Look over this desert diorama. What do you see? A man roaming the dunes with his trousers belted to his head. He appears to be a raving lunatic in the stark sunlight. Does this mean he is an idiot? Does it mean he has always been an idiot? What can you glean from a single image or a single incident with no other information?
What if this isolated event is posted up on the social media marquee in bright lights. It would be easy to dismiss this man as a goof and move on. Maybe a snarky comment like “this guy’s been building sand castles in the sun too long.”
But are these snap judgements hurting us in our personal relationships and as a species? It all seems so harmless, socially banishing someone who is caught making a mistake or perceived mistake, happy for the opportunity to look smarter than someone else. But what if our own worst moments were put up on that marquee?
Here’s the bottom line way early…When we see someone do something odd or out of character what’s our response? If our only reaction is to label the person unintelligent, are we missing the boat? We may be losing out on a lot of valuable insight.
Push further. Imagine what sort of circumstances the person would have to be facing in order for his or her actions to make sense. With this simple exercise it’s possible to see a friend or family with a little more compassion. Their decisions may still be crazy, but you get a glimpse of what pushed them to the decision. It could paint the person’s actions in a new light and make us more tolerant to what the person is facing. We are left in a better position to reach out and help.
When we think people have made a stupid decision perhaps we’ve jumped to conclusions that can hurt us and others.
Before we dissect this idea. A brief defense for the man in the headline photo. Perhaps we should consider the effects of the sand, sun, and exposure on the man in the photo? Maybe he just misjudged the length of the trip back to the car. Or perhaps he was simply trying a callback to Chevy Chase in the first Vacation movie. (The man in this arid diorama was me and I thought it would be funny. But some people can find desert humor kinda dry.)
The Race to be First and Maybe Correct
In the days of Twitter radio-reactiveness and untraceable denouncing, when people and careers can sink into the sludge of social judgment never to resurface, you are seeing the cracks in the system. The crumble began in the gauntlet of social arenas, the coliseum battle royale, where the only two outcomes are total victory or death.
It’s important to ask yourself, if you see someone do something so obviously stupid, should you immediately write that person off as a knuckle-head? It’s certainly easier and less time consuming for you. Label the person and move on. But is it good for you personally? Is it good for the world? Did the person that made one mistake have much more in store for us, a trait or knowledge we could use.
You may take a hard pass on someone, thinking a better option will come along. But what if you are creating an environment that sets up the next person with a higher likelihood of failure?
Presidential Candidates And The Assumption of Stupidity
You’ve seen presidential candidates flub a single line or dance a bit silly. Instantly, a country full to the brink with people who desperately need to feel the slightest bit of superiority sends them to a bottomless pit, never to be heard from again. Did we lose someone that would’ve solved some of the issues facing America? Maybe not, but have we paid a price in other ways?
Did the social media execution of certain candidates create the atmosphere that would lead to the type of candidates we see today? Who are the sort of candidates who would step forward in the current bone-stripping climate? Perhaps anyone who would choose to face this soul-crushing environment is not the choice we would hope for.
I guess I’m asking if there was a butterfly effect. One candidate tossed off a sacrificial cliff here and there, until the composition of everyone in line behind them started to change. More qualified people started to veer back into the jungle, leaving perhaps only those better at ignoring the will of the people or the cyberbullying, or the media. These armadillos, great at not feeling the pressure of the public, may also not be ideal at hearing the voices of the people or avoiding highway traffic. They may just march forward, unhindered.
Anyone listening to a segment of the population, the negative opinions splashed up on a feed, wouldn’t be able to survive the storm unless they were uniquely armor-plated…or tone-deaf.
Now think about your own life. If we use this reactionary, all or nothing litmus test on family or friends, who will be left remaining at the end. Smart, emotionally invested people, or only those who are oblivious to any criticism and ridicule.
The Rush to Judgment on The Russians In Your Life
Watch The Fog of War. The documentary dealing with the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. And specifically, how Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara faces the camera and tells us how close the world came to burning to radioactive dust. The wisdom he found may just help you when you’re latest interaction with someone has sent you running for your bunker. We’ll call it a relationship bunker.
McNamara makes a case for trying to understand your greatest enemies or puzzling loved ones. Think like they do. Don’t just assume they are too idiotic to be able to reason or analyze in the manner that you do. Don’t accept the more comforting notion that they are monsters and can’t be scrutinized. That sidestep of the issue can lead to errors and justify rash actions that may not be necessary.
He regrets not doing this when the Soviet Union’s leaders seemed inscrutable. They appeared to be irredeemable, ready to scorch entire cities to move forward an ideology.
But McNamara talks about little hints, clues that might’ve tipped off American leaders that the Russians weren’t as sure as they seemed. Strange telegrams from someone in the Kremlin in the middle of the night should’ve made it clear that there were other factors at play.
Are you getting strange signals coming from the darkness? A loved one acting out of character? An employee saying something without opening their mouth. Make sure you catch every signal they send. They may not offer another clue.
The Fog of Relationships
You can drop the figurative bomb in your life, revoke a friend’s security clearance or a family member’s or a boyfriend or girlfriend’s, a coworker’s, but that’s too easy. Especially when the emotional or professional consequences can be so devastating. The nuclear option obliterates all solutions.
Perhaps the intelligence gap between you and that other person is vast. It would feel good if that were the case, but what else could be at play? What else could be behind the odd behavior? Did you read a facial expression or silence as one signal, when in fact it may mean opposite to that other being.
Sit down and start a thought experiment. Think about the person who has perplexed you. Under what circumstances would his or her actions make sense? Even if the reaction isn’t what you might have done, you can at least see another side of it. Maybe that person isn’t a horrible ghoul. Or maybe they are, but at least you can make an informed decision.
“Because uninformed decisions can start to limit your options down the road.”–Scott (He said this recently)
If you try to understand, you can dig that person out of their position. Give them a path to change their mind that lets them keep their dignity intact. Let them change course instead of hitting the big red button. Or perhaps you realize you were the one sending strange signals all along.
Today, people can be wrong, know they are wrong, but still push ahead rather than admit it to the unforgiving masses. Some of us say we like people who are willing to fess up to mistakes, but is that true? If someone admits to a mistake, will they last long enough to ever get a shot again? In a business setting, in a relationship or friendship, can they count on your kindness or support or your glib comments?
I’m still not sure we weren’t all irradiated during the cold war. Atomized and then kept alive as information files by a sympathetic but patronizing alien race. My cornflakes have tasted a bit matrix-y lately. How about yours? Are they frosted?
We all use snap judgments to simply life. It can be easy and satisfying to use one known piece of information and pass a funny or sarcastic judgment on the instagrams or on the face and twitter books. You feel completely superior to the person in the photo and thanks to social media, you can say whatever you like without ever having to answer for it.
But what has this attitude cost us as a people and what has it cost us personally? An image flashes across a platform, ten million inhabitants hammer the gavel and the subject is decided in a day and never unearthed again. Or you dismiss someone after one flub and decide to move on to the next hot new take? Even when new evidence is revealed, do we even bother to update our files when someone is exonerated? Did someone hurt you for no good reason at all? Or were there other factors involved?
A Healthy Environment
So if you’re dating a chef and you feel that chef uses too much basil what happens? The chef makes a concession and goes lighter, but it’s still too much basil, but they did listen to you at least. You kick the chef to the curb.
The next chef you date uses less basil, but mixes in handfuls of rosemary and thyme. You move on to the next chef, but each one subtracts some seasoning and adds others.
What do you do? Maybe seek out dates at someplace other than culinary school! But also, perhaps give the current chef another pass before you drop the cleaver.
Stop looking for happy mediums and perfection. What if someone comes into a relationship with you looking for perfection? What will they find?
Taking Zest Where You Can Get It
The joke’s on you. It was a trick question. The man in the desert went on to invent pumpkin spice lasagna. Try to imagine life in your home without that delicious innovation. Glad he got another chance? Now will you slow your march to judgment? Will others slow their march to judgment on you?