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Terry Newell Headshot

What Do You Think, America?

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Did Officer Darren Wilson deliberately gun down Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri? Should Jody Arias get the death penalty? Was President Obama wrong to play golf after announcing his outrage at the execution of James Foley by ISIS terrorists? Should American Ebola patients be brought to the U.S. for treatment? Should self-driving cars be allowed on U.S. highways? Should Israel stop air strikes against Hamas in Gaza? Do the floods in Arizona mean that global warming is real? What do you think?

Actually, what I think is that I really don't know -- at least not yet. But that doesn't stop any one of a number of online, social media, or traditional news sources from asking me to state my opinion -- now -- on these and a host of other questions. When I look at the poll results, I find a lot of people do "know" and are willing to take a stand.

Most people "knew" that O.J. Simpson was guilty (or innocent) of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman within days of his arrest in June 1994. That was before news could go viral, thanks to thousands of reports and reporters. Today, it might only take hours (or less) for people to "know."

Not only do we state opinions on guilt or innocence, good or bad, and right or wrong more quickly today through viral voting, but we back them up with reasons based on "facts," as is readily evident in the stream of comments made online within hours of the posting of a news story. Indeed, the "Comments" option invites us to do just that. The fact that those "facts" are sometimes contradicted later by actual evidence and events or that they wear the clothing of opinions not hard truths does not render them any less strongly held.

What propels us to do this? Why do we come to conclusions so quickly? How well does it serve us as individuals and as a society? I really don't know the answers to these questions either. But I have some beginning thoughts.

Perhaps it's just fun to take a stand. "Wishy-washy" is not socially attractive. I mean, how can you enjoy a beer (or a latte) with someone who keeps saying "that's an interesting question. I need to think about that"?

Perhaps the feeling of certainty we get when we make a decision gives us a sense of psychological comfort. "OK, I've dealt with that issue." Maybe it allows us to put troubling events or questions to rest in our minds, to conclude that, bad as it may be, the universe is at least understandable. Maybe it just lets us move on, bombarded as we are by so much in this 24/7 world we inhabit.

Perhaps deferring to the "experts" (or at least those whom we know, trust, or can cite as experts) is essential to relieve us of having to do the work of thinking about each of these questions. Who has time for that anyway, and some of these questions are so complex that even Ph.D.s disagree.

So what? Does it really matter that much of America is quick to rush to judgment? This might be curious but not necessarily worrisome, except that the tendency can be fraught with social danger as well. Once formed, we are very reluctant to change these opinions. Having taken a stand, we are either loathe to admit error or, as is more likely, less able to even see that we have made a too-hasty judgment. We'd rather rationalize than be wrong. And so, once we have decided, we marshal evidence to support ourselves, ignore or discount contradictory information, and get angry when challenged. You don't have street riots, calls for impeachment, personal attacks on scientists or religious Americans, or barricades of buses of children from Central America by people willing to doubt themselves and go in search of contradictory information or viewpoints.

This is not an argument that there is no right or wrong in the world. Nor is it an argument that we can never form quick, accurate judgments. People who behead innocent victims or enslave young girls are evil and we don't need a month or a doctoral dissertation to conclude that. But in many other cases -- more than we care to admit -- the world is gray before it comes into focus. By insisting it has to be black or white (or red or blue), we harden our thinking and our hearts when we would be better served by pausing to learn more.

 
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