Judged By Mischaracterized Intentions

One of the greatest pathologies of public life today is its pervasive gang mentality. We are constantly labeled by others — and at the same time do that very same labeling. By our actions, we divide ourselves up into tribes, Us and Them. It’s our hatred of Them that continually leaves us far, far short of our ideals.

When one enters the public square, when one speaks up, others listen and judge. Who is this person? What tribe are they with? Are they on my team or the other team? Are they friend or enemy?

Sometimes without realizing it, we give clues to answer those questions. Whether I refer to “Barack Hussein Obama” or “President Barack Obama” says a great deal. Whether I link to a CNN or a Fox News story does too. It all adds up and within thirty seconds a first impression has been set. 

Trouble is, most people aren’t really like their stereotypes. Think about the stereotype the “other side” has about your own tribe. How fair is it? How correct is it?

  • Maybe you’re “liberal.” It’s probably not only unfair but also incorrect to say that you favor a move to socialism, or that you care more about redistributing wealth than you do about personal morality.
  • Maybe you’re “conservative.” It’s probably not only unfair but incorrect to say that you are only interested in furthering the interests of the rich, or that you are just a mean-spirited person.

Yet these are the labels we smack on the other side.

My point: This is not only corrosive to public life — but it’s plain dumb. By allowing these incorrect stereotypes to persist in our own mind, we live in a delusional world. We don’t understand other people, which means we don’t really know what is being said in the public square.

I saw this play out in an ironic way just a couple of days ago. I noticed a derisive comment in a liberal avenue about some “stupid conservative’s” article that contained a misspelling. I went to go take a look.

Sure, the article was angry (conservatives feel quite besieged at the moment) — but it was thoughtful. More to the point, it was sincere. And it contained this complaint, describing what it’s like to be a conservative in the current environment:

“My intentions are mischaracterized, and then I am judged by those mischaracterized intentions.”

Actually, that’s an apt description of the public square as a whole. We can do so much better . . . because we are so much better.

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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