Thursday, January 31, 2008

Defining Moments

We all have moments in our lives, often somewhere in childhood, that wind up influencing us the rest of the way. Here's one of mine.

It was in grade five or six, so I was probably right around ten years old. Our school held a sort of "academic olympics" - students were divided into teams to take part in various events like spelling bees, chess, and other ostensibly intellectual games. I was on the trivia team, playing Trivial Pursuit (or quite possibly a knockoff).

The word "team" is the problem here. Each answer the team gave had to be agreed on by the entire team by consensus. In the event of a stalemate, a majority vote would determine which answer the team would officially give.

Of course, in perfect dramatic fashion, it all came down to one final question. If my team got it right, we won and if not, then not. The question was: "What is your mother tongue"?

This is clearly not a valid question for this kind of game anyway, since the correct answer will vary. You might as well ask "What is your mother's maiden name?" But that's irrelevant here, especially since it doesn't matter in this case. The entire team was composed of WASPy unilingual English kids.

The answer, then, was obvious: English. My entire team disagreed. Everyone else figured that New Brunswick, where I lived at the time, was first colonized by the French. I have no idea (and less concern) now whether this is even true, having quite effectively blocked out the memory of my Social Studies classes, and I suspect that some Micmacs would dispute the point pretty vigourously anyway. In any event, it didn't matter for purposes of answering the question. I tried explaining what "mother tongue" means for a person, but to no avail. They were adamant that since the French colonized New Brunswick, French was the mother tongue of anyone living there. That was submitted as our answer, as per majority rule, and we lost.

It wasn't the losing that bothers me. I'm a gamer, and I'm always in it for the playing, not the winning. I don't mind losing, as long as the game itself is fun. It was why we lost. We lost because the majority would not listen to the one person involved who actually understood what the question meant and knew the right answer.

I was instantly galvanized into never again wanting to work with a group in the sense of trying to reach consensus, and into having no interest whatsoever in majority opinion. The average person doesn't even know enough about most things to know how little they know. This applies fully to me as well - get me out of the few topics I'm interested in, and I'll have no idea what I'm talking about. I try to defer to whoever I identify as the best-informed voice I'm hearing at the time, but I'm probably not much better than anyone else at (A) identifying that voice or (B) actually deferring instead of plowing ahead in cheerful ignorace. In (B), at least, I'm in good company (almost everybody).

This principle has guided me for my entire adult life. I can certainly work in groups, and have successfully done so many times, but whenever it's successful, it's because a simple principle has been applied: Let different people be in charge of different aspects of any project. Other people are always free to voice their opinions, but ultimately there must be one person who is in charge of any given area, in benevolent dictator fashion. Identify an expert - or at least someone with the enthusiasm and minimum requisite amount of knowledge - and let them be in charge. Give them the resources and support they need and get out of their way.

I also have it seared into me that majority opinion almost never matters. It's as good a system as we have for making corporate decisions (i.e., elections, referendums, etc.), but that's only by default. There's no other system that can survive in civil society, since any other system boils down to some people enforcing their will, for no clearly explicable reason other than "might makes right" - which it obviously doesn't - on others who have no recourse, and will lead inevitably over the long term to violent revolt. (Note that in my "teamwork" methodology above, no one is forced to be part of the team, even if that means quitting a job or dropping a class.)

Majority opinion has absolutely nothing to do with objective matters. The media loves to survey the uninformed on every topic under the sun, and none of it matters. Man-made global warming either is or is not happening, regardless of the results of the latest opinion polls. The economy either is or is not going into recession, regardless of the results of CNN's Quickvote.

Majority opinion also has nothing to do with morality. For example, pro-life and pro-abortion groups both love to report (spin) survey results to show that most people agree with their side. Why? None of it has the slightest impact on whether abortion is right or wrong. Solid majorities have been in favour of slavery at different times and in different societies. Anybody want to argue that that makes it OK? Or that, assuming that it is wrong, that it's only wrong because the majority says so (for now)?

It may give you - and me - a momentary warm fuzzy feeling to see people agreeing with us. Poll results may even give us hope that society is going the way we would like, or spur us to action by showing that it's headed for Hell in a handbasket. What majority opinion doesn't do, in almost all situations, is matter.

I like hearing other peoples' views. It often leads me to consider concepts that I hadn't, or to meditate on ideas I had given short shrift. It often teaches me something I didn't know (that's still a pretty huge set in the venn diagram of my mind). I sometimes wind up changing my mind, and other times continue to disagree, but hopefully with a better understanding of why. I will continue to listen and read widely, taking in as much as I can. I will continue to participate in public discourse. I will continue to associate with groups and teams for a wide variety of purposes, both personal and professional (even ranting ideologues gotta eat). What I will never again willingly do, though, is join (or remain in) a group where the truth can be overridden by the tyranny of the masses.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the men's room wall in a local restaurant. This is painted right above the urinals (you can see the tops of them at the bottom of the photo).

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