What We’ve Got Here Is…
Failure To Communicate & Learning From Old Myths
A man wearing a square hat comes walking along a path between the two fields. Two farmers are each in their fields toiling away. Both men look up at the man, taking notice of his peculiar hat.
Later in the day they meet up in the village and the following exchange takes place:
- Did you see the man go by today, the one with the white square hat?
- The hat was red.
- What? No it wasn’t, it was white.
- It was red, I saw it with my own two eyes.
- Well, you must be blind!
- And you must be drunk!
Things escalate from there and the two men begin fighting. One draws his knife but their fellow villagers break it up.
To settle the matter of whether the hat was white or red, the village elder is consulted. He scratches his head and can’t make sense of it. Both men are absolutely sure of the color, and it happened in the middle of the day so the rising or setting sun wasn’t to blame either.
A man in the crowd rises and presents himself:
I am Edshu. I’m the man who walked along the path that day. I saw the men working in the fields and decided to play a prank. Here, let me show you the hat the two men saw.
Edshu shows the square hat. It’s white on the left and red on the right. It’s also green in the front and black in the back. He continues:
The two could not help but fight, I wanted it that way. Spreading conflict is my greatest joy.
This is an old story from West Africa about the trickster-divinity Edshu. But it speaks to a larger truth.
Two people can look at the same thing with two very different points of view. They’re both talking about the same thing, yet they fail to recognize that the other person’s perspective might be true as well.
Whether it’s religion, politics, philosophy, or what have you, we need to understand that there is no absolute certainty. Yes, there are opinions, beliefs, values, predictions, and science. But no absolute certainty.
What I mean by that is that even if we thus far have evidence that gravity exists, we can learn something tomorrow that sheds new light on it.
I work under the assumption that this is what we understand about the world right now, and that it’s the best possible way to function in it. But I don’t think it’s a 100% done deal.
I entertain the notion, by maybe 0,000003%, that there’s another reason why my feet are firmly planted on the ground and that they might not continue to be so.
Now, based on that amount of doubt, am I going to start designing some elaborate contraption to prevent me from floating to outer space? Nope.
Neither am I going to assume that we know all there is to know, that my beliefs and values are 100% correct, and that everyone who disputes me is inherently wrong.
That being said, will I always act accordingly? Not even close. Yet somehow I’ll manage to continue to function, and so can you.
Doubt is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. Absolute certainty is absolutely dangerous.
Despite the opening to this article “just being a story”, there are conflicts going on in the world where both sides claim to be absolutely certain their actions are right and/or are certain they occupy the moral high ground.
That kind of conviction is a tremendous source of strife in the world today.
Whether it’s going to war, torture, drone attacks, denying people basic human rights, or simply not listening when someone holds a different view than yours.
We can continue blaming each other, and we can say: “Oh, they can’t be reasoned with!”
Maybe they feel left out? Maybe they want to be heard and understood? Maybe you’re not even “right” on this one?
A woman is standing at the counter at the post office and can’t get them to hand out her package. Apparently her name’s misspelled on the package, and since it doesn’t match her ID the rules state they can’t hand it out.
Having such a hard name to spell myself I ask the clerk what her name is and ask her to spell it out for me. And we have the following discussion:
- Victoria, so what you’re telling me is that if someone sent you a package and spelled it with a K instead of a C, you wouldn’t be pissed and think it was stupid?
- Yes, I understand the concern but we’re not allowed to…
- I know, but you’re making it difficult for 4 parties. She’s going to have to ask the company to change the name on the package, they’ll call the postal service and make the change, and she’ll have to come back to ask you to hand out the package again. So what you’re doing by “following the rules” is to delay the process and create more work for everybody, including yourself. There’s following the rules and then there’s being personally accountable. It’s not on her, it’s not on the company, it’s not on the postal service, it’s on you. You can take her ID, register it on the computer and everybody’s done.
Unfortunately, she decided to follow protocol.
Now, who´s in the wrong? The company that misspelled her name, the woman who maybe didn’t make sure they got the spelling right, the clerk who followed protocol, or me who appeared as the “mansplainer” in the scenario? (Note: I would’ve said the exact same thing regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, etc. So basically I’m just an egotistical asshole who wanted the queue to move along.)
It depends on your point of view.
Maybe you work at a company shipping products and understand the importance of getting names spelled and pronounced right?
Maybe you have an unusual name yourself and take responsibility to make sure people get it right?
Maybe your job requires you to follow procedure and the stakes of not doing so are high?
Maybe you think that the ultimate responsibility lies with every single individual?
If you hadn’t figured it out, I’m in that last category. It’s not better or worse than any of the other points of view. If it had all gone well to begin with, there wouldn’t have been any problem. But it didn’t.
So, had it been me standing there instead of Victoria, I would’ve not followed protocol. I would’ve seen it as being up to me, not blaming the company, not blaming the customer, not blaming the rules.
I believe that if more people adopted the view that the buck stops with them, we wouldn’t have some of the problems.
However, I also recognize that if everybody did it maybe things wouldn’t operate as smoothly as they usually do.
I need a “By the books”-person to balance out my “If the rules are stupid, fuck ‘em”-attitude.
All of us need each other. All of us.