the bulk of the week to prep for them, and generally ruining as few days of the week as possible running hither and yon to these sessions really felt like I was on to a winner. Compressing meetings onto one date should free up time and be efficient. Maybe it is, but in my planning I forgot the First Rule of the Bureaucracy: The Bureaucracy must expand to consume all available time and resources. I now have more meetings and less prep time than I did before arranging this new wonder schedule. If someone could step in and hit me in the face with a shovel the next time I have a good idea it would be incredibly helpful.
2. Common sense. If you log on to social media and call for common sense legislation on any topic, but then call anyone who disagrees with you on any point an idiot, a terrorist, or worse, you’re pretty much the reason we can’t have an effective dialog in this country about anything. On issues of social policy, thinking people can have wildly differing opinions about the whole array of ends, ways, and means. Refusing to so much as discuss any idea that differs from your own forecloses any possible avenue for progress. In a republic of free people, what may be “common sense” to you, may well be nonsense to another. There’s no hope of finding a scrap of common ground without the conversation, though.
3. I’m not the decider. Look, I gave up an dreams I ever had of being a professional decision maker a long time ago. I can advise, I can recommend, I can object strenuously, and I can present information in any format and order it needs to form a coherent platform from which to base decisions. What I can’t do is fight city hall. I won’t be the guy who’s tilting at windmills. Let someone else take on the burden of making a decision based on the best data and analysis I can provide them. I don’t want it. But for the love of Pete, once that decision is made can we all agree to shut up and move out smartly? No? Fine. Let’s all just sit around and piss and moan that we think it should be different. That’ll do the trick.
1. Clowns. Ok, some people have irrational fear of clowns. Got it. But I’m not entirely sure why a handful of them standing along the roadside is being covered as a national crisis. I don’t see how they’re substantively any different than anyone else just milling around. Like those other non-clown idlers, as long as they’re not standing in my back yard or at my door, I’m not sure why I should care. Here in a few weeks millions of otherwise reasonable adults are going to get dressed up for Halloween and turn themselves loose on our highways and neighborhood streets. Just because the exploding population of “evil clowns” doesn’t do it under cover of a sanctioned holiday makes very little difference in my mind.
2. The level of discourse. I generally tend to shy away from political discussion on social media. I make an occasional post that reflects my opinion and leave it be. There are a few people however, with whom I can manage to have an actual discussion without turning on one another like slobbering idiots. Today I had one of those discussions with someone who I both respect and like very much as a person. We’re miles apart on many of the big issues of the day. When it comes to politics I think she’s a bleeding heart socialist do-gooder and she probably think’s I’m a hard hearted gun-toting redneck. We still find a way to talk. We’re still friends after all these years. That’s what the discourse in this country should look like. But it doesn’t. And that’s annoying as hell.
3. Seven millions of people. Seven million is the current estimate of people who could be without power as a result of Hurricane Matthew dragging himself up the East Coast. That’s well over and above the 2 million people who have been ordered to evacuate their homes. I won’t get into a discussion about the virtue of following evacuation orders, because frankly I’m not at all sure I’d be willing to just walk away from home and hope for the best under the same circumstances. That said, I seems very unlikely that there are seven million people out there well prepared for what’s coming for them. It’s going to be a rough couple of days… and for some of them a long couple of weeks or months if we have to figure out how to turn the east coast power grid back on.
I walked into the middle of an ongoing conversation today. That’s not unusual in a place where you find yourself wandering in and out of rooms all the time. What was unusual, however, was the topic – the riot in Baltimore, the use of the word thug, gun control, and general shitstorm state of society. It’s unusual because in my career I can count on less than five fingers the number of times a real discussion of politics has come up at the office. Most work conversations are an exercise in staying away from anything that might prove to be too sensitive – they tend towards talks about weekend plans, home improvement projects, what what’s for lunch. In other words the default setting is to avoid bringing up topics that anyone might in some way find offensive or objectionable.
What struck me this afternoon more than anything else, though, was how wildly divergent the politics and opinions of this small group of people I work with every day really was… and how quickly the tone escalated as the opposing viewpoints dug in to their respective corners. Every person in the room was reasonably well educated with a respectable amount of life experience behind them, but a “right” answer was nowhere in sight – and one that we could all agree on wasn’t on the continent, let alone in the same building.
I wonder, now that we’ve come to our collective senses and gone back to “safe” topics, if there is any real resolution to the issues that beset us. As long as we all remain intransigent, the answer to that is probably no. Compromise doesn’t feel like a satisfying solution – half a loaf (at best) – but with five smart people, having five different and equally strong opinions, I’m starkly aware that I have no idea what a good answer looks like.