With family gatherings approaching, there will ba a number of “hot topic” conversations taking place. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to have a reasonable discussion lately. I’ve seen a number of instances in which an issue is defined as “polar”, there is no middle ground, there are simply two possible alternatives. Black or white. I know that sometimes an issue does have a simple, binary nature, but most of the time these black and white issues turn out to be purple. Sometimes it’s even helicopter.
When an issue is framed as only having two possible sides, it is often more a reflection on the person presenting the situation’s lack of experience. There’s a possibility that escaped the person’s imagination. An obvious and repeated example this time of year is the ethnicity of Jesus, and new in the news this year is Santa Claus.
In a confluence of circumstance often described as a “perfect storm” but more properly referenced as a “Charlie Foxtrot”, Megyn Kelly, former model and current talking head, said “Santa just IS white, like Jesus he’s an historical person”. Faced with an outpouring of criticism, she later said it was meant as a joke. Too late, the “it’s a joke” part didn’t make the headlines, and millions of ideologues are arguing (which appears to be the primary function of FOX). As one person said, “I love it when people offended by stupid, unfounded remarks make stupid, unfounded remarks”. The arguments evolved anything to do with Christmas. People who feel a kinship to FOX ignored the “joke” defense and treated anyone suggesting that Santa wasn’t white as an enemy of their way of life. People on the other side blamed Santa for Global Warming.
Saint Nicholas of Myra was a fourth century Greek bishop, born in what is today Turkey. Jesus of Nazareth was born in Northern Israel, and regardless of your beliefs about his heritage, most scholars agree that he did indeed exist. Neither man would be considered black, nor would they be seen as white. They were both Mediterranean, with dark skin, hair and eyes. The best explanation came (inadvertently) from a woman defending the “whiteness” of Santa. “He was originally ‘Sinter Klaas’, a Dutch Saint, so he was white”. Sinter Klaas is the Dutch translation of Saint Nicholas (shortening Nicholas to Klaus rather than Nick), but the characterization in Northern Europe stayed popular with people of European ancestry. If you visit a black household, Santa will be a black man, and so will Jesus. The beauty of the two men is that they are identified with, their message of love and generosity is personalized to the point they are a part of the family.
Another polar approach is the sarcasm defense. Faced with a fault and unable to apologize or acknowledge wrongdoing, the response goes to hyperbole. “Yes, I’m the worst person in the world”. As if there are only two possibilities, either they are the worst, or they have no responsibility for the issue being discussed. This is essentially the “there are no logical comments left” point. Along these lines is the nonsense defense. I once asked my sister in law why she didn’t recycle. Her response was “They don’t take plastic”. There was a mandatory recycling of paper, plastic, and metal, but she didn’t recycle any of those things because there wasn’t recycling of plastic. She might as well have said “There’s a banana in the attic”.
One more, actually the genesis of this article (yeah, I know I write backwards). The “It’s either this or that” statement, denying the existence of other possibilities. There are a number of variations to this, from the simple “If you’re home late from school, you must have been robbing the grocery store”, to the witch trial logic of “If she drowns, she’s innocent”. I heard one leveled against a colleague, “If you’re telling the truth, you would have been fired, and since you weren’t fired, you must be lying’. Adding additional conditions, in this case that the truth equaled being fired, destroys logic. Instead of insisting on one assumption, the person was insisting on a series of assumptions. The possibility that the action wasn’t a fire-able offense is ignored. Any response that negates one assumption does not (in this persons mind) negate any of the others, it verifies it, along the lines of “When did you stop beating your wife?”
The root of all of this is people who are more interested in being right than knowing what they’re talking about. When someone starts misinterpreting your comments, and refuses to understand after you’ve explained again, walk away. It’s not worth the frustration. “You FOX news followers are all racists”, “No, I don’t watch Fox and I’m not racist, we’re discussing healthcare”, “So do you have pictures of yourself in a white sheet at a KKK rally?”, “Hey mom, do you need help with the dishes?”.
I genuinely love conversations with people who have different points of view. Sometimes I change their views, sometimes they change mine, and always I learn something about the subject and the person I’m discussing it with. It seems that too often what I’m learning is about the other person, because even though they don’t understand their position, they’re defending it. I would rather not be aware of that fact.
The point of a conversation is to learn and teach. Let the lesson you teach be that you are a gracious and understanding person.