Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Time to Proselytize

One of my cousins once found herself receiving religious text messages from a family friend at a regular rate. The messages came about once a day, and they started out as simple quotes taken from the Bible. Later, these messages slowly graduated to religious insights gleaned from extra-biblical references. And after that, the sender began placing sermons from one reverend or another, interpreting various biblical passages each day.

From my cousin's point of view, she was originally quite neutral to these messages. Then, as the passages started adding up and interrupting her normal workday, she began to hate them. By the time she finally confronted the caller and ordered him to stop, she despised them so much that civility was no longer an option.

At that point, the caller professed naiveté: He said he was unaware that these messages were bothering her, apologized, and promised that he would stop sending her his daily missives. Now, you may assume that this discouraged him from doing the same to anyone else. You'd be wrong, though: It turns out that, to this date, he still sends these same messages to his circle of phone contacts. Regularly, too -- about once a day.

This is not an argument against the enthusiastic religious, mind you. I suppose that people have a right to be religious. You can believe in whatever you want, whether it's a higher deity or a level of enlightened mastery or a black sock puppet that sounds like it's talking to you. You can even dedicate any amount of your life and time to any of these core faiths, black sock puppet notwithstanding.

No, I won't argue against the religious here. What I will argue against, however, is the psychology of unwanted messaging.

I have no idea what compels people to stick random messages in our faces and immediately expect that we read and enjoy them. You find these people everywhere, I think: They're the anonymous businessmen whose spam mail clogs your inbox, they're the sales agents who try to give you fliers at the entrances to malls, and they're the electioneers who leave campaign materials in your mail slot. They're the convention gamer who wants to tell you all about his Level 21 Orc Paladin, the screenwriter who constantly hounds you about his derivative manuscript, the self-declared critic who tears down your favorite stuff simply because he likes getting a rise out of people.

And what appalls me is that -- like the proselytizing young evangelist I mentioned above -- these people think that they are entirely justified in doing what they do.

I suspect that salesmanship has something to do with their motivations. We use conviction a lot: We use it to push forward our ideas, we use it to dispense advice, and we use it to consider alternatives. We can also apply our own convictions towards other people, however; This is why we have such things as "points of view".

What crosses the line into pure, unabashed irritation, however, is that point where we begin to focus more on the salesmanship and less on the empathy. We don't think of how people will realistically react anymore; We simply assume that they'll like whatever garbage we spoon down their throats, and send them whole reams of the stuff. I'm aware that human behavior can all too easily be taken to the extreme; This happens to be one of those episodes.

And if anything, what makes this so difficult to swallow is the fact that it's so hard to stop. My cousin took a few months to come to her senses and confront her unwanted correspondent; When I asked what took her so long, she said that she simply didn't know what to say.

I think that this is a common dilemma. I mean, assuming that you're still thoughtful about other people in some way, you'd hesitate before you tell off any unwanted solicitors. Why? Because you'd be afraid of hurting their feelings, of course. They may be on the verge of offending you, but you still wouldn't want to offend them. Not unless you feel you have no other choice.

So you put on a brave face, and wait for that straw to break the camel's back. It's not much of a solution, but the elimination of all civility does make it easier to cut things off with the person. Hopefully you won't have lost too much of your humanity to commit homicide right then and there.

Offending the person, after all, would result in quite a rough time. You could be called irreverent or blasphemous just for interrupting a caller's religious tirades. Or you could be accused of elitism just for saying that you find absolutely nothing of value in Level 21 Orc Paladins.

For that matter, this doesn't even take into account the possibility of the person completely ignoring your pleas. Complain to a spammer, for example, and you'll probably just get more spam in response. And those self-professed critics will most likely just turn up their noses and insist that they have better audiences than you.

That "homicide" option just looks so attractive sometimes.

When it comes to unwanted solicitations, the fault really doesn't lie with us -- it lies in the people who send them with little or no consideration whatsoever. Despite this, it's we who have to suffer for it and agonize over the possible consequences. Sometimes it's just difficult to be civil, that's all.

And then that's when the notion turns back on us and asks: "What if we're the unwanted senders? What if we're the ones who are trying to foist the unsolicited stuff on people?"

After all -- before you point out the speck in another person's eye, you've first got to remove the stick from yours. Just because other people can be irritating to you doesn't mean that you're not irritating to other people.

You could be doing some real nasty stuff, I mean. You could be pushing your works too hard. You could be doing some unbearably shameless self-promotion. You could be trumpeting your own strengths without regard to how much of a buffoon you look like.

Or you could be ranting about unwanted messages, when it turns out that you could be writing a few, yourself.

Just a thought.


I'm shutting up now.

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