Talking to "Other"

Movie poster from Enemy Mine

I have had some success over the years in talking with people who on the surface do not seem to be very much like myself. Superficially, I am a west-coast liberal elite professor who has cats in lieu of children. My tribal affiliation seems clear, yet I am often at ease discussing heavy stuff with all types.

In a recent conversation with a neighbor whose votes likely exactly counter my own, I believe I made substantial progress in broadening his views on COVID vaccinations, news sources, conspiracy theories, and maybe more.

In this post, I’ll run through key messages in that conversation and elements that I believe may have allowed those messages to land. Then I will discuss more broadly some attributes that I think make substantive conversations with unlikely interlocutors possible.

First, we’ll start with my neighbor, Chip. That’s not his real name, but I want to convey a sense of a man’s man. Chip owns and operates heavy machinery, knows his way around concrete, and loves going fishing on his boat.

I took some honey harvested from my bees to thank Chip for loaning me two massive iron spikes that I used as anchors driven deep into the ground to drag something heavy across the dirt. The conversation we had ranged all over, but I capture main themes here as an example of how one might make progress, perhaps offering tips that may allow others to have similar success.

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Credibility from Apparent Hypocrisy

Flip the script! Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Purveyors of unpopular messages are often scrutinized for any inconsistent, seemingly hypocritical behavior that might give lie to their preachings and be used to discredit the unwelcome perspective. A famous example is Al Gore’s heavy air travel schedule to spread the word and take action against climate change, resulting in an enormous CO2 footprint. If we all behaved that way, the very problem at hand would be substantially exacerbated.

Such accusations either knowingly or pathetically miss the obvious point that the net effect of Al Gore’s efforts may be positive owing to the simple idea of a lever: a little expenditure here can counteract vast expenditures elsewhere for an overall gain on the problem. For many, the glaring superficial contradiction is enough ammunition to discredit the entire enterprise.

But identifying possible hypocrisy in those who warn of future perils, as I have done, has a dark edge: if even those cognizant individuals cannot get away from behaviors they know to be damaging, doesn’t that only amplify the severity of the warning?

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Growth Is Our Old Yeller

Poster for the 1957 film Old Yeller

Growth has been our close companion for centuries, and we love it to pieces. It makes politicians swoon, economists dance, investors giggle, and community planners smile.

The only problem is that this friend is about to turn into our greatest enemy.  Pursuit of growth—in money and resource exploitation—has a flip side on Earth’s ecosystems.  Up until now, we mostly saw the good side of growth: conveniences, technology, health care, security.  Becoming apparent is the toll this misguided focus is taking on our irreplaceable home.  No amount of money (all the king’s horses and all the king’s men) can restore lost species and destroyed ecosystems.  So maybe money is a bad metric for what really matters, yeah?

I have struggled to come up with a good analogy for growth that will help us process what it means.  The best I have come up with (and only recently) is that growth is like Old Yeller.  If you’re not familiar with the 1957 film, it’s a real tear jerker.  I remember bawling in concert with my sister when the amazing dog—dearly loved by the family for getting them out of many a pickle—contracted rabies, became aggressive toward the family, and had to be shot.  That’s right: a kid’s movie ended with the beloved central character being shot dead.  Those were different times.  What you really wanted in a kid’s movie was for your children to emerge wrecked. (I also saw Jaws at age 6 and have been scarred since.)

Growth has likewise been this fantastic friend: all upside, upside, upside.  But the rabid side is beginning to show, and our ultimate success depends on killing it.  There will be tears.  Many will bargain, unable to accept the necessity of ending growth.  But it’s no use.  The physics is clear.

Please use the comment forum to suggest other (better) analogies.  Not straying too far, it may be like raising a lion: awfully adorable as a cub, but ultimately a mortal threat to have in the house.  It’s possible that better analogies can be conjured.

P.S. I wrote this in 24 minutes, so please excuse the shortness and sloppiness.

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