Vail Daily column: ‘You know what happens when you assume … ’
July 17, 2016
Prone to believing that I understood situations better than I actually did, I would frequently hear the refrain from my folks: "You know what happens when you assume … you make (a donkey) out of you and me." The family nature of this publication takes a bit of the zing out of the saying, but its poignancy still remains. It is one of my favorite expressions, not because of the wordplay, but because of the truth. In these troubled times, the dastardly nature of assumptions is increasingly evident. Taking the time to listen and to understand instead of rushing to judgment could save us all a great deal of heartache …and maybe even our lives.
Despite an unfathomable amount of theoretical processing power, our brains are limited by the many shortcomings of being human. Instead of being willing to form new neural pathways, we lazily stick to the same thought patterns that are informed by our learned behaviors. Prejudice is nothing more than a refusal to accept new information. To assume that all members of one group act or believe a certain way does not give our minds credit for the ability to parse through nuance. Each person is a conglomeration of experiences. Due the infinite possibilities of the human journey, the odds of two people becoming exactly alike are so vanishingly small as to be functionally nonexistent. And that is just on the "nurture" side of the oft-discussed dichotomy. Genetics further individualize us.
A man walking down the street is a friend, a dad, a person who may laugh easily, who smiled sweetly at you at just the right time to brighten a terrible day. He is a fellow traveler on this giant rock hurtling through space. To assume, even subliminally, that he is a criminal is to invite a more quickly drawn conclusion and therefore gun. A police officer on patrol is a coach, a husband, a mentor, a saint who volunteers in the same neighborhoods where he walks the beat, determined to give opportunity to those who came into this world already behind. Assuming that he is a fascist robs him of the credit that he deserves for repeatedly putting himself in danger. And yet the assumptions persist. I wonder how many of you dear readers assumed that the walking man in my example was black and the police officer was white.
Spelling our Doom
When the veil of prejudgment is lifted, a wealth of possibilities awaits. One can be both a telemark skier and politically conservative; a straight man that loves Saint Laurent; an Orthodox Jew who finds Buddha's message compelling; a concert cellist with an affinity for Kanye West. Indeed, one can be all of those things simultaneously. We now live in a time when labels are about as useful as a 60-year old map of Africa. Yet, with the increasing polarization and segmentation of our populace, it is labels that persist and spell our doom.
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Strong Sense of Identity
In the legal arena, assumptions work an injustice for all. On the attorney's side, to be pegged as a usurer simply because one holds a bar license undoes the hard work of resolving issues instead of creating more of them. It takes a strong sense of identity to continue to craft solutions when being unfairly maligned due to an inaccurate assumption. For disputants, it is assumptions that push them toward the unfortunate path of litigation. Each side believes that they know the other's motivations and those are always assumed to be evil. Instead of making a concerted effort to obtain actual information, the erstwhile litigants give too much credence to the judgments prematurely formed in their heads. Once these assumptions become ingrained, it is hard to undo them, even in the face of directly contrary evidence.
In the high season in our fair Vail Valley, it is mutually held assumptions that often pit locals against visitors. Residents see an out-of-state plate and brace for a rash of bad driving decisions and rude behavior. Conversely, tourists presuppose that we are all a bunch of stoner dolts. While there are small segments of each population that may meet these stereotypes, to believe that they are pervasive is to do a disservice to everyone's experience. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: subconscious cues given by a local may drive a tourist to lash out. If a server already knows that his guest assumes he will be incompetent, then there is no incentive for excellence. Connections that could be forged are left unbridged; potential friendships wither on the vine; each population becomes increasingly isolated.
By assuming, we are already predisposed to fail because our senses are not attuned to reality, only to the world already imagined. An open mind is a bulwark against the tide of discord sweeping our locality and world.
T.J. Voboril is a partner at Reynolds, Kalamaya & Voboril LLC, a local law firm, and the owner and mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.rkv law.com.
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