Montana Viewpoint: Getting the mule’s attention

There is a story by Charlie Russell about a teamster who was harnessing a four-up of mules to his wagon. The job completed, the teamster walked over to a lumber pile, picked up a short two-by-four and proceeded to give the lead mule a hearty whack on the forehead.

A tenderfoot who had been watching the process was astounded.


Jim Eliott

“My Lord, man!” he said. “What did you do that for?” The teamster, now in his seat with reins and whip, in hand gave the tenderfoot a baleful look, let go a stream of tobacco juice in the general direction of the ground, and said, “Sonny, first you’ve got to get the mule’s attention.”

Recently in Florida, a woman accosted Gov. Rick Scott in a coffee shop and called him a name representing a particular body part, which will not here be repeated. It got the governor’s attention, and it got the news media’s attention, too.

It did not, however, win the governor over to the woman’s line of reasoning. In fact, he had his “political committee” staff spend time and money on a broadcast video calling the woman out for her rudeness, but the fact remained: it got the mule’s attention.

Sometimes, sad to say, it takes a dramatic act to call attention to a situation that some, at least, think is important. This seems to be more and more taking the place of rational discourse, and in more and more meetings the public is making its point by yelling at the authorities, the better to be understood, perhaps.

It gets the authorities’ attention, it gets the media attention, but it doesn’t do anything to change minds. In fact, it probably solidifies the opinion wanting to be changed into an opinion more firmly held.

It may seem contradictory, but yelling makes the point harder to hear. That is, if getting the authority to hear is the point in the first place. My mother used to say about such people that they talk “just to hear their head roar.”

It is hard to change people’s minds, but it is even harder when a person whose mind you want to change is put on the defensive.

So, what to do? The more I listen to politicians and their audiences the more I want to go to a baseball game, where, by the way, yelling doesn’t do a lot to change the umpire’s decision either.

Sadly, I don’t think there are a lot of people left in America who have minds that are open to changing their opinions. As they say: “My mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.” It is also hard to get people to work with you if you have publicly denigrated them.

What confrontation does sometimes do is to put fear into the hearts of people who do disagree with you, but keep quiet about it for fear of—well, being yelled at. It’s one way to gain public support, I guess, but not a terribly good one.

We also tend to listen to those with whom we already agree, which makes it harder for us to entertain a different way of thinking because we are not even willing to expose ourselves to one.

I am probably not much different than others in that regard, but every once in a while I will read a column by George Will just to see if there is a way of looking at something that I am missing. I mention Will in particular because I do not much agree with his opinions or like his somewhat snide, elitist style.

But, just as in negotiation you start out with things the negotiators already agree on, I will sometimes give Will the benefit of the doubt, or even sometimes agree with him because, after all, we both like baseball.

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