Last Thursday, I attended the fifth installment of Ignite Baltimore, an event designed to get people excited about creating positive change in Baltimore.
And yet, somehow, the experience had the exact opposite effect on me… and this got me thinking about HOW we talk about the things we most care about, and why we might want to change our approach.
How an Allegedly Inspirational Event Turned Me Into a Loathsome Beast
Ignite is billed as a rapid-fire salon of ideas, in which a dozen speakers talk for 5 minutes (and 20 Power Point slides) about a subject they’re passionate about. For the most part, the presentations on this night were somewhat insightful, occasionally incoherent, but mostly harmless.
And then something happened that I’m still trying to process, because it altered my perception of reality.
15-year old environmental activist Hannah Freedman took the stage and delivered an eloquent, well-rehearsed, mildly convincing argument for the importance of youth activism. I was impressed by her chutzpah, and I was clapping at all the times when I was supposed to be clapping.
And then I noticed the body language of the couple in front of me.
Slumped. Stoic. Slightly pained. They looked as though they wanted to be anywhere but here, and they projected a stark resentment of everything Hannah — and, by extension, Ignite itself — stood for.
This momentarily irritated me, and I thought about reveling in my ethical superiority for being able to appreciate something as fundamentally galvanizing as youth activism.
But then I tried something different: I adopted (what I presumed was) this couple’s point of view.
I sat there, slumped and indifferent, to see how it would feel to resent a teenager for having the temerity to care about her own future.
I found it alarmingly easy to do.
In fact, the only more alarming part was how hard it was to shake that point of view.
When Hannah concluded her speech with something like, “Because we are the future, and you can either complain about it or you can help us,” I almost shouted something at the stage, Joe Wilson style. That’s when my girlfriend realized she’d have to psychologically restrain me for the rest of the event.
All night long, I found myself unable to resume my traditional worldview. Anytime someone took the stage, I implicitly rejected their claims as false because they didn’t jibe with my newly-adopted values of capitalism and protectionism.
I started to hate the arts, the government and people in general.
I refused to smile or applaud. My girlfriend Ann and our friend Maya, seated on either side of me, went from being annoyed at my behavior to being angry at my obviously negative judgment of the event, concerned that I might ruin it for someone else.
Even Dave Troy, who’s well-known as a tireless cheerleader for Baltimore’s future (and who was sitting directly in front of me) moved a few seats away. Granted, that could have been due to any reason, but I can’t help but feel that my aural negativity drove him to seek shelter.
My Newfound Hatred, in a Nutshell
My visceral reaction to the night can be summed up by a recap of the presentations.
Of the 13 talks delivered:
- 4 of them either directly or indirectly urged attendees to fund the arts
- 2 of them urged adults to take children seriously
- 1 of them urged attendees to donate to Haiti
- 1 of them urged attendees to donate used cell phones to Africa
- 1 of them urged the creation of a federal Department of Peace
- and 1 of them explained how Wolverine embodies the American ideal
As a social liberal and fiscal conservative, I would normally have appreciated the pluck of the presentations, even if I would have doubted their ability to make a damn bit of difference.
But on this particular night, thanks to my newly aggravated and seat-slumped soul mates, I left the auditorium irate at the audacity of the speakers. Namely:
- If the arts are so important, why can’t they MAKE MONEY without begging me for it?
- If MORE government is the solution to anything, I’ll eat my hat.
- If dying Haitians and Africans need help, why don’t they just GET JOBS?
- If kids are our future, why can’t they prove their merit without COMPLAINING?
In short: stop telling me why I should care about your problems; SHOW ME WHY IT’S RELEVANT TO ME.
PROVE THAT YOU’RE DOING YOUR BEST, and maybe I’ll feel like your cause is worth my time / effort / resources. (But, honestly, probably not, because I work hard for my money and I’ll never warm to the idea of you begging me for a handout.)
Nonetheless, MEAN SOMETHING to me, and maybe I’ll care.
(And for fuck’s sake, Wolverine is Canadian.)
So… About Last Night…
Needless to say, I woke up feeling “normal” again on Friday, but it still took me a few more days to wrap my head around why I was so upset on Thursday. And I think it boils down to the following:
- I cannot believe how easily I adopted a POV I normally reject as inhumanely self-centered.
- That kind of ingrained resistance to change is addictive.
- Hating everything didn’t make me feel better about myself, but the alternative didn’t make any sense either. Thus, I was trapped in an illogical whirlpool of loathing.
All of which made me realize that liberals will never be able to convince the conservatives of the world that liberal ideas are valid because conservatives and liberals don’t even see the same reality.
If two sides can’t agree on the facts, their shared needs and the benefits of the most likely outcomes, there’s no hope for “bipartisanship,” much less a civil discussion of what we as a country (or a city) need in order to prosper (or even survive).
So, as a way to make up for the karma I likely burned during my Thursday night shitstorm, here’s my morning-after pitch on how we (usual) liberals can better bridge the gap between what we think matters and what everyone else thinks is important.
3 Ways to Keep the Haters From Dismissing Your Worthless Ideas
1. Stop treating the arts like a helpless, valueless charity. The arts have been around for as long as we’ve been civilized. But to hear modern arts professionals explain it, the arts will shrivel and die unless bleeding heart patrons (and our own tax dollars) can keep them on life support.
If the arts aren’t at least partially self-sufficient, no amount of hand-wringing will convince the people holding the purse strings that they’re worth supporting.
Here’s a secret: no one wants to invest in something that doesn’t believe it can survive under its own power. People are funny; once a charity or an artist proves it can keep itself alive no matter what, we’re more inclined to support it with our own donations because it respects itself.
Begging? Never sexy. And if you believe that opera, theatre, live music and visual arts are sexy and life-affirming, you need to start by affirming your own will to live.
2. Kids: Stop Talking Down to Your Parents.
Listen, I know we live in a fucked-up culture where the opinions of 14 year-olds are more highly-prized than the opinions of 65 year-olds because those 14 year-olds have access to more disposable income than the Medicare generation does. But just because we who market products to children tell kids that we value their opinions, that doesn’t mean we really do. At least, not beyond the ways in which their opinions can be exploited to make us rich.
If you’re under the age of 22 and you want to change the world, be my guest. The world could use a good sprucing-up. But you won’t get there by admonishing the adults for ignoring you, because the fact is, adults ignore everything, including their own consciences and common sense.
Revel in your youth. Then do something. We like to say “actions speak louder than words” because, like most cliches, this one is always true.
3. Lead by example.
One of the best presentations of the night, even despite my hate-induced stupor, was delivered by Ellen Worthing. It was about “bushwacking,” the art of (literally) going off the beaten path to discover something all your own. In Worthing’s case, she detailed her frequent excursions into the bowels of Maryland, aided by her GPS unit and a suspicion that something more interesting was “out there.” And she was usually right.
Ellen’s presentation filled the audience with admiration for her rugged individualism. She tacked on an obligatory “follow your own path” generalism in her last slide, as a way of making her presentation about “us” instead of just her, but it was unnecessary; by showing us what she was capable of, she ignited more inspiration in her 500 listeners than anyone else did all night.
And, best of all, she didn’t ask anyone for money.
I’m sure Ignite Baltimore got a lot of people talking, which is the whole point. (Technically, the whole point should be getting people to take action, but that’s a little too optimistic for a $5 event with a cash bar.)
And maybe the ideas people absorbed that night will get them moving. Maybe some old cell phones will get donated to medical workers in Africa. Maybe a few more people will pay for a night at the opera, or will venture out to an art event they might otherwise have ignored.
But if we really want to ignite Baltimore and get people moving in a positive direction, what we need are more people who lead by example and fewer people trying to guilt the public into a handout.
Because the only thing more addictive than doubting the relevance of everything is being inspired by seeing someone else exceed our own pessimistic expectations.
* If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, you know what I’m talking about: anytime Will Smith’s friend (and real-life DJ) Jazzy Jeff says or does something inappropriate, Uncle Phil bum-rushes him out of the house, limbs flailing.
Dig this blog? Subscribe and you’ll never miss a witty insight again.