Monday, June 1, 2009

How to talk to “normal” people?

Lately I’ve been having more trouble than usual talking to average, everyday people, because nearly every topic is contaminated by invalid terms and ideas associated with government. I can only stare blankly at people in genuine confusion because the more I realize the inherent nature of government the less I can comprehend any standards it sets. This inability to communicate is probably not a good thing, especially if we hope to expose others to better ideas. Do any of you know what I mean? If yes, how do you work around this?

Here is an example.

Today at work I read the Food Institute Report, a weekly industry newsletter to which the company I work for subscribes. It reported that New York state started a “War on Obesity.” The governor, David Paterson, introduced a bill to require restaurants, stores, and vendors to display calorie values on menus and menu boards including drive-through windows. “The initiative seeks to help consumers make informed choices when purchasing food away from home.”

I do not understand that seemingly simple sentence because I don’t understand what a “consumer” is and why they need special protection. I don’t understand how this bill increases “informed choice” because nutrition data is already available on websites, brochures, etc. Subway even puts calorie values on its napkins. The FIR newsletter says that 95% of restaurant patrons do not look at this voluntarily provided data. There is no basis to believe anyone would look at the data once it is emblazoned on neon billboards. So I can’t even coherently respond to people who support such a bill because its basic premises don't make any sense.

Then Paterson said, “When people know the amount of calories in their choices, they make better choices.”

How can we begin to show the inaccuracy of this statement, since doing so would require accepting the governor’s (State’s?) implication that a “better” choice is a lower calorie choice, which is hardly the case? But assuming we accepted that false notion and wanted to factually disprove his statement, perhaps we could reference data showing that, since the introduction of food labeling on product packages, obesity rates have continued to rise. For example, in 1994, when The National Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) required product nutrition labeling, the CDC reported that 10-14% of adults were obese in 23 states, and 15-19% of adults were obese in the remaining 27 states. By 2007 only one state had obesity rates below 20%, 19 states had obesity rates ranging from 20-24%, 27 states had obesity at 25-29%, and three states had obesity rates greater than 30%.

This argument would disprove Paterson's faithful assertion. But notice the hidden premises that using the argument would require us to accept:

- We’d have to concede that “consumers” looked at the product labels.

- We’d have to use data from the CDC, a government agency.

- We’d have to accept that eating high calorie foods is itself enough to cause obesity.

- We’d have to accept the government cut-off values for obesity.

- We’d have to accept the government measure of obesity, which is the Body Mass Index, a totally inaccurate assessment of health developed by a Belgian mathematician-astronomer in 1832.! (Ironically, the CDC’s own website admits that BMI is flawed—and admits its own incompetence. After listing some superior methods of measuring body fat it says, “However, these methods are not always readily available, and they are either expensive or need highly trained personnel.” Nice acknowledgement that highly skilled people tend not to work for the government ;-)

Using the CDC data to argue against Paterson’s claim that when people know “better,” they do better, requires accepting all of those hidden premises. I do not accept any of them and therefore can’t even begin to address his statement. The government and its terminology and standards have permeated everything and created an awful mess of our general language and logic.

Richard Daines, the State Health Commissioner, “applauded the Governor’s efforts.” He said, “This legislation … demonstrates Governor Paterson’s dedication to addressing the obesity epidemic and will improve the health and lives of all New Yorkers.”

What does it mean to be “dedicated to addressing” something? How will shoving data in people’s faces and contributing to information overload improve their health and lives?

Senator Thomas Duane said, “New Yorkers can save millions of dollars in health care costs through this simple program and I will fight for its enactment.” Whose money is he talking about? Private insurance? Taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare? What is this “health care cost?” Would health care cost matter to him if private insurance companies were paying for it, rather than fascist state-affiliated programs whose lobbyists were pressuring him? Where is the connection between mandated menu data and improved health? Why does he think that a person who is overfat doesn’t know, in 2009, that French fries contain more calories than an equivalent mass of carrots? Why does he think that a person going to a fast-food drive-through would actually choose a different item when told that a given item has 2,000 calories? Why does he think anyone cares about this?

As you can see, I am genuinely confused and my thoughts are all in a jumble due to government making a complexity out of something that is really quite simple: customers are going to eat what they like and food services should have the freedom to offer those choices.

So when a newspaper article or a co-worker or a random person on the street says something like, “I think that bill is a good idea because it will help people be healthy,” I have no appropriate response.

When presented with similar comments, do you attempt to address them by conceding government standards in your argument? Do you attempt a lengthy explanation? Do you not bother?


  1. It's a bit encouraging to know I'm not the only one that gives a blank stare sometimes due to the same reason. I tend to internally debate whether I have enough time to really lay it out and if the audience is willing to listen, because as you have shown, you have to tear down the platform that most people base their world view upon. I just nod politely if I feel a no for either. If I do, I generally start off with a kind yet sympathetic intro of "well I don't agree with that as X", with X being a basic tenet: it violates the Non-Aggression Principle, taxation is theft, representation is a myth, etc. From there I can introduce all of the facts to back it up, which will lead me to root causes. Depending on where the person's initial stance happens to be, I can choose to go from the root problem (the State) to the symptoms (stupid laws, etc) or vice-versa as the general fallacies employed give me much to work with. I've had a very lively exchange just last week that went quite smoothly this way from symptoms to cause (with a military family no less).

    Also, I've realized that terms like 'anarchy' are such powerful anti-concepts (oh god, crack head teenagers with bombs!) with most people that I recommend using terms such as 'voluntaryist' and the like to get the underlying message across.

    Another great post btw!

  2. I believe Richard's comment gives a great template for effective communication of our ideals. Being fairly new to the game, my approach isn't nearly as refined. I'm still working on controlling my anger and excitement. I've had people say such idiotic things that I literally jumped out of my chair... Not really the way to win people over.

    Depending on the person, I tend to try to tap into their anger. Everyone has a hot button item that really gets them fired up. I find it and then proceed to show the State's roll in creating/exasperating it. For instance:

    In my experience as a relatively young Black male, I have noticed, in general, that Black people tend to support the govt as a default. When ever I run into a person like that I usually being by saying, "Why do you trust them? If any one should be distrustful of the govt. it should be us. This is the same govt. that declared us 3/5 of a man, gave us syphilis and watched us go crazy and die, who makes us pay into social security when the average Black man has never lived long enough to collect....." By this time I can start to see the blood begin to boil and that is when I start detailing the issue at hand and how the State's involvement will only cost more money (that we don't have) and make the situation worse.

    Most people don't want to talk about anything that makes them uncomfortable or that requires any mental effort. Some just want to argue and fight. When I get one of those I smile b/c I like to do battle and it sharpens my arguments.

    Good post. Don't give up

  3. Richard,
    There is a member of our local group also named Richard. Two Richards and two Davids hopefully won't make for confusing reading!
    I don't really have much to respond to what you said, but I guess you are right that what you say will depend on the context, time, and interest level of the person with whom you're speaking.
    I would like to add, though, that when I clearly disagree with someone's statement I do at least say "No" or "I do not agree," even if I do not intend to enter into a debate. This isn't necessarily productive, but I feel some moral compulsion to let it be known that I do not accept what is said (since I believe silence implies acceptance).
    Thank you for reading the blog. Do you live in the Detroit area?

  4. Hi Mark,
    Hopefully this response will make some sense because I'm just writing it on the spot.
    Thanks for your comments.
    I must admit that your last sentence ("Don't give up") is an example of something that I have no idea what it means! I will never give up on bettering myself and doing what I think is best for my life, but I am leaning towards believing that society/people in general are not worth spending time trying to change. I don't view this as giving up necessarily, but as stopping investing time and effort in something futile and instead focusing on things that are more rewarding. Is it worth debating with a co-worker who thinks corn subsidies are bad but soy subsidies are good, when I could have spent that time working on an article or learning a new skill? Is it worth rallying for Ron Paul in a parade, when I could have spent that time starting a business? "Giving up" on others-at-large could actually mean redirecting efforts to increase values and happiness in other areas of life...

  5. @Mark I encourage you to refine that anger. Discerning what is a hot button issue with someone is great as it gives you that hook into what he deems important, giving him more of a desire to hear you out. There's a little internal phrase I use to keep myself focused, a pep talk if you will, that I'd like to share. "Either my arguments are sound or they are not. If they are, I'm free from having to argue as truth can stand on it's own. If they are not, then I want to expose them as much as the other guy." Just as I have resolved not to initiate physical force upon others, I think it's important not to inadvertently attack others that don't (yet!) see eye to eye with me. This gives me the incentive to both know what I'm talking about and to relax when speaking, keeping the air free of hostility and my points open to scrutiny, which will only sharpen my reasoning for the next guy. I encourage you to become the antithesis of the Fox news type. Also, good point with the 3/5 counting. I usually point to Jim Crow laws and segregation to highlight govt exacerbating racial issues, but I'll definitely add that one to my arsenal.

    @NewEdit617 No, I'm from San Antonio, TX actually. I think I ran across this site when mentioned it. I'm with you on making the most of our time. I'd still be lost (and miserable quite frankly) if others didn't invest their time wisely to accurately highlight the root problems of society in clear, definable ways (in addition to showing how to embrace my own personal freedom, as pointing the finger but not offering any viable solutions isn't terribly helpful). I think as we invest into fuller lives and keep our reasoning sound as to why we do what we do, we attract people willing to listen to the truth while weeding out the adamantly stupid. As it's been said before, don't spend time trying to change others. Simply show them what you have found to be true, in both words and deeds.

  6. Carrie,
    My saying, "don't give up," was unintentionally vague. Lets apply the Socratic method to your situation.

    You don't want to speak with "normal" people anymore.


    Because their comments and thoughts baffle you.

    Why do their comments and thoughts baffle you?

    Because their comments and thoughts don't make any sense and go contrary to facts and logic.

    Why does this matter to you?

    Because "normal" people indirectly enact policy through their representatives that does not work.

    Why do you care about "normal" people enacting bad policies?

    Because there are limited resources and squandering them is immoral.

    Why do you care that the squandering of limited resources is immoral?

    Because you want people to live conscious lives with the least amount of suffering.

    (In the above make several assumptions about you that could be completely off base)

    This is exactly! my point. You care about these "normal" people in some way. If you don't want to help by talking directly to them you can still work toward achieving your end. You have a gift for writing. It can be the tool you use for most while your speech can be reserved for the few.

    Meeting you and reading your posts have helped me on my journey and will move the world incrementally closer to your end. I think the other contributors would agree.

    A less opaque restatement of "Don't give up" would be, "Don't give up the end and continue to re-evaluate and modify the means as you see fit. Everything that you do helps in some way."