What do Ron Jeremy, Tammy Faye Baker, and a Doug Jackson have in common? Well, they all taught me something about human nature, and it’s a lesson we’ve used often in the raising of our kids. Unfortunately, the lesson is not yet known to many, especially here in uptight America.

There is no way you could know, but Doug is a drug dealer. If you don’t know, Ron Jeremy is a porn star. And if you don’t remember Tammy Faye Baker, well, you should have crawled out from under that rock you lived under during the 1980s. (And if you weren’t alive in the 1980s, keep it to yourself.)

Porn star meets Tammy Faye

Let’s start with a porn star and a televangelist pastor’s ex-wife, Ron Jeremy and Tammy Faye, respectively. Some years ago I was flicking through the TV when I saw the VH1 reality television series The Surreal Life. Ron Jeremy and Tammy Faye Baker were among a group of half of a dozen celebrities living in house together. We call such shows “train wrecks,” because they are gruesome, usually helpful to no one, yet averting one’s eyes can be virtually impossible. The show’s obvious formula was to use competition and activities to create conflict, then masquerades it all as entertainment. But what ensued was somehow a revelation.

Despite her tumultuous life and fall from grace, Tammy Faye seemed genuinely upset and bothered by Ron Jeremy and his fellow porn star friends. This was not a world with which she had any familiarity, or for which she had any respect. Like many of us, she probably felt the porn stars were bad and sinful people whom she should loathe, feel sorry for, pray for, rescue, or otherwise ignore.

While I don’t recall the exact details, I remember seeing Tammy Faye’s opinions of Ron begin to change as she got to know him. Judgments and fear turned to some degree of respect for him as “nice man,” and quite perceptibly there came to be a mutual understanding and connectedness. They were both just people. One could reasonably speculate that in Tammy Faye’s mind Ron Jeremy had become perhaps a guy who might do things she didn’t like or understand—like have sex on camera—but she knew he was not evil incarnate, not dishonest, not a thief, not a rapist, not a hypersexual nymph who could think only about sex, and not any of the other judgments and biases she probably assigned to him. If my recollection is correct, they even shared some tears together. For me, it was poignant and fascinating. Who else might we hate less when we get to spend time with them, face-to-face?

Here are the concepts:

1. Humans form “in-groups” and “out-groups,” and like to divide and segregate themselves by those boundaries, even though they have far more in common than they might think.

2. Where safe to do so—sometimes crossing the barriers between groups and cultures is faciliated by obsessing less about that which is culturally “forbidden.”

Meet a Drug Dealer

The point is that most humans are just humans; but our cultures, upbringing, genetics and environments lead us to very different contexts and definitions of what is “normal,” and to very different experiences. Please don’t misunderstand, the point is not whether these two lifestyles are morally equivalent or not; I’m not making some postmodern point where truth and morals are anything we want them to be. That’s SO not me. What I’m suggesting is that it is misleading when we follow our tendencies to round people up, label, isolate, and segregate them, be it by race, religion, profession, school, or belief system. It dangerously skews our ability to see “reality,” and truth.

Purely in research for some of the scenes in A Secret of the Universe, I admit to attending some “gentleman’s clubs.” (I’m still researching that book on very rare occasion :-)). While yes, to some degree I enjoy myself for the obvious reasons, as with many things the greater enjoyment for me is meeting, seeing, and talking with people who live in and originate from another context—which might as well be another world from where I was raised. It’s like a dream for an amateur sociologist/psychologist.

On one such visit, a gangster-looking African-American male met us in the parking lot as we arrived with a small group that included a couple of women—including my wife. The man flirted harmlessly by way of a smile-laden welcome, and we moved inside. Later the man came by the table and bought our group a round of drinks, in honor of the pretty women.

Now think about this. What is your take of the motive, plan, or intent of this man? Well honestly, I probably shared some degree of your bias or prejudice, and perhaps he did hold out a little bit of hope for one of the women in the group; honestly however, I doubt it. I came to the conclusion he was simply being nice, while perhaps also showing off his wealth and status. Yes, I may be delusional, but hang tight.

Doug had come to say goodbye as the others in our group left, which he did so politely and with a well-wishes for all, but Julie and I stayed to finish our drinks. Before long we found we’d spent 45 minutes learning about Doug’s years in the state penitentiary, the norms, morals, and behavior codes therein, and learning about his family and his passion for teaching vacation bible school. Obviously Opie wasn’t in Mayberry anymore.

Those who know me know I’m really quite a Midwestern square, not often exposed to other cultures. So please know I realize there could be a violent side to Doug, though his crimes were not violent according to him. And yes, there are horribly violent, sociopathic street thugs in the world; so no, I don’t condone what I assume Doug’s profession to be (perhaps unfairly). But much like a mid-level player in a 1960’s Italian crime family, it didn’t take long to see there were codes, rules, and even ethics in Doug’s world, and much like Ron Jeremy, he was quite obviously not out to rape, steal from us, hurt anyone, or even be rude to anyone.

Again, I’m not being relativistic, but I ask, is it not possible that if I were born into his culture, and raised with his genetics and environment, that I might not cling to the same social values as Doug? Honestly, I looked at him and saw a friendly guy by nature—possibly lonely, possibly in need of some affirmation, possibly just a nice guy raised in a drug culture—and wondered if he wasn’t the Steve Gibson of his world! Would I, given his upbringing and culture, be incapable of selling weed? Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments made very clear that all of us have the capacity to shock our fellow humans to death in order to please authority figures. Group dynamics and social norms are a powerful force, as is the need to survive given what you’ve got.

Badasses

Let’s take this a step further. From kids we went to school with to college kids we’ve hired or known well, we’ve noticed something about those who think they are badasses. You know the types, talented and friendly, weekend partiers with tattoos and funky hair, piercings, and bad grades, but truly talented and good people, reliable and thoughtful.

I look back at high school, and see friends now on Facebook who are great citizens, often very religious, have happy families, are strict parents, and are by most definitions normal and great Midwesterners. I often reconnect with them and think “holy S*^t! These people were the scariest badass, wild things, pot-smoking, devil-incarnate, ‘bad people.’”

Well guess what—both experiences tell me that most badasses aren’t badasses at all. They may be calling for help in rare situations, may be unhappy with their lot in life to date, or they may be happy individuals unconcerned with the silly things we stress over. They may be any number of things; but what they are not is genuinely bad, dangerous, untrustworthy, or evil in any way. They are you and they are me. They are Doug Jackson and Ron Jeremy and Steve Gibson, molded and shaped by different forces and circumstances and genetics. “People are people” as the song by Depeche Mode says. In a way, it was quite probable that we would all wind up in the places we have.

The Forbidden Fruit

Most “normal” people don’t regularly wish to hurt others. Most people don’t want to hurt themselves. Most people don’t like to drink too much alcohol and feel crappy all the time. Most people don’t like to have sex with thirteen people, eighteen hours per day. Most people don’t grossly overeat (many just don’t move enough). In A Secret of the Universe I examined—fictionally—C.S. Lewis’ arguments against liberated sexuality. I won’t repeat the arguments here, but he “doth protest too much” by way of his prediction that essentially people will become sex maniacs and nymphs if women don’t dress appropriately. Could he have been hormone-raged and fearful of what he might do if those women wore fewer clothes? This forbidden fruit approach seems so unnecessary.

It is the prudish US where Ashcroft covered the statues at the Justice Department and a wardrobe malfunction is headline news for weeks. It is here where we are sex obsessed; it is not Europe or Greece where breasts and even sensuality are an accepted part of the culture.

Have you ever noticed that on average, the wildest kids are the children of the strictest parents? Seriously. Or have you ever noticed that the same formerly crazy-wild classmates you reconnect with on Facebook are now posting scripture and are extremely strict with their kids—presumably thinking that’ll stop them from making the same mistakes?

Take alcohol as another example. Do European college students binge drink as much as U.S. college students? Come on. While I’ve come to enjoy microbrews on a regular basis, I’ll bet that from 23 to 35 I probably didn’t have more than a few drinks per year. And in college, did I binge drink? No. But then again, I grew up with wine at Sunday dinner, older siblings, and I could buy alcohol locally after about 18 (for a variety of flukey reasons). The fruit was not forbidden, and therefore the thought to binge drink every weekend in college was never a pressing one.

From alcohol to sex, my wife and I tend toward the school that sees declarative forbidding as unproductive; it’s as if, given proper information, kids are not able to make reasonable choices by the time they are middle and upper teens. Conversely, we talk to our children frankly and regularly about the fun of sex and the challenges it can—and will—pose to their lives. We’ve always been candid, and thankfully—and arguably predictably—they appear to have made wise decisions to not distract themselves from school and fun with sexuality. But they’ve made those decisions not because sex is bad, or evil, or should be saved for twenty years from now when they marry, or because they’ll go to hell, or because sex shouldn’t be enjoyed.

I’ll never forget when our oldest, the high-achieving daughter, won the DARE essay contest in fourth grade. We were proud and happy for her, but even then we were pretty clear to her.  We told her that even though she’d been told that all drugs and alcohol are bad and cannot be used, there are many good drugs, some okay drugs, and some very bad drugs. You can’t just lump them together. We said, “Mom and Dad enjoy a glass of wine, that’s alcohol. Some people get drugs from their doctors, those can be helpful. Many people drink caffeine, though we choose not to. As you get older you’re going to have to think very carefully; we don’t want you to fully believe the DARE message that all drugs are equal and are equally bad. That’s nonsense. We won’t lie to you, ever. We’re here to help you because we love you.”

Forbidden Fruit: Barrier to Understanding

This blog is called Perspectives, and is a place where I share my mental explorations and efforts to view things from unique angles, so I can better understand them. In this little entry I’ve tried to illustrate that humans like to divide and segregate themselves, even though they have far more in common than they might think.

But sometimes crossing the barriers between these worlds and cultures requires that we obsess a little less about “forbidden”—where it is reasonably safe to do so, judge less, and maybe even give people who are different from us a chance. By doing so, we can clear our heads and better understand our similarities. We can then better judge what is real and what is not about how the world works, manage the real risks, break down tribal barriers, and make decisions and judgments not out of fear, but from a foundation that closer approximates truth.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, and A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog; © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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