‘Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who’ll argue with you.’ – John Wooden
We all want to be part of a community that loves us, validates us, and even agrees with us. We thrive among “like-minded” friends who share our view of the world, and thanks to today’s connectivity, finding our “tribe” has never been easier. Regardless of where you fall on the ideological spectrum, it’s incredibly easy to find a group that agrees with you wholeheartedly and will affirm your views.
It’s also incredibly easy to find a group that agrees with you wholeheartedly, will affirm your views, and will join you in mocking and disparaging anyone who disagrees with your shared perspectives.
No group is immune to this phenomenon. Let me say that again. No tribe, group, club, or community is immune to this phenomenon.
When Everyone’s A Caricature
I’ve seen this first-hand among fundamentalist Christians, progressive Christians, political conservatives and political liberals. It doesn’t matter where on the spectrum you fall, as soon as you get there, you are tempted to turn the “other side” into a caricature.
Ironically, it’s only when a group begins treating someone as a caricature that an actual, real-life caricature is created. President Obama has never acted like a caricature, but I can think of 10 people who have turned themselves into right-wing caricatures through the way they’ve talked about him on their Facebook walls. The average man these days is not a chauvinist caricature, but I can think of multiple “feminists” who have turned themselves into caricatures with their continuous wide-sweeping accusations.
Labeling those who disagree with us as “stupid”, “ignorant”, “bigoted”, or even “evil” allows us to safely ignore the legitimate challenges their views present to our way of thinking. As a result, we become increasingly segmented in society, with every side camped around a piece of truth, unwilling to admit the shortcomings in that truth’s application to the larger problems at hand.
In other words, as we continue to unilaterally reject the “other side”, we ALL become caricatures.
When we refuse to look deeper than the surface-level flaws and shortcomings of our ideological opponents, we limit our own understanding and ability to build something positive.
When Anecdotes Become Our Reality
I could stop here and end this somewhat nicely, but let’s put the “brazen” in Brazen Church for a second. Let’s stop generalizing for a moment and talk about you. Just you. Why do you disrespect the “other side”?
I’ll tell you why. Because there are a lot of people acting stupid on that side. There are a lot of people talking ignorantly on that side. There are some real bigots over there and some legitimately evil people on that side of the line.
That’s not in your head. That’s a true story. That’s a real experience you had. That actually happened. You’ve experienced “those people” acting “like that” time and time again.
But as a rational adult, it’s your responsibility to separate a handful of experiences from the actual issue – to look deeper than the disreputable people you encounter and discern the underlying legitimate concerns that are powering the broader viewpoint.
Allow me to elaborate with a story of my own.
As I was reading an article on racial prejudice the other day, I was asking myself why I dislike the “race card” so much. I know racial injustice and prejudice are still present in society today, so why does the phrase “it’s cause I’m black” make me so uncomfortable?
As I was pondering this, my thoughts drifted back to the first few times I ever heard that statement used. I remembered that it was essentially the catchphrase of several constantly disruptive and disrespectful kids at my school growing up.
Any time they got disciplined, even by black teachers, the race card got played. “It’s ’cause I’m black,” they would say.
As I was thinking about this, I asked myself, “How is this relevant to my feelings on issues happening today?” And I realized that ultimately, these first impressions and the associated feelings have literally nothing to do with most of the issues playing out on the news today.
Sure, there are still people playing the race card like those students, and there always will be, but most of the issues in the limelight today are legitimate ones, where racial prejudice needs to be exposed, and it’s my responsibility as a discerning adult to make that distinction and not turn outlying examples from my past into the lens through which I see an issue.
I can either cherry pick anecdotes to reinforce a pre-existing feeling, or I can evaluate issues objectively, based on their own merit.
So how is this story relevant to our discussion?
- I had several experiences with individuals who were acting stupid and ignorant in relation to an issue.
- My feelings towards that issue were strongly influenced by those experiences.
- When engaging with that issue today, I can either write off a given perspective as “ignorant” and “stupid” based on my experiences, or I can make an effort to understand the legitimate reasons that perspective exists.
We Have To Stop Labeling
I don’t care what side of any given ideological fence you fall on. We have to stop labeling. We have to stop making up our mind about “them” and ending the discussion.
I think Donald Trump would make a terrible president. I now have two options:
- Compare Trump to Hitler and label his supporters ignorant neo-Nazis
- Recognize that like myself, many Trump supporters want the best for this country, are dissatisfied with Washington politics, and are desperate for an outsider to shake things up
One of these options turns me into a caricature, and the other gives me a chance to find common ground with those in the Trump camp who are also interested in common ground.
I think a belief in Hell is completely erroneous. I now have two options:
- Label all believers in Hell as ignorant, self-righteous fundamentalists
- Recognize that many loving, intelligent, well-meaning individuals hold a sincere belief in Hell for what they feel to be legitimate reasons
One of these options turns me into a caricature, and the other gives me a chance to have meaningful discussions and partner with Christians who don’t share my theology in bringing expressions of God’s love to our communities.
Let’s do one more and take the training wheels off. I believe that abortion is murder. I now have two options:
- Attack all pro-choice proponents as selfish, promiscuous baby-murderers
- Recognize that many loving, intelligent, well-meaning individuals object to government interference in pregnancy for what they feel are legitimate reasons
One of these options turns me into a caricature, and the other gives me an opportunity to partner with pro-choice proponents in helping to lower the number of unwanted pregnancies – and thus abortions – in our communities.
When we label, we eliminate our ability to partner with others in affecting positive change or finding legitimate solutions. When we label, we cut off entire segments of society, losing their strengths, talents, and insights. When we label, we reduce our communities to a dysfunctionally homogeneous case study in groupthink.
Letting Go Of Co-Dependence
Whether we’re talking about the American church or society as a whole, we have to get rid of our co-dependence with the rest of humanity – our psychological need for everyone to agree with us, conform to our lifestyle and admit the superiority of our ideology. We have to be okay with people disagreeing with us.
Furthermore, we have to come to a point where we can recognize the intelligence and value in the voices that disagree with us. We have to understand that if a large chunk of society feels a certain way, they may be 100% wrong but they aren’t 100% stupid. There are legitimate reasons for that belief if you’re willing to look hard enough and place yourself in someone else’s shoes.
I want to encourage you to take a moment, identify a view you look down upon, and re-evaluate how you see it.
This is never a one-time process. One of the realities of living in the information age is that you will forever be absorbing large quantities of biased information, and you will inevitably have to sort through those biases from time to time.
But if you can learn to value those who disagree, you’ll find that these biases tend to sort themselves out.
I’d love to hear from you. Is this commentary spot-on or frankly ridiculous? What are some biases you’ve found yourself working out? Comment below, share this article if you liked it, and if you haven’t already, enter your email to get our upcoming series “The Free-Thinker’s Guide To Christianity”.