A strange and true story:

A mother, let’s call her Sally, brought her three young children to her new country club for a swim and lunch. After sitting the kids down at a table by the pool, she went to the counter and ordered hot dogs and drinks. After bringing the sodas back to where her children were sitting, she returned to the counter for the hot dogs, only to find another woman in the process of taking hers.

This other woman, call her Mary, insisted that the hot dogs were hers. The attendant explained that Sally had in fact been there first, but Mary DEMANDED that she be given the hot dogs. Sally, wanting to avoid a scene, caved.

That evening, Sally and her husband figured out that they had a friend in common with Mary and called her to complain. The friend could not believe what Mary had done, but agreed to ask for her side of the story.

What’s strange about this story isn’t Mary’s actions (sadly all too common), or is it the friend’s disbelief (also to be expected). No, the strange part of the story is Mary’s mortified response when questioned: “If I’d known it was her, I would never have done it!”

Apparently, she wasn’t embarrassed that she’d been caught doing something wrong. Rather, she didn’t seem to think that what she had done was wrong, except for the fact it had not turned out to be stranger. WOW!

Most people who hear this story connect immediately and personally, not just from Sally’s perspective, but from Mary’s!

Obviously, the tendency to devalue strangers is a more pervasive problem than we might want to think. (The story is fifty years old, and the only thing that has changed is that we all see more of that attitude today!)

But it becomes particularly dangerous when it invades the complex process of social governance that manages our massive, diverse population, and when it creates a barrier to intersector communication and collaboration.

Because most people in the different sectors do not know one another, they tend not to trust each other and fail to value the perspectives and desires of potential collaborators. The end result is stagnation of festering problems, lack of compromise, and the failure to adequately confront complex problems.

Nowhere is the danger of such devaluation more clear than in our political system, including (maybe especially) in Congress. Due to a tendency to over-value the opinions and desires of people we know, it is too easy for politicians to dismiss valid concerns or needs because they come from strangers.

The lives of others are so undervalued that improving or even SAVING them is rarely seen as important enough to spur compromise and political action. (And it’s not a stretch to say that some of the same people who make a big show of concern over unborn lives are among the worst offenders when it comes to valuing unfamiliar lives.)

In our political process, it often seems that others simply do not matter. To many people, they just don’t exist.

What we need is to learn to value the people who we don’t know just as much as we value those we do. We need to learn to “de-otherize”, to stop seeing strangers as somehow “other” and start giving them the same moral standing that all human beings deserve.

Until we can de-otherize en-masse, we may be doomed to suffer from the inability to solve problems that involve­­­—as most problems do—other people.

The first and most important step in dealing with the problem at the root of The Hot Dog issue is that the treatment of strangers is not limited to mundane conflicts over cylindrical meat products, but rather that it is at the root of the majority of problems that plague our society.

Once there is a real public awareness of the extent of the corrosive otherizing [discriminating against ‘others’] we do every day, a foundation can be laid to take serious, simple, and practical steps to change how we treat everyone, whether we’ve met them or not.


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