One thing I have learned from living on a farm is that you are not really experiencing diversity unless you are also experiencing repulsion.
We each have lots of assumptions about what is right and wrong, how the world works, how people should act in a civilized community. When faced with true diversity – that is, diversity of experience — we have to allow our assumptions to be challenged. It’s hard to not feel some repulsion for the person who challenges our core assumptions.
But it’s clear to me that diversity in the workplace is difficult to achieve because we must ask so much of ourselves in order to achieve it. We must allow ourselves to experience repulsion and keep an open mind while doing that.
And now, I will write about cats; specifically, the 150 comments people left on my last post about why I killed my cat. Last week I thought I was not really writing about cats because I was writing about dead cats. And anyway, really I was writing about the moral problem of paid links. But in fact, I still have the problem that I now find myself doing the very worst, low level, terrible job on the internet: writing content about cats.
In the business world, cats are the topic-non-grata. If I go into an investor meeting to discuss business models for online content, it takes only about five minutes before I hear, “I just don't want to see posts about cats.”
But I think we can all be better at thinking in diverse ways, in diverse environments, if I indulge in one more post about cats. So here I go.
1. Don’t shield yourself from complex thinking. If you think killing my cat was absolutely, hands down a terrible decision, then you probably don't have the same moral code I do. So maybe you should just stop reading my blog, but probably you should just not let me take care of your cat. Listening to people who have ideas that are patently different from your own make you think harder. (This is why I read publications like Al-Jazeera and Car & Driver.)
2. Diverse ways of thinking can co-exist only rarely. With an open mind.
Hard-core questions of morality have no right answer. Can a mother kill someone to feed her child? Can a mother kill one child to save another? Have you never heard these questions from college Ethics 101? These are real issues, and behavioral economist Dan Ariely, author of the book Predictably Irrational, shows that how we answer these questions has more to do with how we are born—how we were hard-wired to see the world—than what is objectively right and wrong. Some people will say killing is wrong, so you can’t kill anything ever. Other people will see this moment as an exception.
This New Yorker cartoon hits the spot because the intersection of humans and animals is fraught with complex moral systems:
Often there is no right answer – for cats, children or meat-counter decisions – but you challenge yourself more in life if you open your life up to people who are wired differently than you are, without trying to squash those differences.
3. Understanding moral context requires placing oneself in unfamiliar situations. Hey, all you cat commenters, have you lived on a farm? Do you understand the problems with farm cats? Do you understand there is a moral question of whether we should even feed babies who are born in the dead of winter? (We feed them.) Do you understand that most cats cannot be spayed because they can’t be caught?
Our favorite goat broke his leg. The Farmer wanted to slaughter him for meat. He is a little young, but the farm is a business, and financially it makes more sense to take the meat while we can than to bet on that the goat will return to good health. We have a lot of goats, and if they were all pets, we could not afford to feed them. So goat decisions on our farm are often business decisions.
But because our farm is a mix of city people and country people — people with vastly different sets of experiences — moral decisions are often more complex on our farm than other farms. In the end, Melissa decided she wanted to treat the goat as a pet. She loves the goat. So she took responsibility for nursing him back to health. The odds were not good, and the splint is made of two nail files, but she was devoted. And slept with him in the barn.
3. Real diversity is personally challenging. Here are things I thought were patently wrong before I lived on the farm: Drowning cats. Shooting possums. Peeing on the front lawn. Feeding sub-par food to animals. Confining animals in labor. Branding cattle. Notching an animal's ear. I could go on forever.
Whole Foods has a five-tiered program to let customers know where their animal products comes from. There are five hoops farmers can jump through to get rated by Whole Foods. The Farmer — my farmer — absolutely loves his animals and he will spend all night in a rain storm to keep one alive for one more day. But he doesn't even meet the first standard—the bottom rung—with Whole Foods.
Now that I live on a farm, I see both sides of everything. People are not morally depraved. They are living in the context of their own community. We all grow a lot more personally by trying to understand people rather than judging them.
It’s no easy task, though. I know this myself, because I still hate cat people.
Sorry but it's the truth. People who treat animals like humans are people who cannot cope with complexities of human relationships. People who think their cat gives them what they need for companionship are probably right, because they are so underdeveloped emotionally. I am not alone in my thinking. Here is a great parody of a dating video as the perfect illustration of my point: