I had a disheartening, but in retrospect rather interesting, exchange on Facebook yesterday morning.
First, let me state up front that I usually don't respond to political statements on social media. It's not that I don't value a good discussion; it's more that this is seldom what those turn out to be. So when people post about politics, I rarely even so much as click "Like" on the ones I agree with, and almost never object to the ones I disagree with.
Yesterday morning, however, I made an exception to my own unwritten rule, when a Facebook friend posted the following unattributed quote: "A man with good morals who falls short and becomes a hypocrite is still a far better man than a liberal who can never be called a hypocrite because he has no morals at all."
And I responded, "No liberals have morals? None? Hmmm..."
He shot back, "Name one."
I responded, "Me. I'm a liberal, and I have morals."
"What morals do you have?" he asked.
I replied, "Be kind. Tell the truth. Don't take what doesn't belong to you. Don't be arrogant or conceited. Respect your elders. Take care of those less powerful than you are. Follow the law. Be loyal."
His response: "Those are all conservative morals! You sound like you're a conservative and won't admit it!"
At that point, I gave up, which I should have before I started, frankly.
One of the things I find the most discouraging, as a teacher and (in the larger sense) as a citizen, is how intellectually lazy a lot of people are. Always, always, always look for the easy answer, don't act as if life is complex, don't admit to gray areas. "Liberals are socialists who want to destroy America." "Conservatives are corporate shills who only care about the very rich." "Atheists are amoral." "The religious are gullible dupes." Of course, we've been well schooled in this by the media, haven't we? Look at Rush Limbaugh: "A woman who supports insurance coverage for contraception is a slut." Our hunger for easy answers has the effect of absolving us of the hard work of thinking, of having to make tough moral calls in a world that is messy, complicated, full of cross purposes and contradictory motives. How much easier it is simply to give up and believe a Rush Limbaugh or a Ted Rall.
Ceding your brain to someone else, however, comes at a cost. (And if you don't think that that's what this is, consider that Limbaugh himself calls his followers "Dittoheads.") First, you lose any opportunity for dialogue, because having labeled the opposing side as a bunch of morons (or anti-American, or amoral, or whatever), you stop listening to what they have to say. And I'm sorry; no one mainstream political party is entirely in the wrong, however convenient that would be for their opponents. Egomaniacs like Limbaugh might enjoy being surrounded by "Dittoheads," but for anyone interested in growing intellectually, the essence of learning is being challenged by those you disagree with.
Second, vilifying your opponents doesn't make you make good decisions. Party-line voters, who state with evident pride, "I would never vote for a Republican," are implying that party identification trumps everything else -- background, qualifications, moral values, stance on particular issues. Being a liberal, I have tended to vote Democrat, but I am under no illusion that being a Democrat makes you some kind of pinnacle of ethics. (Nor, I would like to point out to my Facebook friend, does being a Republican.)
It all comes down to refusing to succumb to the lure of easy answers. They may be appealing -- but they're seldom right. Those who fall for them are being sold a bill of goods by the media, who thrive on sound bites and pithy statements, who understand all too well that being outrageous and controversial sells better than deep, thoughtful analysis. They're perfectly happy to give their listeners what they want to hear, because they know they'll swallow it -- and end up hooked without even knowing it's happened.