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Engaging the culture, part 4: Seeing real people

Everything is quick in our culture. We have shortcuts for everything, from cooking to communicating. Even getting to know people has become a simple endeavor. Enter appearance, occupation, socio-economic status, residence, tweets, and whatever interests you can glean in 30 seconds into a formula and voilà! You’ve got that person all sorted out, and you can file him under like, dislike, or ignore as you choose.

But as John Hughes showed us in his plethora of coming of age flicks, people are more than stereotypes. People are complex and befuddling. They’ll surprise you every time. (His exception being the adults in his films: flat caricatures, with no complexity or mystery, nothing relevant beyond that 30-second evaluation.)

Indeed, we believe firmly in the truth that people are complex and have motivations and rationales that defy the stereotype. That is, we firmly believe it when it comes to us or to people we know and love. When people talk about ignorant, racist, or whatever negative trait in small town Texas, I get my dander up. I know small town Texans, and they are more or less good people. Or at least, they’re people like everyone else doing the best they can.

But, if you want to talk trash about big city Yankees? Well, I won’t argue with you much. (That’s just a for-example. Please don’t talk trash about Yankees, big city or otherwise. They’re nice people, even if they do talk funny.)

What does this have to do with engaging the culture? Because when I started out this whole accidental series, I wrote, “Can we “engage” the culture? We can engage individuals and groups of people, but can we engage culture?” I think the heart of engaging is between individuals (or groups of individuals.)  Our storytelling and our attempts to reach outside our tribe are attempts to interact with people. And you can’t properly interact with anyone if you see them as a two-dimensional character, or worse, a mere platform on which to advocate for your cause.

 Just recently, a woman at a tech conference publicly (but not privately) called out a couple of guys for some crude speech. The result was that one of the men and the woman who called him out were fired. Whatever your opinion on the primary issue, I think one of the contributing factors in the fallout was the woman didn’t approach the men as people, flawed and sometimes tacky people, but people and not merely props for her outrage.

Today, conservatives are up in arms because the CEO of Starbucks said he doesn’t want the business of people who support traditional marriage. Except that’s not what he said at all. Yes, he supports gay marriage, but some activists took a very human exchange, with its complexities and nuances, and made it a banner for their latest battle.

In both cases, people try to engage culture at the cost of individuals. That approach not only ultimately fails, but it has a big body count. When we refuse to try to understand individuals, we reduce them to cartoons. And as the many anvils of the Acme Corporations have taught us, you can hurt cartoons with impunity.

You’d think he’d at least change his choice of weapons by now.

We say, “I can’t imagine believing X to be true!” as though it should be a point of pride that we lack the imagination to understand an opinion that conflicts with our own. We reduce public discourse to a string of emotional, childish insults: “Hater! (Or rather H8er!) Evil! Bigot! Marxist! Racist! UnAmerican! Idiot!” It’s argument by anvil.

We seem to be afraid that, in attempting to understand a different position, we’ll “catch it” like a disease. And it is true, if you examine things unfamiliar to you, you may change your mind. Or you may be able to understand how to better present your position and change someone else’s mind. Or you both may end up with a completely new understanding.

Rick Warren said, “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

We can know and love people with whom we have profound disagreements. Maybe we change opinions; maybe we don’t. Even if we don’t persuade anyone to change anything, we should reject the temptation to classify people by two-dimensional caricatures. People are more than the sum of their opinions. People are complex and messy and always changing. You are messy

Understanding people is hard. It takes time and effort and is never completed.  But ultimately, any attempts to change or influence culture comes down to influencing individuals. That will only happen when we engage people as they are, not as the cartoon image we have painted of them. Conversely, we have a greater impact when we behave as real people, when we are willing to be open and honest and vulnerable.

Individuals engaging individuals honestly and with understanding will have a greater impact on the culture than any program or movie or any other trend you can imagine. How do I know this? The greatest cultural change in history happened when one Man engaged twelve men and told them to go engage the world.


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