Saturday, 10 March 2007

Doing as (you think) you've been done by

The closest I've ever come to feeling actually physically threatened in Cambridge was some years ago when a group of us were walking back from Barton Road after the weekly ASNC pub night in the Red Bull. As we went through the Market Square we passed a rather excessive SUV and somehow we set off its alarm -- but car alarms are easily disturbed so we ignored it, continuing to talk and laugh rather loudly. At this point a group of young men on the other side of the square got very angry with us and started shouting quite rude things while advancing on us menacingly. The blokes I was with found this pretty upsetting. (I think they felt frustrated that they were unable, both physically and because of their moral upbringing, to fight back.) Because I had no problem about just walking briskly away I was mostly puzzled what had set them off. After reflecting on what they were shouting at us I realised that they thought we had deliberately done something to the SUV and that we were laughing about that. I don't think they were connected with the SUV though -- I think they were just a bit "lairy" after a night out, they saw some people behaving like wankers, and then decided to react to that. But the point is that the bad behaviour they thought they saw in us was what permitted their bad behaviour. If they had seen us being nice to a cat, or helping an old lady across the road, we would still have drawn their attention but I bet with entirely different results. They were probably a reasonably nice bunch of lads in other circumstances.

There's a big problem with trying to be intelligent about other people's motives. On the one hand people often behave badly and one needs not to be too naive about this or one will be prey to manipulations. On the other hand, one doesn't want to become over-sensitive, seeing schemes were there are none; this damages relationships and it causes us ourselves a lot of hurt and anxiety. And I wonder whether a lot of the trouble I've come across recently has been caused by people thinking there's been some sort of planned ambush or conspiracy, and then coming up with a counter-conspiracy -- which of course gets detected so that the originally imaginary conspiracy comes into existence as a counter-counter-conspiracy. This is just plain stupid -- people are creating enemies in their own image. But then, the most useful thing I have learnt in all my time at Cambridge is that there is no one so stupid as an intelligent person. It's not something to be bitter about, just something to remember sympathetically when trying to deal with clever people.

I don't know what the right answer to it all is, but I suspect one smiles, though in a sympathetic manner and (for tact's sake) internally, at the misapprehensions, and walks briskly away from any complicity in those ideas. (Which worked in Market Square.) In a community you see people frequently so you can't just give up on them, but I hugely hope it's possible not to become caught up in the narratives in their heads. In the meantime we should all try to make each other laugh with friendly jokes.

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