Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Associating Freely

People are often amazed when I dismiss gossip. I don't tend to like gossip in the first place, as it usually does more harm than good. However, I also surprise people when I express offense at guilt by association. One of our basic freedoms is free association. The main reason for this is because there is an enormous difference between talking to someone and accepting their ideas. Even best friends don't agree on everything.

The human mind is an interesting mechanism. It stores data, processes input, and allows us to interpret the world. It also colors that interpretations based on what we believe to be true. The human mind also adopts what it sees as the best way to survive, and to ensure the survival of the species. People often tell me about murders, and how humans are the only animal in the world who operate on revenge. These same people tell me about how anger is out of control, and they point to the increased violence in our societies that occurs in spite of a reported drop in the crime rate.

I associate with a lot of kinds of people. I talk to felons: embezzlers, tax evaders, drug addicts, and even active drug dealers. I'm actually good friends with a few addicts and tax evaders. I don't agree with their life choices, but then that's my right. And it's their right to pursue those choices. I've made it clear that I will have no part of those things in my own life, and for the most part they honor and respect that. I don't have to threaten them with exposure: I don't snitch. I'm sure if I did, my life would be forfeit.

But why in the world would I want to talk to these people?

First and foremost, I'm a politician, and I always have been, even though I've never held or sought office, and even though I am often critical of our political system. Criticizing the system doesn't mean that I believe it's the wrong system. It just means I think it could be improved, and I would like to help it to improve. It's an ideal democracy that encourages its citizens, from the lowly street urchin to the loftiest political figure, to participate in governmental processes to make everything better. Our system is great because we allow input by the population. It's only dissidence if you actively proscribe the dismantling of the government, or violent action of any kind. In a democracy, that's the way it actually works.

Another reason I talk to these people is because they are a minority in the group that I hang out in. The majority of the people I talk to are upstanding, law-abiding citizens with solid ideas about how things should work—and I disagree with them. So, I talk to these others in order to find out just why they disagree with the status quo, and in a lot of cases they have excellent points. Well, one or two. Most of the criminal element I speak to have bizarre ideas about how things actually work. The largest exception to these are the tax evaders (whom I still don't agree with yet, because I don't ever simply accept what someone tells me as true unless there's a compelling reason).

But people claim that I'm the exception. To that I say: Bullshit. I keep my own mind strictly because I am involved with so many kinds of people. I'm not a part of their groups, even if I am a member of their circles. Human minds tend to adopt the best ways to survive, and the real survival method in this case is to adopt the attitudes and ideas of those around you. Much of what I know and believe is based in observation of people, and much of it's based on whom I talk to.

Association does increase the chances that you agree with those around you, but it also increases the chances that a group can change the minds of an individual. If we really want to rehabilitate criminals, the best way is to isolate them within a group of successful people who can then help them change their minds. The best way to change a large group is to become the majority: not because you wield strength, but because the power of two human minds to facilitate change in one mind is powerful.

Yet I am constantly disallowed access to people whom I consider successful. Largely, this is due to our litigious society and the desire to legally protect one's self. Another part of this equation, however, is the fact that their success might create competition because they understand just how powerful the drive to survive and be the best competitor actually is. They are successful because they limit this competition. People are still driven by instinct.

When I associate with these criminal types, I also can't use their names or occupations as sources for information. When I talk to my upstanding friends, I typically say only "a friend" told me or said such-and-such. I get some really awesome ideas from these people, and I also get ideas that sound good until I run them past my other friends, who tear them into logical pieces. Or they disagree, but they can't really say that there's anything wrong with any portion of the arguments. I'll admit, some of the conclusions are unsettling.

But recently I was criticized and told I was no longer welcome at a friend's house because of whom I chose to associate with. This surprised me because the person who told me this was a pro-democracy politician whose primary platform seemed to be civil liberties, including the freedom of association implied by the First Amendment for the very purpose of promoting democracy. A liberal politician, he fought for my right to vote. And so when he expressed concern about my associations, it set me off-balance. When I tried to defend my choices, he told me I wasn't allowed back at his home until I stopped associating with someone I've known for 12 years—and though this person is thought to be dealing in drugs, I can say that drugs isn't what this person's crime of choice would be.

I also happen to know that he's struggling to stay on the right side of the law, and that he works a dead-end job with few benefits and no health insurance in order to pay rent and utilities he can't always afford. He drives a flashy car because it was inherited from his grandfather, and he's gotten to the point that the car sits in his driveway because he not only can't afford insurance, gas prices are still high enough he bikes to work (which is healthier for him anyway). The politician doesn't know this. All he knows is that this friend of mine lives in a bad neighborhood and has a high-end car sits unharmed in his driveway (unless you count the time a month or so back when it was keyed). If he was dealing in drugs, he wouldn't groan and complain about how much he could be making if he just crossed the line one more time. He wouldn't even tell me about it. He might not even talk to me because of whom I know. And he'd fail his urinalysis, too (since he's still on parole).

My associations, in both cases, are a source of liability for me. But that liability so far has been limited to social liability. In a democracy, the freedom to associate is basic and fundamental. It's also the means by which rational discourse can occur. There isn't a compelling reason to hold associations against someone, particularly when those associations benefit those involved by opening up a dialogue.

The next article will have to do with voting. I voted today, and although I personally talked to over 2,300 people in my city, with ZERO who wanted the incumbent mayor, that mayor won by a narrow 180 votes. And when I looked at the numbers, I noticed that I spoke to a considerable number of those who voted. But if my sample size was zero, how did the mayor win? I'll have an answer next time. I hope.