Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Salt Of The Earth

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

Matthew 5:13 (King James Version)

Who ever said Bible does not have its uses (and I don't mean just as a doorstop, either)...

Anyway, what I want to talk about here are the "salt of the earth" kind of people. You know the type. Just as defined here: those of great worth and reliability.

Here again, the Bible quote above comes in handy: but what if the salt have lost his savour? What do we do with the salt that is unsavoury? Don't worry. Right now, this is not the path I want to take right now, and not the people I have in mind.

The people I do have in mind are those to whom we refer as "the salt of the earth" with a slight lilt in our voice, the lilt, and possibly a tilt of the head, to signify that they, while most definitely worthy and reliable, are somehow flawed, most likely through no fault, or intention of their own. The poor dears...

How do we know such a poor dear in the first place?

Most of the time, they are reasonably to significantly - but never exceedingly - successful in what they do, and the thing they do does not even have to be overly simple or easy. In fact, you will find a good few of highly educated ones (or at least educated to a high standard in a particular field), with a sprinkling of PhDs and other jingling titles, too. How do they get there? By hard work and dedication, and a lot of it. They're rarely stupid, although often they may be a bit slow. But they get there eventually. What separates them from the others who are on paper in the same rank (and this need not be an academic rank, either) is a distinct lack of flare, that elusive spark of being ever so slightly different, and in a way that makes you smile, and a little bit warm inside, when you detect it in someone.

This flare, this stand out feature, need not at all be in their selected field of endeavour. You can maybe imagine the difference as being something like between a steam-roller and a sports car. Both will have similar power. In fact, a steam roller may even be considerably more powerful than a sports car in terms of raw horse power. They will both cover the distance from A to B quite competently, and probably even be able to carry the same number of people, too. Yes, the steam roller will get there later, but it does get there. Eventually. So, as a pair of black boxes assigned to a task of ferrying a couple of people between a couple of destinations, these are pretty much the same. But oh, how different they are, really! How much more fun, and beautiful is a sports car, not least for all the unnecessary little things it shows off, from flashy colour, to a flashy stereo, even to that totally pointless - yet nevertheless beautiful to behold, and fun - petrol tank cover.

By now, you may already think that what I am bemoaning is just a lack of superficial and not really essential characteristics of my "salt of the earth" types. If only it were so! If it were, I wouldn't even be writing this. True, I may still be preferring others to socialise with, but I wouldn't really have much to complain about. Unfortunately, just like with some illnesses, these outwards facing problems point to something much more substantial, something that quite often jumps out and bites you if you let yourself be deceived and mistake them for something, or rather, someone, they aren't.

So, what it is these, otherwise very nice, people aren't?

Well, to tell you what they aren't I think I better start telling you what they are. And for one, their reasoning is too often mired in non sequiturs. The conclusions they tend to "draw" in a discussion are too often just their prior, and possibly fossilised, convictions which are then just propped up on a stack of premises which are in turn, usually either ripped out of context, or just plain stolen from the interlocutor (this word is haunting me now!). Some of them get very good at this - probably through a lot of practice - so if you're not vigilant you may be conned at first. Eventually, the problems become clear, but, whenever you point them out your "salt" will usually be unswayed. After all, their opinions are usually rock solid (even if baseless), and the "best" you can get is for them to try and prop them up on a different, or just rearranged set of premises. You'll be excused if you start thinking about Sisyphus...

Having mentioned them in passing in the previous paragraph, I think I now need to concentrate a bit on the set of opinions, views, and convictions our "salt of the earth" person possesses. In a vast majority of cases, these opinions (but people as well) are totally unobjectionable. This is natural and expected. After all, the person wouldn't be "salt of the earth" if they were all for raping the virgins (well, at least not in most societies anyway). The problem here is in a way they got to this nice little (or not so little) collection. Sadly, most often the process was a very passive one, as if they waited on the sides to see which opinions were most acceptable, or even just most popular and then just reached out, picked them off their branches, and stuck them in their little (or not so little) opinion sachet. Little or no real thought and questioning went into this process so it's no wonder either that they find it difficult to raise a decent defence of their points of view, or manage to recreate a logical process by which one could defend them. Also corollary here is that it is then practically impossible to change their minds, at least in a direct discussion. An exception may be in case they are so impressed by their interlocutor they feel the need to adopt any and all of their opinions, but if not, then persuading them to even re-evaluate their own position is pointless. They are just not used, and probably not capable of doing it anyway.

Which brings us nicely to the question of whether our "salt of the earth" are what they are by choice or by nature. While it is certainly possible to choose to behave in that way even if you're capable of more, I can see little reason, and even less evidence that this is the case. Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that such a state of being is in fact caused by their very (biological) nature. Which, let me make this clear right now, is not to say that they are (necessarily) "stupid", or put in a nicer way, with a below average IQ. In fact, most of them are probably in the high end of the population on this measure. After all, however slow in some circumstances some of them may be, one does not earn their PhD or similar without being of above average intelligence (and of above average diligence). What seems to be lacking are some kinds of social skills (empathy comes to mind, but is not necessarily the flaw), and certainly the inquiring mind to allow for full logical evaluation and interest in it. Do note that, despite popular misconception, earning a PhD does not, in fact, require either an inquiring, nor an exuberant mind. Hard work, and at least slightly above average intelligence, yes.  Being a special kind of person, no. Most people can do it if they put their mind, and time, to it.

I guess, actually, if I were looking for one word to describe my "salt of the earth" types it would be dull. Dull, as in a dull film that just never wants to end, but still plods on, and on, and on... And here, in this indefatigable plodding on, also lies the reason these people are, after all, our "salt of the earth". It is in many ways a good thing to be. Society does need good old decent working bees, and not just the dim ones that man the lesser occupations. We do need people who present no, or little, resistance to run-of-the-mill tasks, be these high-brow, like a PhD in engineering, or stacking the shelves of your local supermarket. We probably also need them to uphold the ethical values of a society, but this comes with a serious caveat: "salt of the earth" people are too easily led into supporting a cleverly designed, but inherently evil, message of a nefarious regime. Worse, once they are well and truly indoctrinated it may be extremely difficult, and time consuming, to change their minds which can in turn make turning around the whole society a much harder and longer process than it seems necessary. In a slightly smaller way, they may also be the group perpetuating discredited or revised scientific (and "scientific") theories, not to mention snake oil and old women's health recipes.

So, to summarise, even if I could probably go on and on detailing various little flaws and manners in which "salt of the earth" people are somehow less then perfect: like many good tools (even the ones not the sharpest in the box) they can be immensely useful, yet dangerous if not used correctly, or if they are allowed to get out of hand - or in the wrong hands. I would also never urge anyone to avoid or dismiss them. For most part they are genuinely nice and decent people. However, and unfortunately, sometimes they do not come with a very prominent warning to those who may be looking for a discourse that is more meaningful, and maybe with that little spark of specialness some of us need every now and then.

But, overall, all the best and thank you for being there "salt of the earth" people. No society would be possible without you. Sadly, no society would ever move forward if we were all just "salt of the earth" people.

Oh, and you may now be wondering what is my own opinion of myself with regards to salt and pepper issue? Well, this is something for you to figure out for yourself. Or, if you're a "salt of the earth" type, then you'll know already, and you needn't have bothered reading this far.