A few weeks ago I was cashing a check. Since my bank currently allows only a certain number of customers inside at a given time, I ended up standing outside with some other people while we waited our turn.
One man, probably in his late-fifties, struck up a conversation.
“Nice mask,” he said.
“Thanks. Yours too.”
“My neighbor’s daughter made it. It’s my third one in two months. In construction you tear right through them. Lungs get a good workout, too. Kind of sick of the whole thing, but what can you do?”
And so on. He asked what I did for a living, and I told him I’m a teacher.
“Oh, I feel so bad for the kids,” he said. “Especially the high school seniors. They lost the whole end of their year. Same for the college kids. It’s a sad way to end things.”
I agreed, and so we chatted along like that for another five minutes or so. He was a friendly guy, affable and kind of funny. It felt good, having a nice, unexpected conversation with a stranger. The last few months hadn’t provided many chances for that.
“But that Bill Gates,” he said abruptly, during a lull.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
“What about him?”
“I don’t trust that f_____.”
I exhaled. “What? Why not?”
“He’s developing a vaccine. All that money he’s giving to charity to get it made…He’s going to make that back ten times over. And you know what else?”
“No,” I said quietly. “What else?”
“They’re going to implant everyone who gets it with a microchip to track us. He wants our information. F___ that. No way in hell I’m ever taking a vaccine. Especially from him.”
Sometimes less is more, so I kept my response brief: “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” I said.
And that ended that.
But the whole thing kind of broke my heart. I like exchanging pleasantries, joking around, and meeting different people. That moment outside the bank was a small, nice chance to simply interact with someone new…And there had been plenty of common ground.
Until, suddenly, there wasn’t any left at all.
The thing is, when it comes to certain issues, I just don’t have the patience any longer for ignorance…willful or otherwise. The man outside the bank was a nice guy, except for…
And that’s what I can no longer overlook: the “except for,” that awful blind spot on an issue that grown people simply can’t afford to be blind about. It’s a deal-breaker. A brake slam. Years ago I might have overlooked it, but these last few have been eye-opening. A statement like that is now all it takes for me to step back and say, “I don’t want to know you any longer,” because it’s the kind of absolute nonsense that costs people their lives.
One of my favorite quotes is by Isaac Asimov. It’s been making the rounds again lately, since science, education, and fact-based knowledge (as well as a great deal of common sense) have been taking some hard hits these last few years:
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
I find myself simply unable to excuse that cult any longer. “Well, that’s just how she was brought up,” doesn’t cut it. Neither does, “Oh, he’s older, and his generation believed…”
And as for, “Well, everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” please re-read the quote above.
The same arguments are used to defend racists, too. Our little exchange outside the bank, by the way, was just days before the horrific murder of George Floyd. As I write this, worldwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality have entered their 11th day. I wonder what the gentleman who thought Bill Gates was out to get him thinks about that? I wonder what he’d randomly bring up in conversation now?
I’ll never have to find out.
Sometimes people disappoint us. Sometimes they anger us. And many times they can be forgiven. Hell, we all make mistakes, even big ones, and if not for the understanding of others, none of us might find the strength to change for the better. But when it comes to some issues, explicit, clear outrage toward ignorance – and the hate that often goes hand in hand with it – is appropriate. And when faced with it, the ignorant can either try to change, grow, and learn along with the rest of a maturing society, or be held accountable for their inability – or unwillingness – to do so. For me, holding them accountable includes dropping them like a bad habit, and if they ask why, telling them. “Putting up with it” or “letting it slide” is accepting it, and that is no longer acceptable. Anger is healthy when the stakes are high enough.
Now is not the time for silence. Without doing harm, speak up in your own way.
Without doing harm, be loud in your own way.
And make sure everybody hears.