Tuesday, June 17, 2008

One-Man Mob Mentality

Here's a good draft of something I realized a few days after writing that I'd heard before. Something about straws and a camel. I suppose by reinventing this wheel, I understand it better than the old model.

* * * * *

Everyone's heard stories of terrible events of human failure: the riots, looting, and general mass hysteria that can overtake an everyday, otherwise law-abiding member of any civilized culture. Wikipedia calls it 'herd behavior' and lists dozens of synonymous references, including bandwagon effect, crowd psychology, mob rule, swarm intelligence, and spontaneous [dis]order. But whatever anyone calls it, regardless of whether or not they've ever been caught up in it, everyone understands how it works.

I've run across a similar phenomenon that only requires a single person, and it works in a manner very similar to what we already understand. I'm calling it the One-Man Mob Mentality, or OMMM. It begins with a person being mildly annoying. If someone is grossly annoying, OMMM will not set in because any behavior that is obviously out of order will immediately draw attention to social boundaries no matter how vague or subtle. When the social offense is obvious, it is reacted to without acceptance. In order for OMMM to occur, it is important that no clear lines are crossed, and that annoying behavior is accepted on at least a probationary basis.

Now, anyone over age 10 who's ever encountered another human being will tell you that folks can be annoying, and once a person has annoyed you, you begin to make certain allowances for them. Like a rude person in a crowd, you simply start moving out of their way as they approach. Because, as Frost wrote, good fences make good neighbors, good manners dictate that we simply put up with the things some folks dish out, and therefore pretend not to be annoyed at the small things people will sometimes do.

Before I go any further, let's put this right out there: everyone has benefited from this social tendency at one time or another. Every first impression makes use of this unspoken practice. Everyone has, at one time or another, depended on exactly this reaction by others to something they unwittingly say or do, or don't realize is offensive or disruptive.

A critical part of this human interaction is the understanding that everyone does it, on both sides, and so paying attention to what you might do that mildly annoys others becomes very important. It's how you give room back. By this constant give and take process, an equilibrium can be formed between two individuals, an individual and a group, or even a convergence of several groups. As each member gives and takes to find his or her place in a micro-society such as the workplace, a dinner table with strangers, a line for concert tickets or the Sears checkout, or even a family welcoming new members, they learn to put up with each other in a very necessary way.

And that, I think, is exactly why we react that way to others when we're mildly annoyed with them. It's a big world. If we don't make some room for each other, we eventually start killing each other.

So as we move through our day-to-day interactions with each other, we do make small bits of room for those people who we have yet to understand, or at least build a tolerance or appreciation for. Sometimes, however, this process doesn't come to its logical end. Sometimes, it cascades into a catastrophic loop of insanity that makes us want to tear someone's arms out. This is OMMM, and this is how it happens.

Small annoyances that do not push the envelope are tolerated. However, instead of participating in the mutual give-take process, the annoying person doesn't return that favor of giving a little back, curtailing the annoying behavior or at least making up for it with something likable or (in the absence of anything likable) respectable. (This could be a sense of humor, a willingness to help or learn, any amount of humility, or some kind of expertise that applies to the group.) A first offense is treated as an additional mild annoyance, and more space is usually afforded to the annoying person, usually with the same reaction. Occasionally, the Annoyer can not only fail to respond in a way that will gain his or her acceptance, but make it worse with a sense of entitlement. This usually manifests by reacting as though the social space made for him or her by others is deserved, and need not be either acknowledged or returned in any way. (People with Ph.D's are infamous for this social flaw*.)

Once the series of small annoyances begins without any return, we start to build a case for disliking everything else the person does, even if, when others do it, it is in no way annoying. Examples can be the way someone walks, wears their hair, writes or says a phrase, engages in a habit, or fidgets. In this way, that original list of annoyances that we made room for becomes like a mob, driving us in a way that only chanting and mass hysteria can. Our brains rail for any response, and before long, we realize we've crossed way into the space that defines the lines of acceptable boundaries, and beyond. It is here that we find ourselves in that virtual riot, abandoning all good social sense, looting anything that might have once been salvaged in the relationship between ourselves and the Annoyer. This, my friends, is the One-Man Mob Mentality.

* This remark does not apply to any of the wonderful doctorate-holding people with whom I share my work day, or may at one time have been related to. Thag you very buch.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Dads and Kids

This is a difficult week for me.

My first Father's Day after my dad's death wasn't particularly peachy. Yes, it had most of the usual accouterments, not including breakfast in bed (due to 1. my stupid cat scratching at the door over and over in the middle of the night, and 2. my boy coming into the room at 3:30am and puking shortly thereafter), but all things considered it was your normal day of paternal tribute...with one exception: my dad.

I'm still adjusting to not having him around. I miss him. The saddest part about this is, if he'd never gotten sick, if he'd never died, I might have gone this long without seeing or really talking to him anyway, and not really thought much about it. Now that he is gone, I find myself needing him more and more, and realizing that in fact, I always needed him this much, and was always too proud, or too afraid of some reaction, or too busy to let him know it. Or to acknowledge it for myself.

A good friend shared an essay by Steve Martin with me that provided some much needed perspective. Like Steve's, my dad was very critical, angry all the time, and prone to offend any number of surrounding people at any time without warning. I also, at one point, decided I officially hated him, that I wanted him to....not die, but just...be gone from our lives so many times as a young child, so disruptive was his presence in the small world of my mom and us little kids.

However, Steve indicates that the memories of the terrible persisted until a good long time after his father's death, after which point, he "recall[ed] events that seem to contradict [his] memory of him." The same thing is starting to happen to me, but in reverse. Maybe it was my dad's long sickness that started the process of forgetting the terrible, but almost immediately after his death, I internally canonized him, carving out this huge emotional construct by which I could use my memories of him to channel my own life in a direction he'd approve of. Although I can't recall any long list of great things he did for me at this or that age, I do have trouble remembering all the things I didn't like about him, all the things that made it hurt to be his son.

Maybe that's okay. Maybe that's why I did actually write down good and bad in my pre-death posts, because I knew that not only would I forget the upsetting things, but that even those things would become fond memories after his passing. Not fond like finding a Red Rider BB gun under the tree on Christmas morning, but fond like hugging a grouchy old man because you're happy he's your dad, even if he's not always your favorite guy in the world.

The other reason this is a difficult week for me is because in only a few short days I am sending my two wonderful girls home to their families in Germany and Indonesia. Sending an exchange student home is something we've already done once, and it was hard, but he's a boy, and he didn't show his emotions, and I gave him a very manly hug and wished him well, and we watched him walk toward security until Sophia ran to him and hugged him again, and then we all cried as if in a movie. But this time will be different, because girls are...well, different. I bonded with Santos in many ways, and I still consider him mijo, but the bond between man and daughter is a strange, mysterious, and beautiful thing. I do not really understand it, Sophia being only five so far, but I know its effects fully. And now I know them triple fold. And in just a few days, two of my girls will go off into the world. Although (yes, I know) they're going back to a family and culture and world they're far more familiar with than this one we've shared with them, it is nevertheless a family and culture and world without US, and they leave our home without THEM, and that loss will be felt a very long time. Fortunately, the joy we have had while they have been here will last even longer, as we have found with Santos, and knowing the three of them are out there in the world, little pieces of us in them, and them in us, makes that joy last forever.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

My Wife's World-Saving Discovery

Bureau of Justice statistics show that the state prison populations increased an average of nearly 6% between 1980 and 2004 for violent, property, drug, and public order crimes. Actual figures show an increase of almost 1 million prisoners during the study period, an average of 50,000 people per year.

That's a lot of people getting busted, and if the iceberg rule applies, it means there are millions more who contemplate crimes that would lead to imprisonment. Fortunately, my wife has stumbled upon a product that can help save our nation from this dilemma, not only halting the rapid increase in prison population, but ultimately reducing it to record low numbers.

What is this product, you might ask? Nothing complicated, nothing expensive--nothing short of a miracle, I say. It's simply this: Kroger brand toilet paper. Every bathroom in our house is currently stocked with this product, and I can tell you with great assuredness that I need not spend the weekend with beer and burritos to fear its use. The abrasive quality of this bathroom tissue is second only to 80 grit sandpaper, and the effect it would have on a prison population forced to use it exclusively would be excruciating.

This is a breakthrough tantamount to Bentham's panopticon. Faced with the prospect of wiping one's tender ass with this and only this paper ought to be enough to make any would-be perpetrator think twice about committing a crime. Think of the affect it would have on our mounting prison population. Replacing every roll of bath tissue currently in the prisons with this generic and abundant product could be done at nearly no cost to taxpayers while simultaneously boosting local economies as more of the paper is produced for a population currently numbering 1.3 million.

Utilizing a series of scientific and statistical techniques, it's my estimation that this simple change in the prison system could yield an overall population decrease of over 92% in the next 18 years. My conclusions are based on the following assumptions:
  1. the prison population will have grown at the current average between 2004 and 2009
  2. the new toilet paper will be introduced at some time during 2009
  3. as word spreads about this new deterrent, the population will begin to decrease
  4. initial decrease will be at the current average level of increase (5.86%)
  5. as the horror stories are circulated, average population decrease will get 10% greater each year
As Figure 1 above clearly shows, by the year 2026, state prison populations will have dropped dramatically, ending in a total population of just under 125,000, less than half the 1980 population and a mere 7.4% of the projected 2009 population.

So now's the time to take action. Write your state governments and show them the numbers. Purchase and send a roll to your congressman for good measure. With enough good people doing the right thing, we can change the world, folks, and it begins with a single wipe.