Contemplating average people: amicability, happiness, prejudice, concentric circles of concern, and a challenge.
So I’m in the midst of reading Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals, one of his most influential books . In the opening chapter he characterizes what he calls Mr. BUT in his answer to the quintessential question: What do most people say when you ask them if they like other people? Alinsky’s claim is that most people will reply “Sure, I like most other people, with a few exceptions” which I think is a fair prediction. He goes on to say, however, that when you start talking to this example “typical” person their list of people they don’t like will by far outnumber those they do. And he’s not even talking about “like” in the sense of who you might call friends, but really just general people. It is here where he unveils the grand straw man Mr. BUT, who would say something like “Oh of course I really love black people, BUT you know whenever there’s someone loud and obnoxious on the subway, it seems like they’re always black.” And this got me to thinking.
I don’t agree with him that the average person dislikes more people than they like, but I have a feeling this is my own optimistic projection operating again. I remember my roommate back in college once claimed that he thought the average person was unhappy (that is, most people are unhappy), and I was taken aback. Really? I thought. And as I started talking to people asking them this question, I began to realize that their answer really just mirrored if they, on average, were a happy person.
Anyway what Alinsky is really getting at here, is something worth turning on myself: prejudice. All of us “good-natured” privileged and educated liberals have a helping of Mr. BUT in us. I thought I’d take an opportunity to draw mine out, because I think it’s surprising. Alinsky’s Mr. BUT had resentment and dislikes for people of different religions, races, ethnicities, and more. I think my inner-BUT-man (yes, I know all of you people with a 14-year-old boy in you are laughing now, the language is unfortunate) has some really overt expressions and some subtle ones. Okay here we go.
1) Most anyone who really knows me has heard me complain up and down the wall about passive and apathetic people (or in times past, “the librarians”), but in recent years as I’ve existed in a department dominated by introverts I’ve realized that sometimes this is just tantamount to hating on the shy person, which isn’t very constructive. Sure, I’ve been hurt by my fair share of passive-aggressive people, probably in worse ways than most, but insulting or chastising these people and actions hasn’t really brought an end to them. In fact it’s encouraged the worst of them, and it has sometimes hurt the less intense people that I care deeply for.
2) The academic world is rife with rivalries. I’ve done a lot of saying things like “those cultural studies postmodernist people” or “those data-head people” in a dismissive fashion, often unfairly. The first group I often dislike more because they’re fixated on negativity, but really why make fun of people who are probably comprehensively unhappy? The second gang may at times seem cold, calculating and disconnected, but their lack of empathy or interest in social issues is probably a symptom of their own fear or ignorance, one that likely they haven’t come into in a malicious kind of way.
3) And then there’s the Christians. I just refer to them like that, as if the religion isn’t one of the most wildly diverse and complex ecologies out there. It’s downright stupid for me to transform some small extremist group into full-on representation and ignore all of the good Christians have turned loose in the world.
4) And I’m sure there are more. I’d ask readers to call me out, but that would be asking you to subscribe to my method of positive confrontational discourse (when you challenge me because we’re on the same side, building a better tomorrow), which many do not appreciate. My last prejudice I want to talk about next, because I’m not sure what to do about it.
All of this reminded me of theory I talk about from time to time, that’s not very unique or insightful, and yet has gotten me into a great deal of trouble. Here, a picture:
I sometimes call it concentric circles of concern, which apparently is a book on Amazon, and the name of the same idea as it appears on a Church website or two, according to our local expert Google. Anyway, the pitch is that most people care about the inner-most layer strongly. My roommate is this way, he’s good-natured, funny, and quite empathic at times, but quite introverted; he exhausts his social interaction needs quota at about 5 people. I think most people also expand out into the next two circles, which change composition as their life goes on, which of course makes sense. Some people don’t really have best friends (truthfully I sometimes think this is me), and many people (on a bad day I might claim introverts) don’t really care much for people in the acquaintance zone. And then there’s the last outer circle, which is what interests me. People who care, enough to act, about strangers they’ve never met. This might be environmentalists, for a counter-intuitive example, but also people like my sister, who worked with refugees for a year, or Tom Fairbank, who casually gets to know random homeless people and gives them his time and money in a compassionate way. I think there are also people who give their entire lives to random people they barely know, immersing themselves in places like the Peacecorps without really having anything in the inner-circles to fall back on.
In any event I have this tendency to really spill the haterade (prejudice) on people who don’t expand out to the outer layers. I don’t want to do this, the negativity is unhelpful. And yet at the same time I have no good way to push them out of their inner circle, other than by demonstrating my beliefs with my lifestyle. And this method, if it even is one, is certainly not satisfying or at all effective. I can’t even get past the opening questions sometimes, as asking a person “so why is it you litter?” or “why does voting not matter to you?” or “what turns you off to feminism?” often puts them on the offensive. And rightly so, I’m not just asking to know most of the time (the true dialogic), I’m asking to understand so I can negotiate a better solution. And this, of course, is one of the many reasons people don’t like me, which is mildly unhelpful when I try to act in a leadership or teaching capacity. But I’m unable to turn my back on the tremendous desire and duty to do my part in constructing a better world.
Am I looking for answers? Maybe brainstorms instead. Tom would of course tell me that the world is perfect and I should just appreciate what good we have, which would be warm and fuzzy for a second and then promptly make my life not worth living. With blissful inaction ruled out, what other strategies remain?
–Followup: It seems this diagram can be found all over the place in varied form. My favorite version is when they turn ‘strangers’ into markets.