Photo by Robert S. Donovan (booleansplit on Flickr) used under Creative Commons license

Photo by Robert S. Donovan (who does not necessarily endorse the opinions on this blog) and used under a Creative Commons license

The main branch of the Boulder Public Library—my favorite local library, one with a great variety of interesting books—has a nifty gadget for its book drop. Instead of the usual mailbox-like hole in the wall, all books returned to the Boulder Library (whether or not the library is open) go into a machine embedded on the outside wall of the building, a small metal box with a door in its center, under a sign that says “Book Drop.” When one waves a book (or anything else, really) towards the door, an electric eye notices, and the door opens, revealing a treadmill-like belt. A pleasant voice says, “One item at a time please. The door will close when you are finished.” Books placed on the belt are spirited away to some secret, safe spot inside the building. When the last book is gone, the door stays open and the treadmill running for a full minute, the electric eye making sure no more books are coming, and then the door gently slides shut.

I like the machine. It’s more trouble and more electricity than is strictly necessary, but I find it fun, and it does give me a secure feeling to know that my books are so tidily tucked away. Also, when there is a line of people returning books, one person after another can swoop in and set a book on the treadmill, efficiently stowing away several people’s deliveries before the little door closes. Sometimes I watch, making a game of seeing how many people can get through on one open door.

The game didn’t work today. One woman was at the machine when I arrived. I waited a polite distance away for her first two books, but then I noticed that before every book, she stepped back and waited until the door closed. Then she pressed her thumb on the metal housing that contained the electric eye, leaning hard, as if it were a sticking button. Eventually, the door would open again, the voice would say, “One item at a time, please. The door will close when you are finished,” and she’d reach into her large bag of books and place one on the treadmill. Then she’d wait for the door to close. Then she’d pound on the electric eye. Then she’d place one book on the treadmill. Then she’d wait for the door, then pound harder on the eye… At this rate, I would be waiting all morning to spend my two minutes with the machine.

“There is no button,” I said. “It’s motion activated. And you don’t have to wait for the door to close.”

“One item at a time!” the woman shrieked back. “Can’t you hear?!”

“That just means, ‘Place one book on the belt at a time,'” I continued over the electronic voice, which was starting up again. In unison, the voice and I said, “The door will close when you are finished.”

The woman ignored me and continued to pound on the electric eye.

“That’s still not a button,” I said.

She kept pounding, placing one book, pounding again, ignoring me and the machine’s voice. She placed one last book, then looked at me at last. “There! Are you happy?!” She stormed off.

I’m not happy. I’m rather depressed, actually. I’ve been thinking about her all day. This woman will never learn how to use the cute little book drop that so many of us enjoy, and soon she’ll probably break the electronic eye. Worse, she’ll spend the rest of her day, her week, her life, complaining about how difficult everything is, and how rude people everywhere seem to think that she’s an idiot.

She is an idiot. This is not an inborn trait, a mental illness, or a chemical imbalance. It’s just that she works so hard at never understanding what’s really going on. She clings to her first impression so completely that she can never understand anything new, anything that takes more than a single glance to figure out. “One sentence at a time, please. The mind will close when I am finished.” Many people learn slowly or in different ways from the standard school curriculum. I enjoy these people: I’ve met many with “learning disabilities” who are, in fact, highly creative, intelligent individuals who create great things and broaden my view of the world. In a completely different camp, and far more common, I’m afraid, are people like the woman at the library, who work very hard at refusing to learn, refusing to consider anything but the first conclusion they jumped to.

Of course, we all do this to some degree. I am taking my ten minutes with this woman and expanding it to assume that I know how she lives her entire life. I could be wrong. She could be closed-minded and defensive only around fancy library book drops. Still, I am better about this than the average bear, and I’m sure this is the only reason why many people around me think I’m remarkably intelligent. I do score very well on IQ tests, but only because I like puzzles and games and figuring out what answer each game is looking for. My mother (who, at 66, is actually quite good with computers, and much better than she thinks she is) is always impressed when I “fix” her computer problems, even though I only tried one more possible fix than she had. One of my past boyfriends, a tri-lingual, high-tech marketing manager with a degree in physics and a hobby of studying linguistics, called me “the smartest person he knows,” but only because I knew a little more than the average person did about every subject that came up. I usually figure out how the latest thriller film is going to end before the rest of the audience does. I’m curious, I like revelations and plot twists, and I am relatively open to being proved wrong.

I still need to work on this, though. Aggressive stupidity, the refusal to let go of one’s first assumption and find out something new, is still a problem for me, and it’s at the root of most of our world’s problems.

The US economy? Ordinary, working folks came to assume that a mortgage broker wouldn’t give them a loan for more than they could pay, so they let predatory lenders tell them “how much house they could afford.” Investors in mortgage-based securities had always assumed that mortgages were rock-solid investments, so they bought the shaky loans. All up and down the line, most folks didn’t notice that the game had changed until the damage was done.

Workplace misery? The Dilbert-esque “pointy haired boss” still lives in offices, warehouses, worksites: the one who refuses to listen to “underlings” who have more specific knowlege and training, the one who, faced with a problem, leaps to blame the nearest person for it, never finding out what really happened or how to prevent the same thing from happening again. These are the people who use oversized words they don’t understand, and will never learn the meanings of, because they assume that they sound smarter that way. These are the people who make their coworkers miserable and their companies ineffective.

Bigotry, hate crimes, and most wars? We all tend to make snap assumptions about other people, and the more different a person is from us, the less we know about them, the more broad and rigid the assumptions. “All muslims are anti-American terrorists.” “All women are crazy gold-diggers.” “All men are violent jerks.” “All homosexuals are promiscuous, disease-ridden, and rapists, too.” “People with developmental disabilities can’t learn, and have nothing important to say.” “Everyone in Country X despises our country and wants to destroy our way of life.” “All Republicans are heartless.” “All Liberals are mindless, soft-hearted saps.” And on and on. Groups get polarized, wars declared, and huge misunderstandings live on and on until someone finally looks past their first assumption. Peace and acceptance only come when we can finally past a general label and get to know a real person.

I know I need to work on this, myself. Clinging to our first assumption is a bad habit, and a very dangerous one. At least now I have a solid image to remind me to open my mind. Now, when I’m feeling stuck, frustrated, victimized, I can just ask myself, “Is this situation (person, machine, etc.) really impossible, or am I just pounding on an electric eye?”

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