Choices

Over the last few weeks I have had the pleasure of wearing the Velvet Hat of Sage Advice for a friend’s daughter as well as my own son as they are confronted with two very distinct challenges in life.

In the case of my friend’s daughter, her high school U.S. History class was recently disrupted due to racial tensions which surfaced as the Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow laws, and the Ku Klux Klan became the focus. My perspective and advice on how to handle such conflicts led me to realize that in this day and age, high school teachers especially need to approach such topics with the mindset that they are about to engage in the mental equivalent of calico storico – the brutal bastard offspring of full-contact soccer and mixed martial arts with a generous side-order of chaos.

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What I imagine today’s High School History class being. (Source: http://blog.colourfulrebel.com/en/calcio-storcio-fiorentino/)

I was given enough lead time to prepare for the conversation, yet I had no idea the best angle to take that would not bore the above-average 17-year-old. Inspiration, in the form of several red cars noticed on the drive home from work proved to be the foundation for an interesting analogy:

If you were hit by a red car, then your whole life you would continue to notice more red cars on the road than any other color – even if red wasn’t a popular or common color at the time. It wouldn’t matter if every red car was driven by the dreaded nemesis of insurance companies – “Captain Safe Driver” – you would immediately become wary and attentive as soon as you spotted it.

Officially called “confirmation bias,” what is expected becomes the perceived reality. For some, the mere thought of discussing emotional topics such as the historic roots of racism in American society becomes a heated, and in this case, nearly violent event where little actual discussion can overcome the momentum of anger and frustration felt on many different levels. Recent events in Charlottesville and within the NFL have shown not only does a societal rift exist between Americans, but that the volatile nature of these unresolved issues are readily exploited by traditional and social media with little consideration to the long-term societal damages which may result.

My advice centered around two skills that seem to have fallen by the wayside in contemporary discussions of these inflammatory topics – empathetic confrontation and deliberate restraint. The former suggests seeking to understand the roots of the problem while firmly and realistically sticking to the topic at hand and its relevance to the present without letting emotion distort and taint the conversation. There are times when rational and calm dialogue are impossible due to the personal investment, comprehension, or identity of a particular point of contention. For the most part, the more closely-held opinion is, the less willing people are to concede or even acknowledge a contrary perspective. In the case of my friends’ daughter, I simply made the simple recommendation: “The best thing is to distance yourself from the issue then. Refuse to engage with anyone who wants to argue.”

This segues into the latter idea – that of deliberate restraint. Especially factoring youthful eagerness to assert one’s perspective, holding back the first thing that comes to mind as an “acceptable” response is more difficult. I learned that the high school in question has no debate team – or any similar extracurricular program – indicating that the art of framing a coherent and respectful dialogue is no longer important. This would suggest that the disturbing and unfortunate trend of immediate and/or louder responses which dominate most “discussion panels” on cable news programs will continue to be the standard of debate. Part of the necessity of restraint is the idea that one should listen to the opposing view rather than simply wait for the other person to take a breath before interrupting with a retort.

There is a balance… I’m not saying that it will be impossible to be angry at the stupid people and institutions you come across in your life… on the contrary, getting pissed about things is usually the precursor to changing them. However, redirecting that anger into something productive is a course that many don’t take due to the effort that goes into it. If the media pisses you off, research and dispute their message with unbiased factual sources (and using one’s sources against their argument is so, so, beautiful…) Taking the calm and rational approach to the loud and irrational, like I said, is amazingly powerful. Either way, though… you are in control of how the media and hateful folks make you feel – and as long as you have that control, you will never be part of the problem.

The challenges faced by my son, while similar in some respects, differ greatly. The idea of identity and confidence is part of his ongoing evolution along his path of becoming a productive and responsible adult. We have talked at length about a variety of topics, ranging from the realism modeled in games like World of Tanks, interpersonal relationships, critical thinking, and his reaction to the seemingly incessant barrage of fear, anger, and controversy that manages to seep past the parental barriers established from most popular media. His grasp on such large topics, as well as how he presents his own perspective on such complex ideas, offers some reassurance that he will undoubtedly find a solid path through the imminent teenage years and beyond.

What bothers me, however, is the world we unknowingly and willingly crafting for the next generation. Some of our present approaches to problem-solving involve very little forethought and consideration for the lessons presently being taught, and these failures have the potential to be carried forward like bad long division. Listening and acknowledging contrary opinions, much like the art of civilized debate, seem to be concepts which are quickly becoming threatened. The speed in which we can access information which only supports our points and the depersonalization facilitated by the internet – the shield of anonymity as hateful and misinformed commentary flows unfettered… these approaches have become more convenient and common. What are we teaching? What example are we setting? What sort of adults are we producing?

These matters are hardly new. The Violent Years (1956) was a relatively forgotten movie until being successfully resurrected by the crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s hilarious spoof in 1994 (“She died like she lived… failing algebra”). One of the more noteworthy and applicable quotes from the actual movie foreshadowed such problems:

Adults create the world, children live it. Juvenile delinquency is always rooted in adult delinquency. And in this process, parents play the key role when children grow up among adults who refuse to recognize anything that is fine and good, or worthy of respect.

Reaching back even further in the idea of the mental construct of the outside world, Walter Lippman wrote along similar lines in 1922’s Public Opinion:

The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do. It does not determine what they will achieve. It determines their effort, their feelings, their hopes, not their accomplishments and results.

The adults who will be responsible in our twilight years are among us today, and this has been the obvious case for all of human history. It may be suggested that the previous generations have never had the scale of external stimulus to contend with as we presently have to contend with; however, each cycle of social evolution has had to contend with previously unimagined changes, making such a point somewhat moot.

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The art of explanation came early. (Source: author.)

Reassurance is found not in calls for restriction of media content or an alteration of presentation, but in one’s own approach and management of these influencers. “Take a deep breath and reframe: where do you go from there? How do you fix it?” Words I never thought I would or could abide by as a young adult now make so much more sense. Pause and contemplate… empathy and restraint… these are the simplest ideas in understanding where we go from this point and how we fix the future. After all, what world we leave to the next generation is determined by the tools we leave them, and not the mess that they will have to contend with as most pessimists would suggest.

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