Last week I was watching TV while  running on a treadmill at the gym and towards the end of my workout the programming switched over to The State of the Union.Wanting to hear the commentary and the address I turned up the volume on my set and settled in to the last few miles of my workout. Literally the moment Obama took the stage, before he had a chance to make a single remark,  I heard someone from behind me yell, “you’re a f—ing idiot, Obama! Get off the stage! No one wants to hear your stupid remarks.” Taken aback, I glanced over my shoulder to figure out who was yelling at such a high volume that I could hear it through my headset. As more yelling and swearing ensued, I determined that the noise was coming from the guy on the row directly behind me. I turned up the volume on my set, again, in hopes of drowning him out and noticed everyone around him was doing the same.

Five minutes later the yelling started up again, at which point I started to get angry. First of all, we were in a public place and I think it’s rude to behave in such a way that disrupts the peace for those around you. Secondly, this guy was yelling so loudly I couldn’t even hear what was being said in Obama’s speech. Most of all, I was frustrated that this guy wasn’t providing Obama a chance to speak before passing judgement. Moreover, the thing that was being judged wasn’t  the speech at all, it was Obama himself.  As the swearing and yelling continued, I hurriedly finished my workout and left the gym with a whole new pile of frustrations.

As I was leaving, I checked my Twitter and Facebook feeds to see  how others were reacting to the speech. Reading people’s comments I quickly realized that the experience I’d had the gym, where preemptive judgement was embraced as opposed to critical thinking, was the norm and not the exception.  Posting after posting cast the speech and Obama in either a black or a white light, save for maybe two comments, there was no middle ground. What is it about our culture that we prefer to immediately place things into pre-determined categories as opposed to wrestling through the tension, ambiguity and nuance that are so prevalent in issues of politics, faith, immigration and the like?

I so appreciate Seth Godin’s take on matters such as this (from Tribes):

“A fundamentalist is a person who considers whether a fact is acceptable to his religion before he explores it.  As opposed to a curious person who explores first and then considers whether or not he wants to accept the ramifications.  A curious person embraces the tension between his religion and something new, wrestles with it and through it, and then decides whether to embrace the new idea or reject it. Curious is the key word.  [It has] nothing to do with organized religion.  It has to do with a desire to understand, a desire to try, a desire to push whatever envelope is interesting. […] What we’re seeing is that fundamentalism really has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with an outlook regardless what your religion is.”

Perhaps the reason we’re prone to reduce, simplify and prematurely compartmentalize complex situations is that engagement in critical thinking and dialogue may lead to us having to admit we don’t have all of the answers (and let’s face it, if there’s anything Americans are supposed to have at all times its answers….) All of this makes me wonder, will there ever be a day that critical thinking is embraced and and not feared in this country?

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