This I Believe

Tom - Berkeley, California
Entered on May 5, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: tolerance
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This I Believe

Forty years ago I was a Peace Corps voluneer in a Turkish village just inland from the Black Sea. A few miles away was a spectacular ruined Greek Orthodox monastery known as Sumela or Meryem ana. The monastery is a major tourist attraction now; back then it was little known, hard to get to, and rarely visited.

In the summer of 1966 I took some visiting friends to see the site. There was an international group of student volunteers doing restoration work under the leadership of a Swiss archeologist. One of the students introduced me to the leader. When he learned I was American, he turned on his heel and walked away without a word.

The students said that the problem was Vietnam. The Swiss was violently opposed to the American war.

So was I, in fact, but that didn’t matter; I represented the wrong side in this fellow’s mind, and that was that.

I’ve thought about that episode many times since then.

We all carry with us stereotypes, or assumptions, or racial profiles of various kinds of groups. We blame individuals for attitudes or activities of groups they belong to, deliberately or inadvertently. It isn’t fair, it isn’t accurate, but it happens every day.

I have spent my career doing environmental work, and the same phenomenon is at play here as well. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been attacked, or asked to defend, a position advocated by the Sierra Club or Greenpeace on the assumption that I automatically agree with it. Never “do you agree that all logging should be banned on the national forests?” but “how can you support a policy that would throw people out of work and send the cost of lumber through the ceiling?” If one is identified as an environmentalist, one is not allowed to have no opinion—or an opinion contrary to the party line.

I believe that everyone carries such attitudes, and that they are a terrible impediment to understanding. Every individual is unique. Assuming that anyone ascribes to a certain cluster of beliefs and attitudes based simply on his or her profession or nationality is dangerous and can lead to unfortunate, even catastrophic, misunderstandings.

Shoot first, ask questions later, was never a good idea.

Ask first, reach conclusions later is a far better idea.