Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Post No. 190c: Virtually All of Us Find Some Other Folks "Peculiar"

This is a post I generated during our very first year in the operation of this blog. However, in light of the responses of the public to the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, I thought that we all, particularly my target audience, college students, might benefit from the wisdom of Andy Griffith during the 1960s.

© 2008, 2012, 2013, and 2014 the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Several years ago, I attended a conference sponsored by a professional association at a high end resort in Florida. An incredible buffet dinner was scheduled for one evening, to which everyone was looking forward.

I arrived just as the food was being taken away.

Upon my arrival, everyone inquired as to why I was so late. When I informed them that I felt compelled to watch two episodes of the Andy Griffith Show, they all howled with laughter.

Their laughter grew even louder when I mentioned that, in my opinion, one could learn more about life from that show than perhaps any other show on television. (Interestingly, my Father tells me that it was also the favorite show of my Mother, who passed away at a relatively early age.)

I saw an episode of the show yesterday, which reminded me of the manner in which this simple show, about life in small town America, has provoked many a thought throughout my lifetime.

It was the story of Ed Sawyer, a clean-cut, well-groomed stranger who arrives in Mayberry. Throughout the episode, Ed is always dressed in a conservative business suit, articulate, respectful, polite, and there is nothing visually alarming about him. In fact, he could be the poster boy for virtually any All-American organization or movement.

The first scene in the episode unfolds as Ed enters Floyd’s barbershop, where Barney Fife is in the chair getting a shave. Several other citizens, including Andy, are also present.

Ed engages them all in a pleasant, upbeat conversation, calls them each by name, and exhibits a degree of familiarity which causes the shop’s occupants to become uncomfortable. As he leaves the shop, all heads turn to follow him down the street, and they all exit to watch his next move. Almost immediately, there is a suggestion by Barney that Andy commence an investigation of this suspicious and “peculiar” stranger.

As Ed proceeds down the sidewalk, he encounters a double baby stroller parked in front of a store, where the mother is looking through the shop window. Ed greets the two twins, their mother, and then poses questions which suggest that he can distinguish between the two boys at this early stage in their development. The suspicions grow.

Ed next proceeds to the local rooming house, and when offered one room, he declines because of an incident which had occurred in the room, arguably about which few would have known. Although he has never stayed at the rooming house, he then proceeds to request a specific room, by number, which although green in color, has a cheerier d├ęcor.

At this point, Barney is beside himself, and inquires whether Ed speaks German. Fortunately, Andy, the voice of reason, intervenes and initiates a conversation more normally associated with welcoming a visitor to one’s town. At the same time, Andy poses a number of questions in an effort to get to know this fellow better, since he is also experiencing some degree of discomfort, although unarticulated.

Later that afternoon, Ed approaches Andy and seeks his advice and assistance. It appears that the local gas station is up for sale, and Ed is considering buying it. Andy suggests that perhaps Ed might be moving a tad too quickly, and that he should take the time to get to know the townspeople a little better.

He further suggests that the town’s citizens might regard Ed’s sudden emergence on the scene as “peculiar,” without some “warming up.” (By the way, I learned the word “peculiar” from this show, which was used with some frequency on episodes airing in the 1960’s.)

Ed then segues into how much in love he is with Lucy Matthews, who he has never seen. However, he is familiar with all of her physical attributes, and he inquires of Andy as to why she does not answer his calls and knocks on her door. Lucy soon walks in to lodge a complaint, to which Ed responds that she is just as pretty as he suspected. It is at this point that Andy feels, as the town’s sheriff, he must get to the bottom of this behavior, since it threatens to disturb the town’s peace.

Ed admits that his behavior might strike some as odd, but provides a very plausible, if not immediately obvious, explanation. Ed explains that Joe Larson, a long-time resident of Mayberry, was an Army buddy. While serving together, Joe received the local Mayberry newspaper, and Ed found himself reading the paper on a daily basis.

As time moved on, he began to feel that he “knew” the citizens about whom the articles were written. He further explains that over time, he began to envy Joe, because Joe was from Mayberry, a place that Ed admired, and Ed was from, well, “Nowhere.”

Ed further explains that over time, he began to wish that Mayberry was his hometown, and he eventually convinced himself that it was. When he saw the ad in the paper that the service station was up for sale, he regarded it as an opportunity to fulfill a dream.

After Ed leaves the courthouse / jail, Barney rushes in and proclaims that Ed has finally “overplayed his hand.” When Andy inquires as to what Barney is referring, Barney states that Ed has been hanging around Lucy Matthews’ house and actually crossed the line by ringing her bell.

Andy suggests that insufficient grounds exist to justify an arrest, to which Barney replies that he pulled in three 12 year olds the preceding Halloween for ringing doorbells unnecessarily.

He further exclaims that Ed doesn’t even have the excuse of being out for trick or treat. Deputy Fife then inquires as to whether Ed speaks Spanish.

Of course, Ed’s efforts to integrate himself into the community go terribly wrong. That’s even after Andy makes everyone feel pretty small and provincial after facetiously suggesting that they all were justified in their prejudicial attitudes toward this stranger, just because he was an unknown, peculiar, and somewhat different.

Ed realizes that this really isn’t the place for him, and leaves. And the town lost a potentially energizing and illuminating individual.

This 40 plus year old episode of the Andy Griffith Show made me think of several things this weekend. First, the power of the visual media came to mind, along with its potential to expand the minds of its viewers, particularly young viewers, as well as its power to narrow.

Second, it reminded me of the 30 year period when I lived in Southern California, and I interacted with all sorts of people of different races from different parts of the world. Virtually everyone was a stranger. Upon returning to North Carolina, despite the fact that North Carolina is the number one state in terms of percentage increase of Hispanics, I noticed the lack of interaction between whites and blacks on the one hand, and Hispanics on the other. Asians operate many mom and pop businesses in the black parts of town, but the social interaction ends there.

At several public meetings in my hometown, I have mentioned that despite what one may think of our immigration policies, many immigrants are here, and we need to engage them and integrate them into our society, with the goal of deriving the best that we can from their involvement. Each time I have broached the subject, many citizens in the room have lowered their heads and looked at the floor without responding.

In recent months, I have tried something different. Every time I have encountered Hispanics, I have taken the initiative to walk up to them and start a conversation. Each time, without fail, they have been pleasant folks and almost ecstatic that someone outside of their group took the risk to engage them. It has always been a rewarding experience, although guarded it may have started.

Third, this episode also struck a chord when I learned of Senator’s Obama’s reference earlier this week to the efforts of his opponents to label him as different, and thus necessarily something that we should fear.

Our fear of the unknown, caution, and prejudice, even that racially based, appear to be hard wired to ensure survival and ease of negotiation in a complex world. But we also have a bigger brain which should enable us to think and reason beyond our biggest primal fears.

Some criticism has been leveled against the Andy Griffith Show over the years because of its conspicuous absence of blacks in a show based in a southern city. However, Andy Griffith himself sure made up for that during the airing of his Matlock series.

Be that as it may, my hat is off to the Andy Griffith Show, and particularly its writers, particularly considering the era in which the show was first viewed. Perhaps more of you will have the opportunity to view the Ed Sawyer episode before the upcoming presidential election.

© 2008, 2012, 2013, and 2014, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

8 comments:

  1. Reggie,
    My wife loves Mayberry RFD and on the rare occasions I sit down and watch an episode with her I find myself enjoy them as well. I may even be familiar with the Ed Sawyer episode. Like most of the family shows back then, there were lessons to be learn. You’re re-posting this in light of the Ferguson, Missouri situation does shed some insight on how our differences put us at odds with one another.
    I think, however at time those differences can be so great that the need for common respect and decency for strangers or those unlike oneself doesn’t quite cut it. As we see and know when there’s a history of separation between economics/poverty, class/status, race and education those differences becomes so overwhelming that the need for something more life changing is require.
    You are right we can learn a lot from some of the simple family shows our parents used to watch. I really enjoyed reading your article. Thanks and take care.

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  2. Thanks much Dennis, for participating in my forum. I always welcome new voices with different perspectives. With respect to your position that there appears to be an overwhelming need for something more life-changing in the race relations sphere, I agree with you, in principle. However, I believe that the conversation will never be advanced if we as humans continue to insist that racism is primarily environmentally, and to some extent, emotionally-based. I, along with the other members of the Institute, have long maintained that racism is primarily genetically encoded. There is plenty of scientific evidence to support that notion, based on our studies of members of the animal kingdom. In my view, we will never make any progress until we recognize that.

    It’s about evolution and survival, and the reduction in the transmission of disease and other physical vulnerabilities. Racism can be likened to cancer, and like cancer, to treat it effectively, we need to recognize both the environmental and biological factors contributing to it.

    Thanks for your comments, and be sure to come back.

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  3. I liked your post. It conveys two important messages: 1. Because people are strangers, they are not inherently evil: and, 2. People don't like thinking in a rational way, in other words, thinking is hard, painful work.

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  4. Not sure if my reply posted. However I had stated the statement; racism is genetically encoded is very interesting. My question would be if that's true what are some of the methodologies to eradicated or minimize it and would this be something one can expect to see in the normal human life span?

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Dennis for continuing the conversation. At this moment, as I type, the History Channel is airing its series, "Mankind, the Story of All of Us," and at this point, the show is examining humankind's enduring enemy - DISEASE. Much about race is connected with fighting off disease to survive and evolve.

      It is my position that in order to address what appears at first glance to be "racism," society must accept the fact that some component of it is biologically based. If we go into the discussion simply claiming that people consciously do not like one another, and that alone, and that it is purely environmental, we will not solve the problem, if ever it can be solved. It may be that it is incapable of being solved, except through some form of social engineering, to which many legitimately object.

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    2. As you know, Inspector, I believe what we call "racism" is encoded in our DNA and came about because of the survival instinct. That will make it incredibly difficult (possibly impossible) to excise. The best we can hope for is to come to terms with it, accept it as a part of our nature, and willfully control it.

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  5. Thanks much for your input, Douglas. As you are aware, it has always been my position that racism is primarily "genetically encoded." I further think that any effort to "deal" with it requires a recognition of the biological component.

    Last month, at the height of the discontent flowing from the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, my local PBS station aired a Frontline program about the death of Michelle O’Connell.

    For those of you who have ever spent an hour arguing back and forth as to whether some event was or was not about race, this is a MUST see. Spend a hour watching this video, and you might save some time arguing the next time around.

    Virtually all of the same conflict about what happened and who did what exists in this story, except virtually everyone was of the same race, class, political bent, and employed or connected with the Sheriff’s Department. I am reasonably sure that PBS aired it to show that the conflicting views of what happened, and pitting side against side, can exist in a setting where race is not an issue.

    It’s pretty unbelievable to watch. THIS will make you think, especially the end….

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