There’s a great scene in the movie, “Field of Dreams,” that sticks in my head. Kevin Costner’s character has taken the character played by James Earl Jones to a baseball game. Kevin plays an innocent who has an unlikely story to tell and a major favor to ask. Jones, on the other hand ,plays a legendary writer who no longer publishes and has become something of a recluse. Their relationship is tenuous at best, showing signs of strain from their very first meeting. It remains tense throughout their early interactions.
As Costner and Jones stand in the main passageway of the stadium before the start of the game, Costner’s character asks of his guest, “What do you want?”
This simple question, posed at just the right time, causes Jones’ character to go off on a tirade about social injustice, personal privacy, and a litany of issues that are of deep concern to him. When he finishes we see the pair from a different angle and realize they’re standing in front of a concession stand.
Coster repeats himself using nearly the same words, but now it’s funny rather than deeply probing because we see the exchange from an entirely different perspective. “No, I mean, what do you want?” Costner asks, gesturing toward the concession stand.
Costner’s character wasn’t asking about political or social priorities. He was asking, “Hey, do you want a hot dog?” Jones’ character misunderstood. And therein lies the comedy, and the pathos, and the strain that makes the story move along so fluidly.
Real life is somewhat less entertaining, but the theme of the exchange is every bit as valid.
It’s important to keep in mind that what we say may not be perceived by the listener in the same context it was intended. As with Costner and Jones, playing Ray Kinsella and Terence Mann, even the simplest question can be misinterpreted if not presented in unambiguous terms.
Similarly, even the most straightforward statement can be misconstrued when foreign terms creep into the conversation.
So I ask you: What do we want? This general aviation crowd — what’s our end game? What are we asking of others? Do we want all airports to remain open forever? Do we want cheap fuel? Are we demanding more affordable hangar rental rates, a new high-tech trainer, a new low-tech trainer, a lighter category of aircraft, a heavier category of aircraft with expanded privileges for pilots, more regulation, less regulation? What?!
It’s confusing. More than that, it’s infuriating. Not for us, perhaps. But for someone. When you look at our industry and tally up all the initiatives, all the calls for action, all the desperate pleas for salvation, what you end up with is a long list of diverse issues, almost all of which are a complete mystery to the people we’re asking to support us.
In this sense at least, we have a lot in common with the anti-war movement of the late 1960s. The long-haired kids in the street were perceived as dirty, lazy, drug-addled, spoiled, entitled, cowardly, and maybe even un-American. They were all those things, too — at least to some degree.
They were also largely correct. The government was corrupt, the war was a lost cause, the perpetuation of the war offered no potential advantage, yet it promised significant disruption and mayhem. And still, the mainstream dismissed the protesters for far too long.
Why? Because they were discussing the same issue, but from different perspectives. They weren’t on the same page. They didn’t have a common point of reference. In essence, they were speaking different languages.
That’s a problem for general aviation today, too. The average insurance agent on Main Street has no idea what a TFR is or why he or she should care about it.
Our schools are filled with teachers who haven’t got the slightest clue why they should have an opinion on the discussion about private pilots exercising their privileges without the need for a medical certificate.
Even the people living around the perimeter of Santa Monica Airport have minimal interest in the future of the field. And why should they? We haven’t given them a compelling reason to care about these issues in a language that makes sense to them. Instead we expend more and more energy to tell them why these things matter to us – in terms they neither understand or care about.
The solution to our problems rests in a method of communication we have not yet mastered. We general aviation enthusiasts need to start expressing ourselves and telling our story in terms that matter to the listener.
After all, it is the action or inaction of the listener that matters. It is that massive population of disinterested citizens, those millions of voters we have to impress with the validity of our message, that really matters.
Our success will be realized when we begin speaking to our audience in terms they understand, rather than in terms we’re comfortable with. When we show them recognizable examples of positive returns, then we’ll make real progress.
So take this time to brush up on your language skills, polish your ability to articulate our story, and build a coalition of disparate individuals who can spread the word with you.
What do we want? When we can answer that question directly, accurately, and in a way the listener finds accessible – we’ll see a whole new world open up to general aviation. Yes, we will.