People Don’t Come in Boxes . . .

… so why put them there? In this 21st century age of political correctness we bend over backwards in fear of causing an affront to any group that can call itself a group by virtue of having two or more like-minded people. And yet turn on any major news outlet and the jargon is awash with political stereotypes: the left, the right, the Dem’s, the Pub’s, the moderates, the Tea Party, etc., etc.

It might be more palatable if those were just partial or contributing descriptions, but quite often that’s all the effort that goes into providing someone’s background. They will say, “well, you know, he’s a conservative, so . . .” as if that should embody the sum total of a person’s intellectual existence. I am reminded of a scene from Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams and Matt Damon are seated in front of the Boston Public Park, and Robin Williams’ character, Sean Maguire, takes the young genius Will Hunting (played by Damon) to the intellectual woodshed while helping him understand that both facts and life’s experiences contribute equally to one’s vantage point. Key moment from that script:

Sean: You’re an orphan, right?
Will nods quietly.
Sean: Do you think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been … how you feel … who you are, because I read Oliver Twist!? Does that encapsulate you?

But that’s exactly what we do when we insist on putting people into ideological boxes. We presume to know how they think, their beliefs, their feelings, what motivates them, how they will react in different situations.

I realize that it’s often just innocent and convenient expediency to categorize people as part and parcel of making sense of our chaotic political environment. But if you stop and think about it, that really adds very little to intelligent discourse. To the contrary, it risks the creation of stereotypical dispositions that are manifested as filters of arrogance and ignorance. Recall habit 5 of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People (as borrowed from the Prayer of St. Francis):  Seek first to understand – then to be understood.

That’s not a lesson in humility or self deference. It’s a basic tenet of effective communication. Those who take the time and make the effort to understand the views of others are much more effective in communicating their own ideas – and doing so in a way where those ideas can lead to actionable outcomes.

A final point. When we place individuals into ideological boxes – for example as we do with politicians – we should not be surprised when those individuals interpret their station much like an actor on stage: they act to the audience. They perform consistent with the audience’s expectations. So when we as the body politic lament the polarization of Washington perhaps we should stop to consider our role in building the stage upon which those players act.



  1. Good thoughts to bring Friday to close. Thanks

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