The previous post wound up being a sort of flight of ideas on fear. I had no intention of taking it further than that when I hit “Publish” last week. But the theme of fear has continued to rear its … well … rather common head in the time since then. So it seems worthwhile to take another walk on the dark side.
I wound up getting to the gym quite late last night — 4:15AM to be exact. (Yes, that was late, not early, considering my usual arrival is between midnight and 2:00.) As you might imagine, the place was pretty empty. Other than myself, there were only two people working out.
One of them was a woman. We were busy at opposite ends of the gym, but I noticed her. She was quite thin, perhaps in her mid to late fifties. Her gait was unsteady, hinting at a neuromuscular disease. And she was tearing the place up (in the best of ways). She moved non-stop between machines, taking only minimal breaks between sets before she was back at it.
By the time I moved that way to use the cables, she was on the mats doing bicycles (an ab workout) for durations that would make me cry. I thought about wandering over, introducing myself and telling her that she was putting me to shame. But she was wearing headphones; and so I kept my admiration to myself for the time being.
We both finished up about the same time. The sky was still black with just a hint of cobalt on the horizon as I headed out to the parking lot, only a few yards behind the woman. I walked a bit faster, thinking now might be a good time to introduce myself. Perhaps hearing my footsteps on the pavement, she cast a wide-eyed glance over her shoulder and then turned abruptly, quickening her own pace.
I decided to let the moment pass, heading for my car instead. By the time I got my things inside and was finally situated, the woman was in her own vehicle and slowly rounding the corner in front of me. Just then, she hit the Caution: Pedestrians crosswalk sign. There was a * thunk * as the plastic yellow tower tipped to the side and scraped along her rear fender before righting itself. She stopped, her face worried. She craned around backward but still couldn’t see what she’d hit.
I knew that getting out of the car and back in would be no mean feat for her. So I hopped out to tell her there was nothing to worry about, that there was no damage to the sign or her car. Our eyes met in her rearview mirror. Her brow furrowed more deeply, so I smiled and waved, moving toward the side of her car where she might be able to see me more clearly.
She gunned the gas, tires chirping, and hightailed it out of there.
As I stood there holding my good intentions, it felt odd to consider that anyone would see me as a threat — that I could ever strike fear into someone.
On the drive home, an interesting thought occurred to me. I wasn’t offended at the revelation. In fact, it made sense when I put myself into the woman’s shoes. But all the same, there it was, as plain as day…
I’d been stereotyped.
That is to say, muscled guys who approach woman after dark are up to no good.
In Logic, this belief is what’s called a universal categorical proposition. Here’s the For-Dummies version:
It’s all or nothing.
All muscled guys who approach women after dark have ill intent.
No muscled guys who approach women after dark have good intentions.
Some parental axioms never seem to go out of style:
If you keep making that face, it’ll freeze that way.
As long as you live under my roof, you’ll abide by my rules.
Nothing good ever happens after midnight.
In the case of the latter, we find another all-or-nothing belief that’s somehow embedded itself into society. And yet when I subject this statement to even the most rudimentary of consideration, it falls apart pretty quickly.
As I mentioned, I work out after midnight, and that seems pretty good. Some of the best conversations I remember from across a lifetime have happened after midnight. Nearly every good song of mine was written after midnight. In fact, it’s fair to say that virtually all of my book The Best Advice So Far was also written after midnight. I’ve walked on the beach, planned surprise parties and dropped off items for charity all after midnight.
And yet, consider…
The terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Boston Marathon bombing. The recent Las Vegas killing spree, NYC rush-hour incident and Texas church massacre. Every school shooting. They all happened before midnight.
So, if they aren’t true, where do universal categorizations like “Nothing good ever happens after midnight” come from? How do they start? And why do they persist?
I’d like to proffer that the underlying cause of such unfounded beliefs and negative stereotypes is the same.
Moreover, unpredictability appears to be a major ingredient in fear. You see, if something is unpredictable, then I can’t control it. And I need to feel like I’m in control. So I begin placing people and situations into black-and-white categories that at least allow me the illusion of predictability and control.
I cannot allow for “some” to exist outside the bounds of my categories, or even that “most” exist within them, because either would reintroduce that dreaded unpredictability.
And so, rather than face that uncertainty in life, we adhere strictly to “All” or “None.” It’s just easier that way.
If I can convince myself and others to buy into my system, I can be at peace again. So I tell my teens that “Nothing good ever happens after midnight,” because it feels like I now have a definitive line in the sand that will allow me to protect them and not to worry. As long as they are in before the carriage turns back into a pumpkin, nothing bad will ever happen to them. I can sleep. It’s simple.
It’s not true, mind you. But it’s simple.
I mentioned Logic earlier in the post. It’s probably on my mind more than usual because I’m helping a young friend of mine get through his college Logic class this semester.
The field of Logic is funny. It’s clearly stated that whether a premise is true or false is irrelevant. All that matters is the form of the argument. That is to say, if my premises were all true, and if that would make it impossible that my conclusion were false, then my argument is valid.
As such, the following is considered a valid argument by the rules of Logic:
All bankers are swindlers.
All swindlers are aliens.
Therefore, all bankers are aliens.
Oddly enough, if the premises contradict one another, the argument is considered valid by virtue of the loophole that since it’s impossible for me to make all the premises true, I can’t rule out that the conclusion might be true:
All dogs are pigs.
Some dogs are not pigs.
Therefore, dogs are human.
Yup, that’s considered a valid argument.
Before you label it all crazy talk, consider how often we take this approach when we construct our arguments about people and situations in real life.
Nothing good happens after midnight.
It is after midnight.
Therefore, whatever is happening is not good.
All muscled guys who approach women after dark are dangerous.
A muscled guy is approaching me, a woman, after dark.
Therefore, the guy is dangerous.
All white people, including police officers, are prejudiced against people of color.
All black people are lazy, out to steal jobs without hard work or merit.
All [Democrates/Republicans] are stupid.
All Muslims are radicals plotting to harm Americans.
All gay men are pedophiles.
All highly attractive people are shallow and self-absorbed.
None of this is true, of course. Not even close. But it’s simple.
And so, like those logicians, we convince ourselves that truth is irrelevant, as long as our premises validate the conclusion that will keep our sense of control intact.
You see, if I label it and categorize it, I can avoid it. I can stay on this side of the boundary, with them all on the other side. And I can feel safe. Protected. Justified. I can control it.
Please note, however, that Logic does go on to differentiate between arguments that are merely valid and those that are sound. That is, in order to be considered sound, an argument must both be valid and actually have true premises.
Well, given this new insight, none of the arguments above is sound.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had “vibes” about certain people or situations, a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Often, I’ve trusted that hunch. And though I’ll never really know whether it was accurate, I do support trusting your gut — if and only if you’re sure that there are no underlying stereotypes already in place before such an encounter, ideas stemming from categorical fear or lack of understanding.
I guess what I’m inviting each of us to do today is to consider where we might be building walls that keep out people or opportunities in our life, and then to ask ourselves whether the arguments we make in defense of those walls are rooted in fear — or in truth.
For some real-life stories of stereotype-smashing encounters, check out the following posts: