Saturday, July 19, 2008

Disengaging the enemy

I was riding the bus from my office to Seattle's waterfront to go to a meeting the other day. That in itself is not unusual. I have been using public transit for 26 years. I work in the industry. This particular day it was a bit chilly and looked like it might rain so I had grabbed a jacket from my office that has my company logo on it. As I sat down on the bus, a young man with a backpack got on behind me and sat a few seats away. He looked at my jacket, saw the logo and asked, "Are you a bus driver?"

Inside I cringed. I am not a bus driver and people assume that anyone working for a public transit agency either operates a bus or is a mechanic. I do neither and trying to explain the other functions required to operate transit systems is not my favorite topic.

It is not that there is anything wrong with driving a bus, but I knew that this question was a precursor to either a complaint about the bus system, suggestions on how to improve it or a detailed description on how many seats there are in the standard 40-foot coach. The fact that the bus wasn't operated by the agency I worked for wouldn't matter. Regardless, I shook my head and replied, "No, I work in their marketing department."

They young man was quiet for a minute and I prayed briefly that I had dodged the bullet of a prolonged discussion when all I wanted to do was play backgammon on my Blackberry. But then he began speaking. He complained about where we were putting our new light rail system and how we shouldn't have buses or trains that use fossils fuels. He complained about the cost of riding the buses and the trains and recounted how it used to be cheaper to drive than take public transit. Then he complained about how the cost of gas was driving him to the bus.

I nodded politely.

Then the young man began his tirade on environmentalists, off shore drilling, spotted owls, the timber industry and government waste. Fortunately I got to my stop before he could begin providing his solutions.

I smiled at him and scurried off the bus while he turned to look for some other captive audience on the bus to pontificate to. I shook my head as the bus pulled away and chastized myself for wearing anything that identifed where I worked on a bus. It is the equivalent to wearing a kick me sign.

In my younger days I may have engaged the young man in a debate and pointed out his misconceptions, corrected his facts and suggested alternative viewpoints. And he would have been more passionately engaged and rigid about his point of view. I've encountered hundreds of such people at parties, at public meetings or just riding buses. Other than the fact that he votes and likely will reproduce progeny that he may be able to imprint with his narrow point of view, he is probably harmless.

I learned long ago that when you work for a government agency you give up having personal opinions when you are identified as a government employee. If you voice one in defence of your company, you risk being repremanded for taking a stand that may be perceived as the company's. At the very least you risk being mired in a neverending debate with a person who has no interest in facts, regardless how rational those facts may be. Because everyone knows government lies and private industry (and citizens) always tell the truth, right?

So I've learned the path of least resistance is to nod, smile and say things like, "That's a very unique way of looking at it" or "You make an interesting point" (which is the equvalent of telling someone with an ugly baby that "he sure has lots of hair).

Deep down, though, I feel like I've taken the coward's path when I don't stand up to people with really twisted opinions or are just blatantly wrong. Because there are too many times in history where people just nodded, smiled and tried to ignore very scary points of view.

I wonder if Hitler rode the bus?


Unknown said...

Why do you attack when your viewpoint is threatened?

Time said...

First who am I attacking here? And who said my viewpoint was threatened? I let a guy I didn't know ramble on about things he obviously knew nothing about and didn't say a word.

My point here is that you can't always shrug opposing viewpoints off when they can cause great harm. I'll tolerate an opposing viewpoint if it has any reliable supporting data or experience to back it up. If it comes from something someone's father said was the truth, a magazine article or an Internet chat room, I'd question the validity of it.

I don't blindly accept the environmentalists, the Democrats or popular press, either. But if something matches my experience or knowledge base, it definitely has more credibility in my book.

Naughti Biscotti said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen said...

Years ago I worked for a government housing department and just had to stop telling people where I worked. They would try to get me to get them a house earlier, complain about the long wait and how so and so got their house when their circumstances weren't as dire. I can't tell you how many social engagements have been ruined by revealing my true place of employment.

It is important that we don't all just become apathetic but it's also important to choose our battles wisely or you will spend your whole life defending the indefensible. If people aren't willing to listen it's a waste of valuable energy and that's a resource I have precious little of these days.

Great post Tim. I found myself cringing FOR you.

Unknown said...

shandi I do pay attention. I do comprehend the words. I may not comprehend the intended meaning of the post - which is fine. My understanding has been corrected by the author (my good old Uncle Tim who I will refer to in the third person.)

The tile of the post is "Disengaging the enemy" [emphasis mine.]

I don't refer to anyone as "The enemy" unless they are threatening to cause direct harm to me or mine. Because the scenario did not include any reference to direct threat of harm I concluded that the talkative person on the bus was still threatening to the author in some way. By referring to the antagonist as "The Enemy" I judged that the author was making a tongue-and-cheek slur against the antagonist's character.

The hint of a possible connection between Hitler and vocal bus passengers in the concluding paragraph caused me to further interpret the post as a slur against the antagonist of the story. My reasoning being that it would be absurd to equate the antagonist with a genocidal mass murderer. Furthermore, my limited understanding of the author's character does not lend to such a comparison being alluded to unless in some sort of satirical jibe.

For those reasons and others based on past posts by the author (The phrases Bullshit and Jibba Jabba comes to mind) my first interpretation of this post was as an indirect attack against the character of the passenger who was engaging in an undesired conversation with the author.


Unknown said...

tim_id: See above. Thank you for clarifying. As an elder, isn't kind of your job to enlighten where you can?

Hayden said...

I've heard tell that you're either on the bus or off the bus.

It happens in non-government corp jobs too. I hate to tell people where I work because I know they're going to tell me some tale from their sorry life where the company did 'em wrong. And I have to nod pleasantly and sympathise for all of the same reasons.

Time said...

My dear young nephew is a literalist. I don't take it personally.

And on my flip side, people love me when they find out where I work and they want my advertising dollars.

You are right. Choosing ones battles is the crux of it. Sometimes when we are tied up in skirmishes the big battle passes us by. I believe that is how Bush got elected.

I debated whether or not to use the reference to Hitler. I realize it is a stretch to equate a misguided simpleton on the bus with a mass murdering dictator.

But my real point is that Hitler worked his way up to be a raging lunatic. Perhaps at some juncture he spouted his anti-semantic hate mongering to some poor schmuck on a bus and that person was appalled but just nodded. Maybe it was the affirmation that gave him the courage to continue on to create his nightmare. Perhaps if someone had just pointed out to him how wrong his twisted beliefs were he might have been less confident in them. Who knows?

I wasn't really trying to attack the specific individual who accosted me on the bus. He was just an annoyance, not a threat. But collectively, attitudes like his do cause harm. They limit progress, perpetuate half truths, a foster attitudes that allow our environment to be destroyed and our economy to flounder.

In that way, he was the enemy.


If the truth were to be told, I prefer riding the train :)

BlazngScarlet said...

Try telling someone you're a 9-1-1 operator!

K. said...

It's amazing the sudden lack of propriety that happens when a stranger finds out what one's occupation is. Doctor, IT person, accountant, car mechanic, etc.

"Can you tell me how....." "Why does....." "Look at this...."

I do try and refrain from falling into that myself, because it gets annoying pretty quickly when it happens to me (me? annoyed by something? quelle surprise).

I think it's just an occupational hazard, no matter the occupation.

Unfortunately it's worse when you're a captive audience to a crescendo of complaints.

Time said...

I would only do that back in the day when I was single and trying to impress chicks :)

I suppose it is strangers' way of trying to relate. The socially astute, however, ask questions out of curiousity while the socially inept tend to blindly probe and prod.

I wrote this post as I do most of them, kind of free association style with the point jelling as it progressed. It is my blog way of thinking out loud and trying to figure out things. What has struck me is the common theme of the comments. Most people have experienced a stranger expressing strong feelings about their career no matter what their profession.

We all may be different, but it's the annoying little things that bring us together :)

Snapdragon said...

Well, I'm coming in on the tail end of this but I would have loved to engage the mindless rambler on the bus - I'm quite good at it myself and pride myself on my somewhat honed attitude toward life and politics - but Tim, you needn't blame yourself for the polite nod and dismissal - the idiot only needs to find another captive audience (as you indicated) Given the magnitude of Hitler's demented determination, I am quite sure that nod or no nod, he would have "hate-mongered" on - like my son says, you can kill a man but not an idea.