A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two
Sunday, August 12, 2012
Diogenes in America, part two
My continuing search for ‘what makes a good person’:
What follows are brief descriptions of a number of interactions with various folks on my way across the country and then some thoughts about putting these experiences in context with these times. I have not put the events in temporal/geographic order, but present them as they come to me.
• The state park campground in southern Louisiana had a shower. I had spent the morning repairing some minor damage to my bike suffered on the way to the park, was “southern sweaty” and ready for some relief from the heat and humidity. A man was coming down the steps (southern Louisiana – sensible construction builds on stilts). He was tall and a bit overweight, bald, middle 40s was my guess; in the course of conversation he disclosed that he was here on a camping outing with wife and kids.
I first spoke to him about the pleasures of a shower in this heat. Before many minutes he was telling me about his life as a truck driver – 20 years on the road. Before many minutes the shower freshness had given way to the sweat that tries to, but cannot quite, cool the body even when resting. But the man needed to talk. He was intense and thoughtful, and haunted by a young woman who had “committed suicide by semi” a few years ago, driving straight off a rural side road directly into the front of his cab. I asked him questions about truck driving and he confirmed a number of suspicions that I had about just how aware truckers were of other drivers and especially motorcycles. He thought that taking a truck driving course should be part of getting a driver’s license since cars make the road so dangerous for truckers. I don’t know how long he would have stayed talking since I needed to be done with preparations and get on the road, though I think it would have been awhile.
• The attractive middle-aged woman in the office of the state park campground in central Texas had an English accent of the educated London variety. I said, “I like your Texas accent.” She looked up a bit wearily. I followed with, “I suppose you have heard that before.” To which she responded somewhat wryly, “From almost everyone.” To which I responded, “So my attempt to be unique has utterly failed,” a response, it turns out, that was unique. The whole visit took no more than a few minutes with the filling in of forms and the collecting of moneys, but is example of the tiny pleasantries of the road.
• In Gainesville, Florida I was pulling into a gas station at the exact moment when a scooter was pulling up to the adjacent pump, a medium sized scooter with driver and passenger. I waved them ‘the motorcycle wave’ almost always restricted to bikes of some size – I think the unofficial cut off is 650 cc. They both smiled, minimally laughed and seemed to get the joke; beautiful young people. Deciding to use cash, I went in the building. A man in the short line asked the year of my bike and where I was from. I told him 1981 and New Mexico. The girl, a couple of people ahead of me and at the register by now, said, without turning around, “Oh, so that is what the ‘N M’ means.” (The ‘NM’ on my motorcycle tag is tiny and was partly hidden by packing straps and bungees; it would require some attentive effort to see.)
• Traffic on I-10 began slowing down several miles outside of Mobile, Alabama. Pretty soon the 2 lanes heading into the tunnel under the harbor waterway came to a stop. It was the hottest part of the day, no wind and completely exposed on the wide expanses of hot concrete – the worst possible place to sit and idle an air-cooled motorcycle engine. I parked on the shoulder for an hour or so hoping that the traffic would begin to move; there was no choice since running with the traffic at 2 or 3 miles per hour would have destroyed my engine. Eventually I got off the Interstate and rode into Mobile.
I stopped in a little gas station/convenience store that had the clerk in a bullet-proof glass cage; my suspicions about it being a dangerous area confirmed. A few, not especially dangerous looking, people came in, but I was still uncomfortable. I was there for a few minutes looking for options, both in the store and on my phone’s map app when two young men came in, one white, one black. I noticed their car, a mat-green military SUV. The white guy was my height, six feet, and the black guy maybe six four. Both were remarkable creatures, heavily muscled, but not just body builders, but more big cat like; I figured them for special forces of some kind. I asked them if they knew the town and they did not, also being escapees from the traffic jam. An old man (actually a bit younger than me) heard us talking about the problem of there being only the one way to get across Mobile. He came over and explained that we could take the ‘way-around’ that the locals used to avoid the problem and detailed the route – only a few blocks on the city streets right through the center of downtown to a little two-lane tunnel, a route unclear on the maps.
• It was getting late; sun going down as I was searching out a state park in rural Louisiana, journeying down smaller and smaller country roads. Not only was the sun setting, so were the roads; that is, the one I was on begin to disappear. As I progressed along, it went from paved, to broken pavement, to dirt and pavement, to dirt. With the sun in my eyes and an unsteady road under me I was being careful, but not careful enough; I hit a stretch of slick mud and after a moment of wild uncertainty the bike’s front wheel decided to go one way and me another. The bike slowed down quickly as its crash bar plowed a furrow through the mud, I, on the other hand, did a bit of flying and bouncing before stopping somewhat ahead of the motorcycle.
Before I was even on my feet a Louisiana country man and his children were on the road next to me. A moment later a young man in a newish pickup stopped next to the bike. The man from the nearby house and I picked the bike up. With his kids gathered around we looked for damage – first to me and then machine.
The young man in the pickup was not so sure that I was okay, but eventually was convinced that I was either not injured or was going to go on in any case. The people from the nearby house were more hands-on and could see that I was moving naturally, was strong enough – that the bike was only bent in repairable ways and dirty.
We finally got down to stories: the week before a car had slid off the road in that spot, gone into their yard, destroyed the kid’s play house and was totaled. I guessed that my episode was just not so interesting after all; and I rode on with handlebars askew and windshield twisted at a jaunty angle – if it had been a hat.
* * *
Questioning readers might ask what these little narratives, and the ones from the previous essay, have to do with finding good people, but these are an important class of raw data from which we develop our view of the world. Humans are complex and all, or any, of these ‘good’ people could be decidedly ‘bad’ in ways not measured in these short largely scripted interactions; such an observation is common place (‘I like your Texas accent!’), however, it is more telling than it might seem at first.
Part of what made these interactions pleasant and friendly was that they stayed within expectations of form, were largely non-judgmental and successfully preformed the functions understood and intended by all parties. The people actually wanted to help me whether it was getting me a cup of ice in Tucumcari, dealing with a beeping fire alarm in Crestview or refusing to accept payment for a stay at a campground in Louisiana; that they wanted to help themselves in the transactions for the multitude of reasons that unique humans bring to every situation didn’t diminish the summary power of the data: the people I meet in this trip were uniformly ’good’ people as I experienced them.
I traveled over 3600 miles, interacted with several tens of people for 10 days on the road and had mutually rewarding pleasant interactions with all of them (the one exception in the previous essay); where was the bigotry, small mindedness, ideological narrowness, dangerous ignorance and immaturity that seems to be setting the standard for the American polity (that’s polity, not poultry; I know it can be confusing)? Did my interactions violate the principles of probability? Do only pleasant thoughtful people go to state parks, work in breakfast specializing restaurants, buy gas during daylight hours, rescue foolish motorcyclists, while the assholes were off doing other stuff.
Or was my sample of people actually random, yet the interactions I had with them didn’t excite bigotry and all the rest? I’ve gotta say, as I scratch around in these kinds of questions, that the various forms of national narrative, those depending on there being a large percentage of seriously deformed people, become more and more questionable. Something else must be going on and we (some important collection of we) had better get a handle on it.
Seeing the larger picture requires that we realize that the background expectation of goodness is what allows us to function at all: that people will give you correct change, that someone will give way on the road if you need to change lanes or get into the traffic flow, that someone will ‘cut you a little break’ from time to time or at least leave you alone – ultimately, that the baseline for human interactions begins face-to-face from a position of, at a minimum, neutrality ready to be, at a minimum, friendly.
The above list of human failings comes from another source; primarily, it comes from misinformation, most often intentionally promulgated by some self-interested minority. These bits of ignorance are almost always more than just a difference of opinion; that is amply demonstrated by the fact that our failings do not comport with our most naturally presented ‘goodness.’
Our societies have gotten more and more complex; it is expected that niches of activity will form in such societies that depend, for success, on both misusing and misinforming the vast majority. As, by both accident and design, power is arrogated to such niches they distort societies. But when we meet our fellows directly and in ways that give the option of civility and human concern most people take that occasion to be genuinely good. Let it be clear, we could not live in a society that has institutionally and universally rejected goodness; a potential that seems possible for this society.
The underlying systems for the creation and distribution of information (and misinformation) determine the ‘goodness’ of the population as a whole – and a whole population can be misguided and dysfunctional while still being good in both their views of themselves and their direct interactions with old men on motorcycles. When societies become schizoid in this way there is always a basis of recognition in the daily positive interactions that we have with our fellows; there is the chance that the destructive and distorting niches can be recognized and challenged. Most of the essays on this site are just such an effort.