Two Kinds of People

by Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
When we see old things in new ways

It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who say there are two kinds of people in the world - and those who don't.

Actually, it's possible to break most groups down into two subgroups. For example, you can separate those with brown eyes from those with blue eyes. You can also separate young people from old people, and men with hair from men without. And there are ways of dividing people mentally as well as physically. Conservative voters and Liberal voters would form two separate groups, as would those who believe in a god and those who don't. Psychologists have even developed tests to distinguish between introverts and extroverts.

The fact is that it's incredibly easy to divide humans into different groups based on physical characteristics and/or mental attributes. Who ever said that all people are created equal must not have been paying attention. Furthermore, sorting people into different groups isn't necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, there are times when it's the only way to go. The ProLife person is not going to be happy seated next to a ProChoice person at dinner even if reproduction never enters into the conversation. They can sit side by side (completely unaware that they stood on opposite sides of a barricade earlier that day) and still manage to dislike each other. This is because belief systems tend to be internally consistent. You buy the original premise, you buy the whole story.

For example, let's say I'm ProLife. If you had to bet, am I for or against censorship of the Internet? Do I like or dislike Howard Stern? Would I vote for or against gun control? See what I mean? Opinions tend to cluster into predictable patterns.

I had a friend who, during the Viet Nam war, constructed a personality test to determine if individuals felt that America was on the right or the wrong side in Southeast Asia. What made it interesting was that none of the questions seemed to relate to the war. He asked things that reflected the subject's social class, educational experience, gender preference, maturity level and so forth. Guns and bullets, planes and bombs were never mentioned. Looking at the test, one would have no idea what it was designed to test. And yet it worked with a comfortably high degree of confidence.

Which is why it's so hard to get someone to change his or her mind on any significant issue. Their belief systems are much like that mighty oak growing from a tiny seed. Slash away at a root and you're going to create all kinds of problems higher up in the branches.

Or think about editing something you've written. You change one little verb tense and suddenly there are dozens of subjects that no longer agree.

Combine this with the notion that everyone should have an opinion and that everyone should then defend that opinion, and you'll see why we spend so much time talking about the weather. It tends to keep the body count down.

And speaking of opinions, did you ever notice that when tabulating public opinion polls dealing with even the most complex problems, only something like 2% will put themselves in the "Don't Know" column. Should the Federal Reserve raise or lower interest rates? Do you honestly think that the 98% who voice an opinion actually know what the Federal Reserve is?

Personally, it's my opinion that 98% of the people should say "Don't Know" to 98% of the questions. Think about it. There are very great extremes in physical attractiveness, physical health and physical ability. All one need do to see this is look around. So why would one not expect to find similar variation in the mental area?

For some reason, it's naively assumed that brains come in a one-size-fits-all model. I remember the lady who told me her son was devoting all his time and energy to an advanced math class and - by God! - he was going to make it through. I told her that the difficulty he was experiencing was his brain's way of telling him that he wasn't predisposed mathematically, and that he would do better trying to determine where any talent he might have lay. Although she would have been able to accept his inability to put a ball through a hoop or to ever tickle much more than Chopsticks out of the ivories, his mind was like a river just waiting to be channeled. It could go anywhere - Right? Wrong!

I'm no dope, and yet I have great difficulty with concepts involving time. I know that if I travel faster I'll age slower - but I really can't wrap my brain around the concept. Think about it. If you ride around in space on a rocket ship traveling at half the speed of light, all your friends back on Earth will be aging much faster. Stay away long enough and everyone alive when you left will have died of old age by the time you return.

Similarly, I know that some cosmologists say time is an illusion - nothing more than a series of "nows" that are like the individual stills in a motion picture. And too, I know that a jiffy is the teeny tiny length of time it takes for light to pass a proton, and that by conceptually dividing a jiffy into still smaller units, it eventually becomes possible to travel backward in time. I know all this. But do I really?

To tell the truth, my brain is as capably of understanding Stephen Hawkin as my body is of beating the bejeebers out of Arnold Schwarzenegger. So when it comes to truly cosmic questions - What's the meaning of life? Is there a God? Will the universe ever end? - I flat out admit to being a "two percenter". I just don't know - and the fact is - you probably don't know either.

Look At It This Way

It's silly to believe that there's an end to the process of knowing; to believe that our present understanding of things will hold some special significance for all time. Future generations will, no doubt, agree with a few of the things we believe today, and will laugh out loud at much of the rest. So it's indeed possible to say there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who look with wonder at the universe and know they don't know - and those who don't.

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