Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. – Proverbs 26:4 (NIV)
Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. – Proverbs 26:5 (NIV)
Yes, you read that right. The two proverbs follow one another in the Old Testament. It’s not possible to read them in isolation. They lead to only one conclusion: in the presence of a fool, you’re in a lose-lose situation. Silence and acquiescence are not the answer; neither is confrontation.
This isn’t some mere abstraction. In fact, some might see this catch-22 in today’s political climate. The turbulence and noise from today’s politics is deafening – and feels more than a little sinister. Whether the topic is health care or immigration or trade or environment (or science more broadly) or education or national security, the first sound we hear is the sound of a wrecking ball being put to years of established precedent (imperfect precedent, to be sure, but nonetheless hard-won, the product of years if not decades of national dialog). That’s followed by a more distressing sound, the anguished cries of the largely innocent who chanced to be at the point of impact and are now falling into the category of “collateral damage.” It is these few who are unfairly bearing the brunt. Half of the nation is gleeful; they take these cries of alarm and suffering as “proof” that the change is “working.” The other half of the nation is horrified, and moved to demonstration, but nonetheless anesthetized by some distance from the personal impacts and by what Paul Slovic has called the “numbing effect” of statistics. Not since the Civil War has the country been so split down the middle, with both factions so utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause.
What to do?
The answer might lie in thinking like meteorologists, and drawing from the lessons of cloud microphysics. Such a notion might seem impossibly simplistic, in the face of such trying times. But hear me out.
With apologies to my colleagues and friends who are card-carrying cloud microphysicists and actually know this complex and important subject at some considerable depth, here is what I remember.
The water vapor in clouds doesn’t condense to form water or ice at random in the air. Instead they coalesce around cloud condensation nuclei or CCN’s – aerosol particles so small that they’re carried about by the wind and remain aloft for extended periods. Many materials function as CCN’s, but loosely speaking, they fall into two categories.
The warm cloud nuclei foster formation of water droplets in clouds at temperatures above freezing – 320 Fahrenheit or 00 Centigrade. By and large, these particles are hygroscopic. They’re particles of salt and/or acidic (aggregates of oxides of sulfur or nitrogen, for example). They absorb water, and – this is the important bit – they are dissolved by that water.
Ice nuclei – the particles responsible for water-vapor coalescence in cloud temperatures cooler than the freezing point – work differently. They’re soil particles such as clays, or other substances, whose crystal lattice structure happens to mimic the structure of ice crystals at corresponding temperatures. That structure remains firm, unchanged, as the water freezes onto it. They discipline the water, rather than lose their identity in it.
The lesson for us? As individuals, and as groups of individuals? To focus more on who we are – our core values – and what we stand for, rather than what we’re against.
For an individual, or even an organization, no matter how big (or whether government or private-sector or academic) to choose to stand against ideas or actions, from whatever source or however evil, is to risk being torn apart by all the competing pulls and tugs from such great diversity. Seven billion people, singly, and in different combinations (aggregated as other countries, etc.) can think of and promote an uncountable number of things that we disagree with, even violently. But to engage in firefighting (to argue with the fools, plural) is to be spread so thin and to be necessarily so reactive as to quickly burn out. There’s no way this route is sustainable.
By contrast, standing for something, or for a small basket of somethings – core values, ambitions, and things – is to make the task manageable, and sustainable. Consider, for example:
We’re members of the American Meteorological Society. We advance the atmospheric and related sciences, technologies, applications, and services for the benefit of society.
Standing for something is not to be drawn into empty argument. But it’s not to be silent either. It works equally well with fool or wise, or enemy or friend. So you want to survive the world of 2017, and not just survive, but make a substantive, positive difference? You might start with the AMS mission, as stated above. Add the mission statement of your agency or university or company or NGO or church or any other group that matters to you. Integrate with your personal core values of integrity and compassion, and all the rest. (Or reverse the order; any order works.) Take time to write that all down in a simple paragraph or page, or as a set of bullets you find satisfying and compelling. Then start living out your life that way, working out of your list and making adjustments as you encounter circumstances that require a tweak or a bit of reworking. Listen as others make their case to you. Have a high tolerance for what others stand for, and patience for what they rail against. But avoid argument, instead quietly insisting on a common search for truth – what to stand for. It still won’t be easy. But it will be manageable, and you can sustain it for the long term.
An extra bonus. You just might discover that other person, the one you’d been quick to label a fool, is wiser than you’d first thought.
Truth be told? Most of us have been living our lives this way all along. If we haven’t been, if we’ve allowed ourselves to be complacent and drift along with this or that tribe, then making this vital adjustment will be a bit more difficult at first, but well worth the effort.