From the Sandbox to Syria — Tribe, Ego and Decision Making: HyperKulture

decision making

ColumnQuick: The Beatles or the Stones? Ginger or Mary Ann? Bomb Syria or don’t bomb Syria? It’s silly to equate the gravity of these choices, but it’s clear that our culture delights in and demands quick decision making. To be unsure is to be lacking true character and deemed less-than-relevant. Consider the din of mocking reserved for those who sit “on the fence.”

Yes, we are called on to know—or at least say we do. And we are called on to know now. Reaction to the situation in Syria illustrated this well. After Basher al-Assad forces’ use of sarin gas and Barack Obama’s (for some long-awaited, for others misguided and exceptionally American) saber rattling, many of my friends, acquaintances, the nation and the world quickly made their selections. Statements in defense of both tacks, in traditional and social media, were definitive, clear, justified. Despite the fact that a process was unfolding, in the days and even hours following the August 21 incident, decision making happened quickly, teams were chosen and colors donned.

I too leaned in one way fast (for these purposes, it doesn’t really matter which one), but I ultimately found myself uncommitted—and subsequently increasingly uncomfortable. Dear friends, smart people, emphatically broke both ways, while I just couldn’t pull the trigger, as it were, and join one chorus or the other. I’d like to think that I was taking the time to gather all the data (one of which emerged as what now seems like a fortunate accident) as it came in. Perhaps there was just too much to consider. Perhaps I lacked decision making stamina after so many years of White House war drumming and the battles that followed. In any case, I felt caught in crossfire between instantly fossilized sides. Not a fun place to be.

Young Decision Making

Perhaps we’re wired in a way where being confronted with a choice translates into quick decision making. After all, right out of the pubescent gate we’re challenged to establish personal and generational identities by choosing this and not that without too much thought. How much did we listen to our parents music before declaring it irrelevant? The [insert your favorite band here] was where it was at for Generation [Yours]. Same for our fashion/politics/spiritual decisions v. theirs. While the extent of such rebellion varied among us, almost to the young man and woman we agreed, we were not going to be like our forebears. And here’s to that.

And so we charged (or backed?) into our truths: Rock over classical, modern over traditional, anything to (mostly unconsciously) define ourselves as part of our generation and/or clique. Some of this was pure fun. (For me, it was the Beatles and Mary Ann.) But short shrift and quick disposal of anything “other” was the order of the day. No need for hmms. And no time, either. Seeing the other side or dilly-dallying on where we came down meant being vulnerable in a no-man’s land where no one seemed to have your back. Being part of a tribe was paramount and those without quick decision making skills lacked status or even acceptance. Consideration was shunned and changing minds forbidden. As author and Penn State cultural studies professor Michael Bérubé once pointed out, “It is very difficult to get a man to understand something when his tribal identity depends on his not understanding it.” Ah, youth.

Despite the fact that there is supposed to be a time to dispense with childish things, as we’ve grown older and left that messy sandbox, we still don’t always do a good job of taking in the broader view before decision making. In fact, the rules of our adolescent tribalism remain with us in a way that permeates our adult lives and our culture as a whole.

Taking sides

Consider This

The problem is that once we succumb to the pressure for quick decision making, defending our position in the face of new or unfolding information (or even changing tastes) can become a matter of ego—and that’s bad news. Even as the events of Syria unfolded, both the Obama-as-war-monger and punish-with-ordnance camps remained entrenched. But the facts on the ground were that a complicated situation with no easy answers was to a great extent diffused by a combination of factors and, dare I say it, a flexible thinker in the White House who took advantage of emerging facts and opportunities, both hoped for and unplanned. And none of this jibed with either side.

Again without comparing the graveness of such choices to the Syrian question, how many times have you read a book or seen a movie or encountered a piece of art and, though moved, were perplexed enough to need digestion time to tease out your thoughts and realize the full impact of the experience—only days, weeks or even years later reaching a conclusion. How many “one second thoughts” have you had? Sometimes understanding takes time—and sometimes it never fully happens before something leaves your figurative field of vision. Embracing this state of mind isn’t always easy, but it’s often critical to accurate decision making.

None of this is to defend apathy or disinterest—politically, artistically or otherwise. We’re not talking about those folks who on election night still insufferably seem to be neither here nor there, many of whom never had any intention of learning about the candidates, or even voting. (I, for one, am as uninterested in the uninterested as they are in me.)

I also don’t mean to challenge certain instances where we know what we know and delayed decision making is just senseless. (I remember advising my son upon his entering college to delay choosing a major until they threatened to throw him out. He chose Film on day one and two years out of college is enjoying a budding career in the field. Turns out he knew what he knew.) Moreover, some choices require quick action—if there’s a tiger in the room (or enemy planes in the air), taking one’s time before decision making would be pretty damn, well, thoughtless.

But here’s something to think about the next time you’re feeling uneasy about being perched on that fence: Shooting from the hip is an inaccurate game if you’re not Butch or Sundance. Bullseyes are most often attained when one takes careful aim before pulling the trigger (again, as it were). Know that assuming a thoughtful, jury’s out position can be an assertive and intellectually aggressive stance in itself—and one with its own style, if that matters. Of course, you might be well informed and confident, and being temporarily or permanently undecided is a rare occurrence for you. That’s fine. The trick though, as it is with so many things, is having the wisdom to know the difference.

(For the record, after careful thought and lifelong review, I’ll take both the Beatles and the Stones, and Ginger and Mary Ann.)

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon’s Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at scott@adelson.org and follow him @scottadelson on Twitter.

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Images: SAN_DRINO (top) and Desmond Tan

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