Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hidden Hues

I went down to Lake Forest Park this past weekend, to take some pictures of a small peace monument that the local anti-war activists had erected. I was late getting there, and so the "early crowd," a handful of support-the-troops types, were already present when I arrived. And I ended up spending most of the next two hours speaking to both them, and the peace activists that followed them.

Both sides, it turns out, are terrible salespeople for their respective positions. But I did learn something interesting about them, and perhaps, activists in general. It seems, that no matter who you talk to, one of the reasons why their message doesn't gain any traction is that the gullible masses have been hoodwinked by the lies of the "mainstream media." The universality of this idea is striking, if for no other reason than it doesn't ever seem to strike any of them as odd that the other side says the exact same thing - it all becomes part of the narrative of conspiracy and victimization. But it struck me as odd. And the conversation with a peace activist helped it all fall into place.

I'd pointed out that the peace protests had been going on for some time. Pretty much every weekend for the past eight and half years or so, yet they weren't making any noticeable difference in things. There was no public outcry against the wars. And the number of people who attended their weekly rallies was steadily shrinking - even some of the regulars had stopped coming. Surely, I reasoned, the problem was that their simple signs, while photogenic, just didn't have enough space to really make the point in ways that were important to people. Perhaps they needed a website, I suggested.

I was told, in no uncertain terms, that it wouldn't work. People simply wouldn't come and read something that didn't jive with what they already wanted to understand was true. The best you could do was to engage people face to face, and hope to convert them. And that's what the signs were for, to raise their awareness and interest. But, I pointed out, what if people aren't interested in what's on the sign? The man's own sign was about bringing the troops home. I'm ineligible for military service, and I don't know anyone who's active duty, so while it would certainly be nice, the troops coming home doesn't mean anything to me, directly.

"So," I asked him, "If you guys get your way, what's in it for me?"

And this is where the familiar pattern emerged. The man launched into an animated diatribe about all of the ills that "the fascists" as he called them, had perpetrated upon the United States. It took some doing, but I finally managed to stop him long enough to say that it was all fine and good, but it still didn't answer the question of how his dream of a social democracy would be of direct benefit to me. So he switched tack slightly, and narrowed his focus to gasoline prices. I tried to explain to him that gasoline prices hadn't really made much of a difference to me over the past few years. Which started him down the path of attempting to convince me that I had been damaged by higher gasoline prices, but was too brainwashed to realize it (because questioning your audience's judgment and/or sanity is always a winner).

Anyway, I suspect that you see where this is going. I simply couldn't seem to get him to engage with me on the topics that I was trying to convince him were important to me, personally, in a way that explained to me how my interests would be advanced. But what was really odd about it was I couldn't convince HIM of that. He was dead certain that he was addressing the topics I was raising head-on. Suddenly, it all clicked. Unable to understand that I didn't find his argument compelling because it didn't relate to things that I was concerned with, the only reason he could see for why I wasn't won over was that someone else had gotten to me first. But to me, he was creating a massive false dichotomy. The simple fact that "the fascists" were bad didn't mean that his particular alternative was any better - it was still an unknown quality to me. It's part of the problem of attempting to define anything in terms of what it is not. What it's not can be a awful lot of things.

In the end, I wasn't able to get him to understand that he wasn't making a compelling case. Or, perhaps more accurately, I couldn't convey to him that I saw the world as something other than black and white. I guess it's like attempting to explain to someone's who's color blind that they've mis-colored something. The picture they draw looks just like the world around them as they see it. What frame of reference do they have for someone else's vision?

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