Tuesday, Sep 24 2013 06:00 AM

The Human Science: What will people think?

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There's a classic piece of social wisdom which says we should always wear clean underwear in good condition. There may be an accident, and I may have to go to the hospital. When they see my worn underwear, they'll shake their heads, and say "tsk, tsk." Now my guess is that medical personnel don't really care much about my underwear. I think they can handle it. But it reflects the fact that "What will people think?" matters a whole lot to many of us.

My mother always had to wash the car before we went visiting. What would people think if we arrived in a dirty car? And what would people think if the lawn had dandelions, or the garden was weedy, or I wore white socks with black shoes and pants. The underwear is just the tip of the iceberg.

Now most of that stuff is just a reflection of the fact that we want to fit in, be accepted. We don't want to be the odd ball. We don't want to rock the boat. So usually that question is just a bit of social uneasiness that doesn't amount to much. We go along to get along.

But sometimes, doing the right thing means we have to step outside our comfort zone, and say or do things that make us a little uncomfortable, and put us on the wrong side of an issue in our social group. That can be a tough thing to do. Lots of folks are deeply invested in their opinions. It feels like betrayal.

There is a scene in "Blazing Saddles" where a lady comes to the side window of the sheriff's office and jail, to talk to the new sheriff, played by Cleavon Little, who is black, and therefore officially hated and rejected by the townspeople. She gives him a pie, talks for a while, and ends with, "you won't tell anybody I actually spoke to you, will you?" And of course the sheriff assures her he won't tell anybody. After all, what would people think?

I certainly understand the fear that lies behind the concern over what people will think. Making waves, saying no when the official line is yes, accepting people whom the other folks in the room reject, supporting unpopular people and unpopular ideas -- these things push us, stress us. Sometimes people who support unpopular people become unpopular themselves. Maybe they won't like me anymore. The approval of my group is important to me.

One of the advantages of having different kinds of groupings and clubs and neighborhoods and churches is that we can hunt around until we find one where most people more or less agree with us, and then we can be very strong in vocal support of our favorite causes, and everybody will applaud. And we don't have to actually deal with the other side. Or maybe instead of being an advantage, it's a disadvantage. In a safe environment we can sound pretty tough. It's easy to take strong positions in friendly territory. Some folks call it "taking a stand." But it feels more like a sit to me. Strong opinions do not constitute a stand, or a ministry, in the same way that a recipe does not constitute dinner. The only way to test moral courage is face to face with the other side.

Ernest Hemingway has a passage in "A Farewell to Arms:" Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.


JIM DINSMORE lives in Tehachapi. His column "The Human Scene" appears regularly in the Tehachapi News.

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