Conversations in Social Engineering Land

Anyone who knows me well would probably agree: I don’t go out of my way to engage in chit-chat.

The thing is this: I find most small talk to be kind of draining. And I respect myself enough to maintain some sensible boundaries and look after my personal energy reserves. So I mostly stay out of the mix on purpose. Nonetheless, and in spite of my efforts, I feel like I’m bumping into a lot of people nowadays who want to talk, talk, talk. It’s a noticeable trend. I usually listen.

Listening, I’ve come to learn, does not violate my boundaries. I only get into trouble when I attempt to weigh in. So I’ve set up my boundaries just South of what I’d call conversational participation. I find that I stay in the clear when I respond with occasional “Ums” and “Ah’s” and “You-don’t-say’s” and such. Asking questions is usually alright, too. But it’s decidedly better for everyone if I don’t fully engage.  

This works out nicely. The big talkers are the very same people that want to talk at me rather than with me, so my full participation is not really required. They’re not really in it for back-and-forth conversational stimulation, in the traditional sense. They just want an audience. They have key messages that they want to get across to me and, presumably, anyone else who will listen.

Aside from keeping my boundaries intact, being a listener has another perk: I get to hear the most interesting things.

Talking Points

In order to demonstrate, please allow me to share with you a few, recent conversational snippets. These are accounts of real conversations. You can’t make this stuff up.

October 2021: Malcolm, a guy I know who’s the director of a city arts council in a medium-sized town; he recently took a job in a new location, having done similar work elsewhere.

Me: Good to see you. It’s been a while. I heard about your new gig(!) How’s that going?

Malcolm: It’s going great! You know what we’re doing?

Me: Ummm…no. What’s the scoop?

Malcolm: We’re dismantling white privilege. […insert a long ramble supporting his headline statement. I’ll spare you the gory details, other than to say that it sounded to me like hate speech. Then he concluded…] We’re gonna wake people up, man, change some hearts and minds.

Me: That sounds ambitious.

Malcolm: Yeah, totally. It’s amazing. I like to do stuff with real purpose. What are you doing? Same stuff? [With his emphasis on “purpose” and “you,” I assumed he was poking fun at me a little for sticking with my antiquated concept of work, wherein I consciously trade some of my time for money, engaging in work that has nothing to do with social justice. I also assumed that he wasn’t really all that interested in what I was doing.]

Me: Yep. Same stuff.

September 2021: Tim, a guy I know a little, but not exceedingly well; he’s always struck me as a hippie type, and this particular conversation occurred at an outdoor meditation workshop that we were both attending.

Tim: So what do you think about the [covid] vaccine? [This was an unprompted, sudden conversation jump – just moments before we were talking about hummingbirds, of all things.]

Me: Oh, I have my opinions.

Tim: Well, for me, I figured I should just go ahead and get ‘em, get my shots.

Me: OK.

Tim: I don’t like the idea of getting shots – like, I never get the flu shots – but it seemed like a good idea to go ahead and get the covid shots. Plus it was free. I thought, you know, at some point down the line it’s gonna be required for traveling and going to concerts and restaurants and whatever, and I don’t want to make my life any more complicated and not be able to do things. So I figured I might as well just go ahead and get the vaccine. It’s no big deal.

Me: I hear what you’re saying.

Tim: I mean, I really like to travel, and I was even thinking about going to Bali next year. So I figured why not just go ahead and get vaccinated? I mean, if they’re gonna be required for travel and everything.

Me: Bali, eh?

Tim: Yeah. There’s this meditation immersion experience there and I would be there for a couple weeks. I figured I should just go ahead and get vaccinated now because it’s basically already required for travel. And it’s not like I have a specific concert or anything like that that I would want to go to, or some big gathering. I don’t even think I would necessarily miss going to Braves (baseball) games this year – but if someone invited me, I’d want to be able to go. So to avoid any hassles down the line it seemed like a good idea to just go ahead and get my shots now. Now I don’t have to worry about it.

Me: Roger that.

Tim: It’ll avoid hassles down the line. So I just went ahead and got ‘em. For me it’s not a big deal.

September 2021: Shelly, a talented artist I know pretty well; she runs a successful side hustle on Etsy making t-shirts, posters, and stickers; most of her stuff is to do with the joys of camping and being outdoors, but she creates and sells some political/social commentary stuff too; this language is actually one of Shelly’s social media posts, so I will go ahead and count it just as I would someone talking at me – and I’ll include my conversational response too, just for fun.

Shelly: Several years ago I started selling my “My Body My Choice” shirt as a protest to protect our right to choose. This is also a stand for reproductive rights in general. These are human rights! Then I realized that my shirt was being used by anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. This is unacceptable so I have decided to stop selling it. This was a popular selling shirt for me so this is not an easy decision for me. Over and over I saw these people stealing my shirt, initially used for reproductive rights, and using it to say they shouldn’t have to wear their mask or get their vaccine. These two issues couldn’t be further from each other and I am frankly disgusted that they would be compared to each other. I just can’t sit by and say nothing about this. As much as people would like to believe, bitching on social media is NOT taking action. It’s just telling everyone what side you’re on and I’m not making this post for that. Taking action is having conversations and donating time and money to causes that you hold dear. So don’t just post something and feel all warm and fuzzy inside like you’ve done your fair share. Do your research and listen to people who know what they are talking about. I will continue to donate money from my shop sales to causes that are important to me and I hope you do the same. By banning abortions and abortion clinics you are banning education and research for women everywhere. Again these are basic human rights.

Me: Ummm.

November 2021: Alex, a friend; we went to college together and we still keep in touch; he was formally in the military, and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Alex: This vaccine thing is interesting.

Me: What do you mean?

Alex: I mean, people have strong opinions, but in the end it doesn’t really matter.

Me: Doesn’t matter?

Alex: Yeah, I mean all the fuss about it. Listen: People have the right to do whatever they want. I got my shot – I had to for my job, you know – so I don’t give a shit about what anybody else does. To me, it was like, whatever. Do you know how many shots I got and how many horse pills I had to swallow to go to Iraq? Dude, they’ve got me jacked up already, so what’s one more shot in the arm?

Me: I see what you mean.

Alex: Everybody’s gonna end up getting vaccinated whether they like it or not in the end. They just don’t know it yet.

Me: You mean you think people will be forced into it?

Alex: Listen: This is clearly a military operation. The manufacturing, the distribution – all of it. Do you know why the CDC was formed?

Me: Wasn’t it something to do with mosquitos? Malaria?

Alex: Basically yeah. It’s a national security op. Biological warfare is their thing. They’re not gonna let anyone slip through the cracks on this. It’s too ripe of an opportunity. Shots in arms is just the beginning.

Me: Uh oh.

Alex: Uh oh is right, dude.

November 2021: Emily, a former work colleague; she now works for a think tank involved in “green housing” and other initiatives; we only speak a couple times per year (if that), and when we do speak it always follows the same old pattern: she peppers me with questions, but is unable to stay focused for my replies; in this instance I made the mistake of mentioning climate change – which struck a nerve and got her attention for a half a second, I guess because of her line of work.

Emily: So what’s your take on Bitcoin?

Me: I think the block chain concept is mildly interesting, but I don’t think a baseless currency has much chance of…

Emily: I think it’s dumb. I used to think it was cool, but now people are just getting stupid with it, like some kind of wild west shit. Speculators, prospectors. It’s hard on the environment too.

Me: Hard on the environment?

Emily: Yeah, all the computing resources used for Bitcoin mining use up a lot of electricity, so it’s really bad for the environment.

Me: You mean like electric cars.

Emily: No, electric cars are good for the environment.

Me: Because their electricity is different. (said sarcastically)

Emily: Well, I’m not aware of any Bitcoin mining computers with rechargeable battery packs, so it’s moot. What about autonomous cars?

Me: Huh?

Emily: Autonomous cars. Cars that can drive themselves. What do you think about them?

Me: I think my car is already autonomous. I can climb in and go wherever I want to go. I think when they say “autonomous” they really mean that someone else will be…

Emily: I would get one just to not be stuck in traffic every damn day. (chuckle.) What a pain. Commuting around here is a disaster. The world would be so much better off with less people. So you’re not worried about the environment at all?

Me: What?

Emily: You want to take a dump on all this amazing technology that’s saving our planet?

Me: What?

Emily: You don’t like electric cars. You don’t like autonomous cars. Are you a flat-earther too?

Me: Ummm…No.

Emily: How much time do you think we have left on this planet if we don’t do anything about it, if we just keep on doing what we’re doing, burning fossil fuels like it’s 1955?

Me: Well…

Emily: Are you a climate change denier?

Me: A what?

Emily: Are you a climate change denier?

Me: I don’t think we’re being told the truth about some climate…

Emily: A-ha! Gotcha! The science is already in, Einstein. The case is already closed. Tell me one piece of scientific information or one shred of evidence that we’re not heading for a total climate disaster! What to you base your flat…I mean, climate theories on? Are you gonna sit there and tell me that every scientist on the planet is wrong?

Me: I’ll text you a link.

Emily: Are you still working on writing a book?

Me: What?

Emily: I’ve been thinking about writing a book. I’ll probably do a Kindle book. Do you know anything about self-publishing?

…Afterward, I sent the promised text message to Emily. Here’s the complete, continued conversation…

Me: There aren’t too many things you can find on the internet anymore that challenge the consensus climate narrative. But here’s one that’s survived somehow. link This guy also wrote a book called: Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax. Probably an interesting read if you’re interested in a different voice.

Emily: I’ll try to follow up on what this guy is saying. I’m familiar with some of his claims but my recollection does not match his claims. I’m naturally suspicious when anybody uses such vitriol, always feels like they’re trying to bamboozle me. I’ll check it out though. Ciao! [dancing girl emoji]

Me: What vitriol?

Emily: [No reply to date.]

Social Studies

This stuff is pretty hard to believe, is it not? I have plenty more examples, and they’re accumulating by the day. The red flags are waving furiously.

I’m seriously worried that social engineering is taking its toll on everyday people. Now, I don’t mean “social engineering” in the sense of confidence tricks, where people are psychologically manipulated into divulging intimate information. I mean “social engineering” in the sense of influencing people to act and speak in ways that may not be in their best interests. The following disturbing quote comes to mind:

“A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” – Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda

Some of the big talkers that I’ve been running into lately come across like religious fanatics, like propagandists. They repeat media-supplied key messaging points and constructed narratives, ad nauseam. They become noticeably agitated when presented with even mildly contradictory perspectives. They accuse others of being dangerous religious fanatics. They talk and talk, but they don’t listen.

I’m not sure what to do about this. But something needs doing. Maybe inspiration will arrive one day while I’m walking in the woods. For the time being I’ll simply continue to listen, observe.

Phil’s Two Cents

I’m worried, yes. But I’d like to close on a positive note: I’m very grateful that there are still some conversations that do work.

Conversations with my wife come to mind immediately. My wife is an idea factory, always bubbling with enthusiasm and optimism. She has strong opinions and deep morality, yet she’s always open-minded, always learning and growing. Think Olympic gymnast on a balance beam. Great legs. Great skills.

Conversations with (some) friends and (some) family members come to mind as well. Brett, my co-host here at TPD is a great example. When we talk, the conversation flows like a river. We each talk. We each listen. Our chats are so enjoyable that we typically have a tough time breaking ourselves away. We usually saw it off abruptly, making a ragged end. Speaking of which: Brett and I are planning to get back up on the TPD podcast horse before too long. It’s been a long pause. I know. We’re thinking it’ll be a little different when we come back on the air. We’ve talked about having it be a little less like opposing lawyers submitting evidence in a courtroom, and a little more like a couple of friends having a conversation. It’ll be fun, so please stay tuned.

– “Phil”

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