Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A little conversation at work (take whatever you want to from it)

I had an... interesting conversation with somebody at work today. I'm not going to say who he is or how he is related to me; I try to keep my work and my personal/blog/yogic life separate as much as possible. I also try my best not to bring up things that are political on this blog. But sometimes, things come up at work that have existential messages that are of interest to my personal life and yoga practice. And they also just happen to be political in nature. And since this is primarily a blog about my yoga practice and my life, I thought I'll share what happened.

This individual was sharing with me his views about what he sees as the hypocrisy of left-wing media and public personalities (Al Gore and his SUV driving and ownership of large homes came up as an example). He went on and on about how he believes that there is no solid evidence for global warming, and that all this talk of global warming and climate change is just one big conspiracy to (1) incite fear in people, and (2) make a lot of money for a few individuals.

Being in my professional capacity, I felt that I needed to at least give him the space to say whatever was on his mind. So, for a good few minutes, I listened, occasionally chiming in with a few things here and there. As I listened (and he continued talking), it occurred to me that this was an individual who (1) was pretty angry at something in his life (I'm not quite sure what that is), (2) was hoping and looking for approval from his audience; as he spoke, he kept looking at me to see what kind of reaction he was getting from me.

I basically kept a slightly smiley poker-face the whole time, because (1) I honestly didn't know how to respond to some of his claims (I happen to think that global warming and climate change is NOT a hoax, but not being a scientist, I couldn't come up with the hard evidence to answer his claims), and (2) I figured that it really wasn't about proving who was right or wrong anyway. It was about... getting a sense of where he was coming from, and where his life was at. And for that, I needed to listen.

Well, at least I tried to, for as long as I could. The breaking point came when he started going on about how all this profiteering by environmentally conscious "green" groups was driving up the cost of gas (at least, this is what I think he was saying; I really can't reproduce this any better), and how all this talk about how environmentally conscious and green European nations are is really just another part of the green agenda to oppress us all, and how the sharp rise in the cost of gas is taking away our inherent freedom to drive and go wherever we please.

I responded, "I don't have any hard proof for or against climate change, but I have lived in countries where public transportation is a lot more developed than in this country, and I can say that the freedom of more people to travel widely at an affordable price is much more valuable than the freedom of one individual to get into his car and go wherever he pleases. I really think that this whole being-able-to-get-into-your-car-and-go-wherever-you-please-whenever-you-want kind of freedom is overrated. I love driving, but really, if I have a choice, I would gladly give up the latter freedom for the former."

Does this make me socialist and "anti-liberal/American"? Well, maybe... but what the heck, I'm so tired of all this label-slapping and name-calling. The bottom-line, as far as I'm concerned, is that if I can make somebody else's life a lot better without sacrificing anything of comparable significance on my part, I ought to do it. And I just don't think that driving around in a fancy car (although I do have a car that is not so fancy) and looking good is that important compared to having something that will enable millions to get around quickly and efficiently (Have I ever told you that I am an advocate of public transportation?).

At any rate, what I said pretty much ended the conversation right there and then. He smiled awkwardly, and picked up his motorcycle helmet. I felt the need to say something... nice, so I said, "Great talking with you." He said, "Likewise", and left the room.

Another interesting day at work... Not a bad way to make a living, don't you think? :-)     


  1. I like your perspective on this topic.

    I think because the idea of "freedom" is so essential to the American identity, the word itself can be a powerful tool to anyone trying to sway public opinion one way or the other. This makes it especially vulnerable to misappropriation. Whatever you're for or against, describe it in terms of "freedom" and the potential violation of rights, and you win.

  2. Good point, walkfromoz. I think one problem is that the concept of a right has been overused and inflated to such a degree that it is now little more than a soundbite.

    Properly speaking, if I have a right, you have a duty to act in such a way as to ensure that I can exercise that right. For instance, if I have a right to freedom of expression, you have a duty not to do anything that would prevent me from expressing myself (all other things being equal).

    But most people who use the word "right" these days do not have anything like this in mind. If I have a right to get in my car and drive wherever I please, does that mean you have a duty to... what, make sure that gas is always cheap and affordable so I can exercise this right? I don't think so...

  3. I have never owned a car. American public transit is by and large fairly dismal, and the lack of car ownership has certainly limited things for me here.

    But beyond myself, the car-centric culture we have has created such a dependency that it's laughable to call it freedom. Laughable!

    It's also laughable that he sees driving as an "inherent" freedom. As if it's enshrined in the Constitution or deliberately instituted from God - neither of which is the case.

  4. Precisely. And even if the Constitution does somehow implicitly protect our individual right to be selfish jerks, that doesn't mean we fortify the Union by exercising that right as frequently as possible :)

  5. Nathan, I hear you. I didn't have a car the first year I lived in this country, and it was definitely pretty inconvenient to get around.

    As a matter of fact, I recently had to get up to Moorhead from the Twin Cities without my own car (I thought I could save some money by taking the Greyhound instead of renting a car). I had to spend $40 on a cab ride from the airport to the Greyhound station in downtown Minneapolis, which is only a distance of 10 miles or so.

    Yes, I agree with you that people are so heavily indoctrinated that they see a dangerous dependency as an "inherent right". It's definitely sad.

  6. Indeed, walkfromoz. I think sometimes people also forget that it is totally possible to act within your rights all the time and still be a complete A-hole. As a philosopher famously said, "Rights do not exhaust the universe of moral discourse."