Reflection 172: Two Kinds of People

January 14, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

I’d been a Signal Corps photographer in the Army. When I got out I went to work for a photo studio in Manhattan that took pictures for catalog houses like Sears Roebuck. The studio was really three studios, each with photographer (who adjusted lighting and clicked shutters), assistant photographer (who cocked shutters and changed 8×10 film holders), and stylist (who made clothes look good on thin models by taking tucks in back with clothespins). I learned early on that there were two classes of people, photographers and assistants; there was no way for an assistant to cross the barrier between them. Once an assistant, always an assistant.

Sensitive to such distinctions, I noticed that the janitor came to work in suit and tie, and carried his lunch in a briefcase. I figured he did it to show his kids he had an important job in the city. He’d arrive early, change his clothes, and get to work. What he really did was mop the floors. At the end of the day he’d reverse the process, put on the suit, and get on the elevator with an empty briefcase.

To simplify matters, I’ll say there are two kinds of people: doers and thinkers. Hands-on and minds-on. There are all manner of gradations in between, but the basic distinction still holds: labor and management, students and teachers, stage crew and talent. You can tell the difference by looking under fingernails, feeling calluses, noticing who shines his shoes, who wears overalls and who a tweed jacket. 

In Maine, there are fishermen who hold their catch in their hands, and then everybody else. Fishermen look like fishermen. They wear aprons, slickers, and boots, and get wet a lot. The others try to stay away from water and out of the rain if they can. Fishermen are doers. After all these years, they still work with their hands and speak basic English. Many of the rest of us type with our fingertips, work in cubicles, write endless reports, go to meetings, and speak jargon that sounds like a foreign language.

One of the chief reasons I am writing this blog is to figure out how hand workers and mind workers can come to a common understanding about managing natural resources (fish, clams, worms) to guarantee steady catches over the long term. I speak a lot about sustainability and stewardship, which are words labeling conceptual categories, not concrete items such as living lobsters or bags full of bait. Categories don’t smell like a mixture of herring, oil, and gasoline.

As kids we are all much the same, born with a few rudimentary skills centered on our mouths. We eventually learn to hold up our heads, look around, coordinate arms and fingers, and eventually walk. We all go through the play stage of learning how to use our hands. Then we go to school to learn how to use our minds, and that is supposed to lead us on the way out of childhood. Some of us end up putting everything into words and symbols, not coordinated motions. Or if we do practice fine motor skills, we take drum or violin lessons, color within the lines, and strive for neat handwriting. You can’t learn to fell trees in school, raise cattle, dig potatoes, catch lobsters or fish. And if that’s what you want to do in life, then you’re better off apprenticing to someone who does those things for a living. If you work hard enough, long enough, and pay attention, you’ll train your muscles to behave as you want to get the job done.

The classic put-down used to be:  If you can, do; if you can’t, teach. For some reason, our culture turns that around and puts a higher priority on teaching and mind work than doing and making things. While we know that the most important people in any school are the students, not teachers or administrators. The main thing with us seems to be not getting our clothes dirty, which is a sure sign of social status. No mucking out the barn for us. So we dutifully dress in blouses and button-down shirts, stand behind our counters or file into cubicles (much like desks in school), turn on the computer, and have at it, engaging our minds—and little else of our basic equipment such as muscles, senses, and personal judgment.

Broadly speaking, our culture creates two classes of people who can’t talk to each other very easily because their life experience is so different. What they do is so different. How they talk is so different. How they make themselves happen in the world is so different. How their minds work is so different. Either you’re a photographer or a photographer’s assistant, perhaps bringing your lunch in a briefcase or a brown paper bag.

So much for discriminating two sorts of people. In truth, even fishermen and cubicle dwellers are unique individuals, as are we all. The issue is, how do we learn to talk with one another in the spirit of democracy so we can work side-by-side for the good of all people and the one Earth we share in common? Where self-interest and competition split us apart, how do we put ourselves together again in order to deal effectively with dwindling resources, global warming, pollution, poverty, and overconsumption? Many of us seem to find it easier to stand apart, calling those we don’t agree with offensive names, than gather beneath a common banner.

That’s what language is for, but people on fishing boats and people in cubicles tend to develop dialects within their common language that require translation from one to the other. How do they make themselves clear when they meet face-to-face? How do they hear what the other is saying? That’s what schools are supposed to be for, but they are better at emphasizing individual differences than general commonalities. That’s because differences are concrete and recognizable while the commons is an abstract idea you can’t point your finger at. Differences are up-close and personal, while the commons is vague, fuzzy, and apt to be ideological or reduced to a caricature of itself (Uncle Sam, John Bull) or some kind of mascot. Where individuality is specific, unity is symbolic. It is easy to say, “No man is an island,” “God is love,” or “All are one,” but extremely difficult to put into practice. I know there are such places as Fiji, Timbuktu, and Ultima Thule, but I have a hard time picturing them in my mind; to me they are conceptual abstractions, like “objects,” “things,” “items,” “entities,” “geographical locations.”

If we learn and act best when we put our bodies where our values are, then when two people generally have their bodies in different places, to get along they have to shift their consciousness to the place where they meet in order to take the physical presence of the other into full account. If they speak from their customary locations (their respective Aways), they won’t get very far. It works better to acknowledge the other, and move on from there in small steps, always waiting for the other to catch up. Cooperating on a shared task or project makes a good beginning, both taking part in something they can do easily and well. I have seen women sitting in a circle, each spinning yarn or knitting, having a great time. Drinking coffee or eating a meal together might work, but I personally find it hard to talk and eat at the same time.

Once the ice is broken—and it may take some time—the real work can begin. Which is to include the other in your thoughts as you make yourself happen there and then in her presence. Inclusion is the first priority in any group process. Excluding the other is self-defeating if you have to work together toward a goal you both share. Such as sustainable harvests of natural resources, stewardship, or saving the Earth.

The trick is to identify a goal you both can agree on from your separate perspectives. The more specific a goal the better. It’s easy to say we are both human, or both love our children. It’s harder to bring it down to a personal level on which you can identify with each other in equally concrete and meaningful ways. Sharing your biological values might be one way to identify a goal you could work toward together, such as food, shelter, clothing, safety, health, companionship, community, cooperation, learning, and so on.

I once taught a summer workshop built around finding a common project that a diverse group of eighteen high school students (who had never met) could not only work on but finish together in six weeks. That was the summer Apollo astronauts first landed on the moon. Students decided to bring out a publication commemorating that event, each contributing to the overall project, in addition to being responsible for content and layout of one page. Within three days, animosity blossomed within the group, so I included addressing that in the lesson plan. I identified pairs of students who didn’t get along, and gave them the afternoon off, with the stipulations that they had to stay within five feet of each other the whole time, and report back how it went for both of them. Each of the nine pairs worked things out between them, many coming back best friends. Another exercise was for each student to do something with the class to prove they were alive (however they interpreted those instructions). One girl led us up to the roof of the three-story building, then left, locking the door. Being trapped together is a wonderful way to build group spirit. I can’t remember how we got down, but we were up there for several hours.

Thinking about how close those students were to one another at the end of the workshop, I identified facing a common challenge, humor, and respect for both originality and ability as key factors in binding the disparate students into a cohesive and productive group. Of course they were all volunteers, but there was no way they could tell what they were getting into when they signed up. The workshop was built around their unique contributions, but no one knew in advance what they might be.

How about having fishermen, researchers, shorefront property owners, wildlife watchers, and kayakers, for instance, join forces to produce a portrait of the part of the Maine coast they all share in common? Each could tell her own version of the story of that part of the coast as he knew it. Could that work? Not only would it provide a starting project, but it would serve as a reference ever after, a document of what actually happened. The Salt Institute of Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, does 15-week workshops in developing skills in writing, radio, and photography. As one student said: “15 weeks at Salt rearranged 80% of my brain. The person I was when I arrived at Salt was not the person I was when I left.” I think a bay-wide project of this nature could be a life-changing event, bringing people together instead of perpetuating the social divide between them.

Including the other in your loop of engagement with your personal surroundings seems an obvious place to begin working together toward a common understanding. Getting their body and your body in the same room together so you can interact in a safe location, engaging conscious minds with each other, starting to build a constructive relationship instead of trying to wear the other down. Two kinds of people? No, there are almost seven billion. Things happen only when a few gather together in mutual engagement. Then there is no limit to what they can do, no matter what the odds.

Two Lobsters

 

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