No, really. He later described himself as “a self-taught economist”, and was a young, clean-cut boyish looking man. He happened to choose the table beside me. He had a clipboard, presumably with a petition. And he had a massive hate-on for the U.S. Federal Reserve.
This isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself. Good criticism of any structure of power, critiques of the way they use that power, and generally keeping them honest is a good thing. Telling untruths and half-truths in order to get fearmongering support? That is a bad thing, in and of itself. And sometimes a good thing – transparency – can be bad. (If you’re interested in this sort of thing, and learning more in a entertaining way, I highly recommend Planet Money.)
So when a guy’s claiming knowledge of the conspiracy of New York Bankers to profit themselves by creating the Fed in the 1920s (thus ignoring the prior central banks or bank failures) as a justification for requiring public transparency or dissolution of the Fed now… well, he met my criteria for Saying Something:
- Loud enough to be clearly overheard.
- Factually wrong.
- Actively soliciting support.
I usually require two out of three.
To the credit of the guy being harangued, he listened to me and listened to the Fed-hater. He asked questions of me to verify the other guy’s veracity, and so on. He asked me hard questions, and didn’t just give me a pass either. That part was pretty cool.
I think it should be a footnote to the “we don’t talk about politics or religion in public” rule: If you’re going to do so, be prepared to back up your statements. And if you’re doing it loud enough for other people to hear, then expect your conversation to be intruded on. And those of us who know the truth of things should intervene.
Why? Because extremists (on all sides) over-estimate the amount of public support they have. Period. When we’re quiet, when nobody talks about this stuff – in a civil manner, respecting differences – then the nutjobs think everyone else has their back. When extremists think the public supports them, they feel empowered to act more and more extreme.
A big case in point was in Rwanda, and documented by E.L. Paluck.
This study examined the utility of using mass media in an attempt to reduce racial prejudice by evaluating the effects of a radio drama in Rwanda. The radio drama New Dawn was explicitly designed to address the discrimination and mistrust between Tutsis and Hutus by weaving educational messages into the storyline. The researchers used a group-randomized experimental method to determine which groups heard the drama and which heard an unrelated program. Pretests were administered, and interviews, focus groups, and behavioral observation constituted the post-test. The researchers saw little change in personal beliefs, but significant change in perceived and exhibited social norms.
Point being that I don’t expect to ever change the Fed-hater’s attitude. But I can sure communicate that mistruths and fearmongering aren’t okay around here. And I will.
1 Paluck, E. L. (2009). Reducing Intergroup Prejudice and Conflict Using the Media: A Field Experiment in Rwanda. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 574-587.