Friday, March 9, 2012

Thinking About People Who Don't Think Much

There was a week at the beginning of this year when I seemed to have run into a herd of unthinking folks. It was a week when I definitely felt like I was going against the flow. It seemed like every time I got in to a conversation with anyone beyond the polite greetings and niceties, I was hearing things from their mouths I could hardly believe. The discussions were many and varied—in depth and length—but they all had one thing in common. It sounded like these folks were on automatic pilot, repeating stock phrases and opinions, and in some cases, prejudices and bigotries that have been disproved long ago. I was stunned not at encountering unthinking people, but at how many people like this there are! It made me wonder if I was living in a different universe, or perhaps, had lost touch with reality and needed to admit myself to a hospital for observation. It made me feel crazy!

Part of this is due to it being an election year. Opinions and facts that are polar opposites abound during these times. Conversations are characterized by either-or thinking, and ideology has a good slice of prime time in media. Thoughtfulness does not make for good sound bytes. However, I am still stunned at how often this kind of thinking quickly pushes into attributing motives and character (or lack thereof) to people we really do not know. But I have always been taught and continue to believe that for people of faith, people of the BOOK, conversation and dialogue ought to be different. And our view of others ought to be filled with grace, not suspicion and condemnation. According to scripture and the example of Christ himself, encounters with others first and foremost are to be characterized by humility and respect. This is not to suggest that we should pretend we don’t know things we really know, a false sort of humility. But in a God-centered universe, with a Christ-centered theology, and a spirit-centered life, we begin by acknowledging that we don’t understand everything clearly or perfectly. And, that only God knows the heart of another. For those professing to be followers of Jesus Christ, Philippians 2 makes it pretty clear. We begin with the other in mind. We begin with being open to the other, not to simply set them straight, but to hear them, listen to them, learn from them and value them. Imagine how different many of our conversations would be if all people in a conversation approached it this way.

The unthinking character of a lot of conversations is colorfully exposed by our new social media. The internet has become a quick and convenient way to share information and express opinion. Frequently, this is done without checking the facts. Thanks to Snopes a person can check an internet story or fact before posting or passing it on. The problem is few do this, and within minutes a story or fact without any merit can spread like wildfire. Then, it is repeated in conversations. Snopes reveals that not only are some of these stories not true, they are old! They have been circulated previously and somehow found their way back in circulation again. And, again, in this medium it quickly degenerates to name-calling and character assassination.

One internet sharing experience I had during this week of thoughtless encounters demonstrates just how committed we can become to these stores and opinions without truth or merit. I had received an email with a gut-wrenching story about wounded veterans complete with pictures. My father was a POW in WWII so I get hooked very easily on these babies! I posted the story without checking Snopes. Then someone suggested I check. Sure enough, there was absolutely no basis for the story and the facts accompanying it. So, with my internet tail between my legs, I posted an apology, especially for tugging at people’s heartstrings on such a very important issue without checking first. I confessed my weakness for all things military veteran and promised to be more diligent in the future. To my utter amazement, I received an email from a person who, so committed to the ideology and message of the story, questioned the veracity of Snopes! I was dumbfounded. Now, before anyone comes after me again, I realize that Snopes is not perfect either, and is capable of error. They are billed as “the definitive internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation on their own website. However, they consistently give the source of their fact-finding to encourage users to pursue the truth on their own, and they regularly advise users when there is any uncertainty or limitation in their source work. According to Wikipedia, Fact Check reviewed a sample of Snopes’ responses to political rumors regarding George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama and found them to be free from bias in all cases. In other words, they are equal opportunity debunkers.

Anyway, back to unthinking people. There are those who do not want to be confused with the facts. They hold so dearly certain opinions and feel so deeply about certain issues that they seem unable to even imagine there could be another credible view. And like automatons, they perpetuate urban legends myths, and stereotypes with no intention of ever examining them. “Autopilot living” I call it. A woman walked up to my daughter at church one Sunday and said to her, “So, how do you like Califronia?” My daughter replied, “I like it a lot.” The woman continued the interview, “Even with all the Mexicans?” My daughter was dumbfounded, unable to speak, let alone respond, and totally caught off guard by this not very thinly veiled bigotry. She was in church after all and regardless of one’s view of politics or even immigration, such a stereotypic and unkind statement about an entire population seemed entirely out of place. These unthinking people go about life with the incredibly arrogant idea that they are right about everything, and consequently, everyone of any reputation certainly must agree with them. Very bad assumption. One only has to live with one other person for any length of time to know this is not the case.

So, I have been thinking about unthinking people. The one thing I know for sure is that I do not want to become one of them. From encountering them so often, I have this sense that it is easyto become one and not know it. So…this is an all out unqualified plea—don’t let me!

Do you have any thoughtless thoughts to share from your recent conversations? I would love to hear them so as to avoid sounding anything like it anytime soon.