On True Believers
Sunday, September 10, 2017
“Why does everyone assume when I’m talking about belief, I’m talking about God? I don’t care what you believe – just… believe it!” – Reverend Book, Serenity
The idea of the true believer has come up again in my life, so I thought it would be useful to put a piece together on what the heck that means. Sounds like I may need to refer to it again.
Years ago, I was working on a few specific things while at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). I was always working on a whole array of ideas, going after them in different ways depending on where I was at. At the point relevant to this story, I was working on the National Incident Management System (NIMS) at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) within DHS.
I was whistleblowing the NIMS, and at the same time trying to get it and other initiatives to move forward within the department and the federal interagency community. As part of my work on the NIMS, I was working with a group of former colleagues at the DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection (OIP) to build resilience. I was also working on incident information sharing with folks from around government, which is an enormous and complicated part of disaster management that continues to be challenging in many, many ways.
I had met a Washington, DC insider, who was willing to help with all of those things, and who set up a number of quiet off-the-record meetings to help move things forward. One of those meetings turned out to be the equivalent of smoky back-room gathering – both in its set-up and its execution. We actually met in a restaurant in the middle of the afternoon with no smoke, but the sense was still there.
The meeting included my insider friend and a friend of his, as well as a friend of mine helping with some of these efforts.
Anytime you are fixing to partner with people, there is a certain amount of what my fire chief friends call “leg-sniffing,” in the polite terminology. You need to meet people, see what their goals are, see if they align with yours, and get a sense for whether everyone would like to pursue working together. I think that’s normal in many endeavors.
What set this meeting apart other than the secrecy was the specific Q&A. In short, these gentleman wanted to know if we were true believers before they invested their time and their networks. Both my friend and I needed to make our case – and so we did.
I’ve thought of that meeting often, in part because the phrase “true believer” was used. I worked on whistle-blowing the NIMS for about two solid years before stepping back. It’s fair to say that I was a true believer that entire time – and for some time after. It wasn’t a surprise. One of the elements of NIMS, the Incident Command System (ICS), has been around formally in the fire world since about 1972 or so. People who teach classes and write ICS guides often joke about the “ICS Bible,” and their evangelizing of the same. I learned the system from a few of the folks who worked on it from the beginning. It is in some ways a sacred thing; it has changed lives and saved lives.
We need true believers. Often, these are the folks that help us evolve. I would bet that a number of the people who helped get equal votes for all at various times, end slavery, fight human trafficking now, fight child pornography, fight hunger, advocate for safety, advocate for labor laws, and fight for all kinds of other things have been and are true believers. That being said, there are some limitations.
The Power & The Limitations
When you are a true believer, your belief can be phenomenally powerful, energizing, and motivating. For some, the belief is an incredible driver. It may last for moments during an emergency; it may last a lifetime.
My most recent run-in with a true believer happened during Hurricane Harvey. I had promoted a blog post on my Facebook business page for the purpose of getting word out about how to help and not cause harm during Hurricane Harvey. One of the issues that often becomes a disaster-within-a-disaster is the donation of stuff: material goods, sent to a catastrophe. These goods are often unsolicited. Addressing the volume takes tremendous time, effort, and logistical coordination – which is why established disaster aid organizations and emergency managers promote financial donations. With money, charities can purchase and route goods more efficiently and effectively within the disaster area.
A gal commenting on the post disagreed with this point, and we engaged in a bit of discussion about it. However, it began to escalate. This individual began to swear and become belligerent, posting tweets from a source that was not an aid organization requesting the sending of donations. She did not appear to have read the numerous citations in the comments from emergency management experts and a news organization detailing prior nightmare scenarios where mountains of donated goods in prior disasters were burned or sent to landfills.
I don’t mind a healthy discussion, or disagreement. I think we could do with more of both. However, I do mind it when you begin to insult me, and when you refuse to consider expertise and documentation. In the end, I had to block the individual due to threats made against the business. Her comments were therefore blocked from view as well, unfortunately, as the discussion was relevant.
I was surprised at how quickly the situation escalated... and then realized what it was. I had encountered a true believer. She was so deeply entrenched in the belief that help was needed for this hurricane and that she knew the best way to help – and she was not going to see another way. I get that – but I was not expecting it.
It was a good lesson for me, because the person was trying to do some good, and was 100% convinced of the best way to do it. Disasters bring out intensity in people. Trauma can cause a fight, flight, or freeze reaction, and I suspect this was perhaps her way of fighting. I didn’t expect to come across a true believer in that space, yet it’s not unusual.
It made me think of how during Hurricane Katrina that some in a federal department where I was working wanted to spontaneously start using a resource mobilization system that they were not currently using but that was in use in the wildland fire community. Having come from that world, I knew the complexity that would be involved in implementing such a system – and the middle of a catastrophe is not the time to start. There is nothing spontaneous about implementing enterprise-level information technology. Fortunately, my boss saw that as well, and our team successfully pushed back against the effort being advocated by a few passionate true believers. I would imagine in that case it was also the nature of the disaster and our natural human inclination to want to help that motivated that effort – but taking such an action would have actually hindered our ability to respond – not enhanced it.
People are not always rational during disasters.
I feel compelled to talk about this because my recent run-in was so unexpected… especially in an effort where we both had the same goal: to help with a disaster.
I would like to think in most cases that true believers are doing good in the world, powerfully and effectively. Not always, though. Some, like the gal I encountered, are stubborn and unwilling to listen to reason. In the worst of cases, true believers are susceptible to radicalization, extremism, and fanaticism. We have all seen it, from religion to hate – sometimes at the same time.
My point in writing this is to recognize when you come across a true believer of any sort… because engaging may not do any good. As a philosophy major, one of my greatest dreams would be for everyone to be able to have civil, reasoned conversations about things. As a human, I recognize that this rarely works. Sometimes what we need instead are strategies to disengage, and maintain our boundaries.
I do think that dealing with the more radicalized true believers is one of the challenges of our time – especially when so many fall prey to propaganda clearly designed to discourage reason itself, the news media, and science. I don’t have any answers there.
I post this more as a thought piece, so that perhaps if we encounter a more troublesome true believer we can recognize it when we do – and choose whether to engage, how to engage, and when to stop. An exit strategy, boundaries, or protective measures may be necessary if there is escalation. Thinking about this now can help us develop the tools for situations we could encounter – or for engaging with people we already know are in our lives.
There is definitely a bigger picture issue here on the propaganda side, but the point of this post is to offer what much of countering fear is about… seeing risk, and having some tools to address it.
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POSTED: 2017-0910, 2230 hrs Central
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