Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
One day as my father sped along the local expressway, I noticed from my position in the back seat that my door was slightly ajar. At ten years old, I did what any kid would do; I grabbed the handle and tried to give the door a quick open and close. Unfortunately, the very second the latch released, the door violently flew open and stretched me out like Gumby—as I perilously extended between the seat and door.
Hanging suspended over the speeding expressway, I wondered what would come first—would I sag to the point where my face would be sanded away or would my dad come to a stop before I removed my features? (He stopped.) Then it hit me, this is why my brother spoke of our car’s precarious portals as “suicide doors.” Our car sported doors that actually opened backward—catching the wind, pulling you out, and making it nearly impossible to re-close the door as you hung there, suspended over a concrete conveyer belt.
As horrible as it is to contemplate the fact that college-educated engineers purposely designed doors that flew open in the wind, it should come as little surprise to any of us. After all, just about every single part found in a car of that era was dangerous. Even features as simple as door pulls were veritable spears that stabbed you. If you came too rapidly to a stop, the dashboard contained all kinds of pokey things that left ghastly impressions in your forehead, there were no seatbelts, and the windshield glass would break into large, horrible shards of death.
Cars weren’t the only source of danger kids faced in the 50s. Although I didn’t play in uranium tailings like my partner Al (I’ve heard he’s still able to read in the dark by the glow of his feet), being more of a city boy, my mom would drop me and my friends downtown where we’d find our own way to expose ourselves to carcinogens. For instance, we’d stop by the Buster Brown shoe store to play with the lovely toy provided by the Adrian X-ray Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We’d take turns holding our arms or legs in the space where you normally inserted your foot (to see how a prospective shoe might fit) while your friends gawked at moving pictures of your X-rayed skeleton. We actually tried to stick our heads in the machine to see what our skulls looked like.
Home wasn’t much safer during those days. For example, one Halloween my brother Bill brought home a bottle of “glow-in-the-dark” paint. According to the instructions, you were supposed to paint “Boo!” and other topical expressions on the front door, but when my brother accidentally spilled the radioactive material on his pinky finger he discovered that it turned it into a fluorescent, see-through appendage. Seizing the moment, Bill quickly painted both hands with the deadly concoction and ran around the neighborhood scaring kids with his living skeletal hands.
Later that week, the two of us broke open two thermometers and played with the mysterious, smooth, and slippery mercury until it was finally gone. Still later, we produced a bubbling concoction with our chemistry set that smelled so awful that when we rushed the boiling test tube to the window, the noxious fumes literally paralyzed the flies that had been walking on the glass. To this day I suspect that had I not repeatedly sniffed the potion, calculus would have come much easier to me.
We did escape one deadly element by a whisker. A mere three years before my brother was born, the government outlawed the commercial use of radioactive thorium. Since thorium contained so much energy, it was thought to be good for you. Well-intended employees of several toothpaste and laxative companies added thorium to their product. That’s right; they were adding the same material that killed Marie Curie.
Sometimes the ease with which we gained access to dangerous materials put our entire community at risk. For instance, as a young boy I routinely visited the docks during the Blossom Time Festival when the fleet was in. There I found ways to sneak around the various naval vessels that were on display. One year, I simply lagged behind the boring submarine tour that followed a cordoned-off pathway and darted down a ladder to the restricted and nifty parts of the vessel where I then climbed around every space humanly possible—exiting the place covered in grease.
The next year, at the ripe old age of eleven, I pulled the same stunt on a gun ship. Only this time, I snuck into one of the gun turrets where I found a chair hooked up to an ocular device that gave me a close-up view of the hills overlooking Bellingham Bay. Wanting to see my own home, I gingerly moved a couple of levers that changed the view—accompanied by a strangely loud noise. After maneuvering the image for a minute or two, I eventually had a close-up view of my own home on Garden Street.
Then, just as I was about to move the sighting device to look in the window of Rita Smith (the girl who lived next door to us), I was yanked out of the seat. It turns out I wasn’t merely moving the gun sight when I jimmied those levers, I was moving the actual cannon—that’s what was making the loud noise. A second-class gunner’s mate assigned to the security detail spotted the cannon in motion, ran up to the turret, saw a kid aiming the gun at the hillside, and yanked me out of harm’s way. Now, it’s not as if I could have fired the gun, but you have to admit, there’s something unsettling about the whole matter. (Yes, I know I was very wrong in doing what I did—but for crying out loud, how was I ever allowed to do it?)
The good news is, these are all examples from the 50s and we’ve made vast improvements in keeping heavy metals, dangerous chemicals, radioactive materials, X-ray machines, and howitzers out of the reach of children. We can be proud of that. But even in today’s modern times, there’s an invisible force, just as deadly, that can still be found all around us. I’d like to point it out so we can guard against its lethal effects.
I noticed the invisible, yet frighteningly dangerous, force in light of recent political and economic turmoil. As I listened to pundits and talk-show hosts discuss necessary changes, what was happening in our country, and why it was either positively brilliant or insanely stupid, I realized that just as the Curies unknowingly exposed themselves to the invisible dangers of radiation, we’re continually being exposed to the killing effects of assuming our own omniscience.
Here’s how this ugly assumption works. People routinely talk about something as complicated as revamping the country’s massive healthcare system as if their view is remarkably simple, completely obvious, and held by all smart people. Of course, their opponents’ view is just plain stupid. So stupid in fact, that you can’t talk about it without rolling your eyes. This, of course, comes from people at both ends of the continuum.
Now, don’t get me wrong, unlike deadly radiation, you can hear and see the actual argument people make, but the underlying assumption that often goes unseen and scares me the most is the one that smacks of “I’m smart and right and you’re stupid and wrong.” Such pernicious and invisible views provide such a killing blow to civil discourse that they need to be spotted, labeled, and put under locked guard. When people enter a discussion with the notion that it’s their job to patiently wait while others blather on with their insane notions, and then set their opponents straight in one epiphanous moment of insight and verbal magic, there is no hope for civil discourse and the subsequent solution to massive national problems.
So here’s what I’ve been doing to deal with the assumption of omniscience. After listening to a talk-show host who generally reflects my political views attack a new federal policy—not simply because it was risky or possibly wrong—but because (he clearly thought) it was the disastrous product of an insane and ignorant group of opponents, I took action. I stopped listening. I stopped listening to someone who often adheres to many of my views because he positively radiated hate and loathing. He smugly sat there and talked about the opposing view as it was designed by either Satan or an idiot or both. I then e-mailed the highly-popular host and told him why I, a person of similar beliefs, would no longer patronize his program. His assumption that he was omniscient, and that his opponents were omni-stupid, was more than I could bear.
At the more local level, I fight the hidden threat of omniscience at every turn. I do my best to chat with people of opposing views by seeking to understand why they’ve come to their conclusion, tentatively sharing my view, and then looking for any truth—no matter its source. I do this because I want my family, company, and country to succeed. I want the best views to be rationally presented, honestly discussed, and applied to problems that can only be resolved when careful-thinking people present their best thoughts and jointly come up with solutions that often contain elements from both camps. I want people to come up with a third way. I also want people to talk in such a way that if one is wrong and the other is right, they’ll peacefully discover that fact as well.
And, of course, to make all this happen, I hope that people will avoid the deadly assumption of omniscience with the same care and rigor we now apply to avoiding dangerous cars, noxious chemicals, heavy metals, radiation, and the occasional run-in with a howitzer.