The gray area

The world’s never as black and white as we make it seem. Yet we distill everything — absolutely goddamn everything — down to two completely irreconcilable sides, stripped of any nuance or hope of a productive conversation.

Want to discuss the economic and cultural implications of granting visas to immigrants of varying origins and education levels?

“Build a wall!”

Shouldn’t we be a bit cautious about the size and scope of the welfare state and the overall role of government in our daily lives?

*Gasp* “So you want your fellow Americans — kids! — to starve and die without health insurance?

Think that’s hyperbolic? I wish it were. I wish that banal clickbait, legit news reports and Onion articles didn’t blend so seamlessly together nowadays. For fuck’s sake, we managed to turn the Ghostbusters remake into a feud of existential proportions, wasting vast amounts of time and energy avoiding an obvious truth — that a movie can be both subpar and an optimistic sign of cultural progress.

Why? Because there’s no middle ground anymore, just a vacuum between two dominant, divisive masses. Their gravity messes with anyone caught in the middle.

But reality is in that divide. It’s in the gray area — the final frontier of public discourse. Consider it a utopia where folks recognize that disagreements can happen without winners and losers, and that the world, quite excitingly, poses far more questions than answers. It’s a space where “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable combination of words.

We’ve gotten drunk off the constant conflict found outside the gray area. Schadenfreude, moral superiority, intellectual masturbation, “winning” an argument — it feels damn good. But feels good isn’t a reason to persist in a behavior, nor is it confirmation that you’re beyond reproach.

The first step to achieving intellectual sobriety is admitting we have a problem. Sociology degree notwithstanding (or really any credentials beyond a pulse), there’s some obvious forces at play here:

  • Human nature — We’re tribal beings programmed to do battle with the world. But the developed world has become decreasingly contentious, and our programming simply can’t keep up. So we find conflict or create it.
  • Two Party System — The Founding Fathers made our bed, and we’re lying in it. Except they made two single beds, in separate rooms, with staunch partisans hogging the covers.
  • The Internet — I won’t waste your time with this one.
  • Mental shortcuts — There’s simply too much going on to keep up with, let alone be conversant in. Solution? Whittle a topic down to talking points, turn it into a dichotomy, and boom — you’re good to go.
  • The media — Echo chambers. 24-hour news cycle. Clickbait. You get the idea.

The list could go on. The list could also be misguided. This whole piece could be misguided. And if I’m being intellectually honest with myself, every bit of my understanding of the world is likely some form of misguided, incomplete, off-base, biased, illogical, irrational or all of the above. That’s just part of being human. Egos write checks the intellect can’t cash.

So let’s divorce ego from intellect. Check that shit at the door and enter the gray area. I hope to see you there.

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