“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.” – Elie Wiesel
Seven years ago I moved from Los Angeles to Billings, Montana to help take care of my aging parents. Billings is a city of a little over 100,000, the largest in Montana. It’s nondescript. It prides itself on being a cowboy town, but it’s more about chain stores than anything. I grew up in North Dakota: while it’s a little different, I still knew what to expect from a rural environment. Aside from my caregiving responsibilities, my goal was to launch my Community 3.0 small business engagement platform in Billings and then scale it beyond from there.
During my tenure here I met civic and business leaders and heads of education. I even offered to assist on political campaigns. In summary, I networked. Now over my lifetime I’ve been involved in a wide variety of entrepreneurial projects, some successful and some not. But for the most part, I was given the opportunity to try. Billings though was different. It’s not that people were unfriendly. That wasn’t it. It was they were guarded; not really interested or willing in letting me into their world.
Following my various meetings I’ve had in Billings (formal and otherwise), I performed my normal routine; sent a social media request (LinkedIn normally, since virtually none were on Twitter), and an email recapping our conversation and suggestions going forward. And then I waited … but nothing. Time and time again – no response. No acknowledgement. Nothing. The level of universal indifference was astounding. And it didn’t matter who it was or what the topic of the meeting was. It was like I wasn’t given permission to even participate in their little town. “You stay over there and we’ll stay over here. Thank you very much.”
Later on I found it wasn’t just me either. I had an opportunity to spend a semester teaching a class with the president of the local liberal art college in Billings. He confirmed my experiences. “People just don’t respond in Billings.” This is the president of a college saying that. And talking with my students, I heard the same from them. This was a senior level leadership class and these were some of the best future prospects in the area. They all echoed the same sentiment: “No one listens to us here.” And because of it – none of them had any desire to stay in Billings after they graduated. As with me … they hadn’t been given permission either. It’s like we all had been relegated to the folding card table your grandparents set up in the living room for the grandkids during the annual Thanksgiving dinner. The adults sat in the dining room and you and your cousins … not so much.
I’d never been in situation like this since … well, not since the grandparents’ house in Alamo, North Dakota when I was twelve years old. Even when I was in college, promoting concerts (e.g. Alice Cooper, Rush, Yanni, Cheap Trick, Bob Hope, etc.) was I never not given permission to participate with the “big boys.” Even though I was half the age of the promoters I competed for concert dates against – I was still taken seriously. The same was true in Minnesota after school when I published commercial art directories or started a check recovery service. But here, the scarlet letter of an outsider was indelibly stamped on my forehead.
The badge of honor here in much of Montana (and apparently here in my part of it) is how many generations your lineage goes back. This was especially evident during the onslaught of political propaganda on the airwaves during the last election. “How can he know what’s good for Montana if he’s only been here twenty years.” Geographic cross-pollination is to be avoided at all costs. “Stay over there at the card table and watch so Joey doesn’t stick peas in his nose.”
A couple of weeks ago I was on the phone with my daughter, Alexandria, in Los Angeles. Even though she complains about Southern California (mainly after driving home an hour from work), she said she would find it hard to move away. “You can do anything here. You can start any type of business or project and no one is going to say you can’t do it because most everyone is doing the same thing – trying things.” Los Angeles is the land of permission. You may not succeed or realize your dreams, but people sure as hell aren’t going to tell you don’t have permission to try. Permission is implied. You don’t have to be told you have it – you just do. In Billings, you don’t have to be told you don’t have it … you just don’t. Either you’re in or you’re not. And regardless of how you’re trying to get noticed, or how persuasive you may be … the blanket of indifference is difficult to shed.
What is permission? Most believe in United States, permission is a given. After all, this is the land of the free, free to pursue your dreams. Human beings are social creatures. We don’t live in a vacuum. Unless you tend sheep six months a year far removed from civilization, your life is intermingled with that of many other people. How these other people interact with you affects you and what you perceive you have permission to do.
Communities often say they’re inviting and inclusive. People say hello – sometimes: they hold the door open – occasionally: but much of the time this guise is little more than an exercise in being polite. In Billings, they say they don’t discriminate towards gays, but they refuse to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance. They say they don’t need to since they don’t discriminate. You have to love the circular logic.
But what Billings is really saying is that we’re not giving you permission to be part of “our” community; because even though we’re not going to say it to your face – you’re not really one of us. “You stay over there and we’re just fine over here.” We’ll be polite if we encounter you in the street. But aside from that – you’re over there and we’re over here. Thank you very much.
As expected just last week, the Billings City Council (and the mayor) filled an open council seat with a long-term male member of the Billings power structure – instead of opting for a highly regarded young woman from the healthcare industry who has done extraordinary things in her young career.
This community behavior can also be very limiting to young people and how they view their future prospects. All too often certain professions reign supreme, for no other reason than they always have. I get that in a company town where a single industry dominates, say mining or manufacturing. Much of the time few other opportunities exist staying locally. That said, why is staying in town the only option? Young people are curious and there’s little worse than extinguishing that curiosity by imposing a geographically cautious worldview more applicable for their parents, or even yet their grandparents. This implied indifference to their out-of-ordinary career choices can be debilitating.
Inclusion is more than just being inviting. Maybe more important, it’s letting go of past societal norms and not being indifferent to the dreams and aspirations of outliers. The operative word is “indifferent.” If someone disagrees or takes issue with you, you know where you stand. You have a point of reference. You can retrench and either come back; or you can retreat, venturing out elsewhere. But indifference is something else. It’s saying you don’t warrant an acknowledgment of “being.” Meeting someone and discussing a mutually beneficial opportunity, following up … then hearing nothing back: and then after running into them in the street and hearing, “Sorry I’ve gotten back to you, I’m not very good at getting back to people,” is completely unacceptable. They might as well say, “I suck at being a human being.” Unfortunately this type of behavior isn’t just individually isolated. It’s a character trait that can spread throughout the community … like a virus. People just don’t engage because … well, they just don’t think that’s what’s expected since maybe in the past (during their formative years) no one engaged with them either. Indifference has been bred into the community DNA. Engagement hasn’t. And without engagement, you can’t give permission. And without permission your community will repel the newcomers it desperately needs to stay relevant.
The Unease of Diversity
The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision-making and problem solving. Diversity can lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think. This is not just wishful thinking: it is the conclusion I draw from decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers. Scientific America
Cross-pollination; whether its gender, sexual-preference, ethnic, racial, age-based or geographic – must be a community’s priority. A community is a product of its residents. Social inbreeding creates weak species and weak communities; vulnerable to adversaries, internally and externally. Inbred societies rely on decision-making founded from a narrow geographic and historical perspective – severely limiting their options of response to challenges and opportunities.
But truly being inclusive is a lot more than many people can deal with. Ethnic and racial differences get most of the press, and rightly so. This nation has a long way to go in achieving any semblance of true tolerance. Decades of institutional prejudice needs to be deconstructed and put back together while we learn from our many horrific policies of the past. That said, we can’t ignore geographic bigotry either.
With the latest political season being a reminder of the obsession of where you’ve live and how geographically pure your ancestry is reminiscent of Nazi Germany. In Montana anything less than being born here makes you virtually incapable of having any idea what the Montana experience is, has been or should be. In other words … PERMISSION NOT GRANTED. This may seem benign to legacy residents, but to the rest of us (even though I was born here), knowing that your ideas and views will be ignored at face value can be crippling. The bigotry is covert and omnipresent. One’s comfort zone and all things familiar are to be preserved at all cost. Unfamiliarity breeds uncertainty – and uncertainty makes many people uneasy. As they say, “curiosity is something that killed the cat … and it may damn well do the same thing to me if I don’t watch out.”
Nurturing a community of inclusion and permission is as much as what you’re not allowing to happen as what you’re doing. You have to help people not be afraid when they venture into unfamiliar territory, personally or professionally – especially those lying on the outer edges of society. They need to know what they’re not hearing isn’t holding them back. It might be just that one thing you do or say that makes all the difference; a compliment, holding a door … that gesture that shows we’re both in this together. It breaks the proverbial ice of a new community’s frigidity.
Creating your own world is scary for anyone. Imagine a recent college graduate thinking about starting a business only to run indifference when bringing up their idea to someone they respect. Or imagine a Persian family from thousands of miles away just trying to start new, looking for an apartment, and automatically assumed they’re Muslim (and with it all the potentially negative connotations). Think about that gay couple who is trying to enroll their daughter at day care – only to get stares of disapproval from the other “conventional parental units” waiting in line. These situations don’t scream prejudice or exclusion, but to those on the receiving end, they cut deep – often deeper than if the reactions were overt.
The more someone is perceived to be outside the purview of conformity and “sameness” – the more they risk being socially isolated. They have to be tuned into their environment, being always on guard. The prospect of threats, physically or psychologically, looms everywhere – or at least they think it does. But they also bring with them an implied sense of empathy. They identify with others who may be going through it too … regardless what the “it” is. But it’s these risk takers who will lead your community into the future. To stifle them, through indifference, only damages your community’s prospects going forward — all in the name of the shortsightedness and insecure egos of those in positions of influence and power. These are the exact people you need … the ones who think differently, bringing new perspectives to vexing problems that might have been saddling your community for years. But if you don’t give them permission to join – they won’t be around for long to make those contributions. They’ll go somewhere that does give them permission: and with them they’ll take all that they would have given your community and you’ll be left with what you’ve always had … only it’ll be less and less relevant day-by-day.
Who will you see?
How do you see your community? Is it more than just city hall and the same politicians that seem to have become permanent fixtures there? Is it more than just a few off ramps exiting the interstate highway going north and south or east and west? Is what you see what you want to see? Is what you see what you want your children and grandchildren to see?
What do you see when you climb up and look in that metaphorical window you’ve been avoiding; the one tangled with last year’s vines of civic and social issues unresolved. Who will you see in there? Do you want them to all look like you … having the same experiences, ideas and goals as you do? Or do hope you see someone different; someone we you can learn from? Do you dare risk being curious? Do you dare risk being uncertain?
And if you do see someone different; someone who makes you look and think twice … will you give permission to be what they want to be?
Or will you treat them with indifference … keeping them forever behind that window.