Growing up in West Texas, my Dad insisted on a Monday evening ritual that was all but sacred in our household. When Gunsmoke came on TV, no one was allowed to speak, or to interfere with the broadcast. Marshall Matt Dillon was in session and he had a very important lesson to teach us all about being a better person.
Marshall Dillon was a big man who carried a gun and a badge. By all rights, he had authority due to his elected position in the community and also through a perceived threat of force, but he seldom used either to settle a dispute. His method of choice was to listen and learn before taking decisive action. He would listen to both parties in the dispute, talk to any witnesses, and then discuss any discrepancies over a beverage with his tried counsel, Doc and Festus, down at Miss Kitty’s Saloon. Throughout the course of each episode, Dillon would uncover the facts, test assumptions, and expose any untruths. He was careful in his deliberations, because his reputation depended upon it, and in the Old West, all that mattered was the goodness of your name.
Photo by CBS Television (eBay item photo front photo back)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Today, there is great societal pressure to make snap decisions about the motives of others, and there are few repercussions for jumping to wrong conclusions, at least for the person making the jump. For people being accused of a falsehood, the outcomes can be very different. Social media norms have shifted the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused. Anonymous posts to a website can do significant damage, and leave victims with little recourse.
On the other hand, sniping is commonplace, and we have become numb to the barrage of insults, accusations, and catch phrases launched by people who perceive an injustice.
If Marshall Dillon were here today, I think he would call up a posse to track down any masked bandits, and then question their motives while sharing a beverage next to a roaring campfire. In the rules of the show, he would find out their troubling truths before they did any real damage, and he would facilitate an agreement between the affected parties down at Miss Kitty’s Saloon.
Sure, Matt Dillon and the other characters of Gunsmoke were fictional characters, but the foundational social principles they represented in the show were sound. Taking the time to understand both sides of the story, and observing the actions taken by the parties involved leads to better outcomes than shooting first and asking questions later.
Years later, I was reminded of Dillon in my first science class. That day, we learned to observe, form a hypothesis, and test the hypothesis. This process was repeated in an iterative fashion until consistent results were observed. On that day, I realized that the methodology of science was not that different from Marshall Dillon’s, but I do think it would have been better with a beverage.
David Harwell is the Assistant Director for Industry Member Programs at the American Chemical Society.