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The demons of division in a polarized present

By Richard Shaw

I think one of the hardest lessons in life is when things don’t turn out the way we expect. The same is true of people.
We sometimes get fixed on what a person is by our first impression or by only a little information about them. We put people into different buckets based on what we know. That kind of thinking also leads us to make decisions about people we don’t really know at all, such as celebrities, politicians and other high profile individuals, both locally and nationally.
This weekend I was watching Sunday Morning on CBS. It is my favorite news magazine show because they have some very interesting stories and most of them are not negative, but instead investigate many things most of us never thought of. In that particular show there was one segment about the guy who designs the New York Times crossword puzzle each day. I have done of few of those over the years and have often wondered about Will Shortz and what he was like.

Not what I imagined

I imagined a guy that sat around thinking up ways to confuse people all day, a real bookworm who never left his office, if you know what I mean. The story on him did talk about that part of his life, but most of it concentrated on the fact that he is a world class ping pong player. In fact he owns a ping pong club in New York and is fast approaching a record for the person who has played ping pong the most consecutive days of anyone in history. It truly is a real sport. And if you laugh about that, go try it against a good player some day and you will learn the skills to master it are just as hard to do as tennis, baseball, golf, basketball, etc. It can be grueling.
So I had made a judgment about this Shortz guy, just because I knew what he did for a living. I had not even seen a photo of him before Sunday yet I thought I knew about him. How often do we do that? And how often do we hear someone speak up about their view on one thing at a meeting and then we believe we know what they think on every issue out there?
You’d think after 65 years on this earth, I would have learned not to make such snap judgments about people, but I haven’t. And I think few people are different from me in that regard. We take a little information and develop an opinion about someone, simply and quick. People complicated beings in many ways, and making quick judgments about them with a little information is really very silly when you think about it.
Over the years as a journalist I found that people I interviewed were often surprising, particularly when I was doing a story on them for a feature article. I talked to some people I thought I knew well from experiences at meetings, forums and just running into them around town. Then when I really got in depth with them, I found they often were very different from what I suspected they were in terms of views, things they do and things they have passion about.

Even families can be surprised

I remember a number of instances interviewing older people who had stories to tell about their past that even their spouses and children didn’t know about. Sometimes the family was sitting and watching us during the interview and a I observed a lot of dropped jaws when they heard tales of things that a person was telling me, but had never mentioned to their families.
I have had some people tell me I am a liberal. I have had others tell me I am too conservative. Both these judgments have been based on what I write in this paper, what I might say in a meeting or what they hear about me. That has been going on ever since I came to work at the paper in 2000. I have written in this column before that I consider myself a moderate, not because I sit on the fence, but because I generally have wide ranging views on things. Moderates are like that; liberal on some things and conservative on others. Yes and sometimes we do hang round a middle position on an issue too.

Opinions need not divide us

There are those today that would love to divide us into a nation of believers and non-believers. They use this tendency we have of simplifying people by only having a little information to their advantage. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The other day I talked with a business associate and we discussed our new president. He voted for one person, I voted for another. But despite that we didn’t get into a fight right there in his office over it. We discussed what had been going on in a civilized way, realizing that we both have different views of things, yet remaining courteous and friendly with each other. Difference really does make America great.
The problem, it seems to me, is not our differences but that that both sides of issues try to demonize each other using only scanty information about those they are in conflict with. Battling a movement or an issue is one thing, but when it gets personalized, the wheels come off and we go down a road where nothing will get done. There are those on each end of the spectrum who seem to relish being at odds with the other side. In fact I think some of them would die from shock if suddenly things like immigration, welfare, health care, gun control or any other single issue went away tomorrow. But for most of us, we may have strong views about something, but we are willing to be reasonable and understand that not everyone will always think the way we do.
Demonizing people based on a single perception is wrong as any wrong can be. Labeling people as this or that can only make discussions become arguments. And usually those labels are applied with very little information when it comes to judging what an individual really believes.
So the next time you start thinking you know someone from only one conversation, or even something someone else told you about them, reconsider how you are feeling. Try to find out the whole story, because you might be pleasantly surprised.
You will definitely be a better person for it.

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