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?
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