Are Your Great Ideas Just Knee Jerk Reactions?

You know how the doctor checks your knee for reflex by tapping it with the rubber hammer? Is it possible our greatest ideas are similarly predictable? And is that depressing? Or just boring?

Case 1. The Governor Paterson to-do. Governor Spitzer goes down in flames, whereupon the newly appointed governor confesses to his own giant-sized passel of moral turpitude. (For the humorous angle, check my last posting).

On the serious side, here are two letters to the editor of newspapers: Match the opinion to the geography of the writer:

A. We Americans are a more forgiving lot than you’d think when it comes to sexual morays; what we can’t abide by is getting conned.

B. So Paterson and his wife have told the public of their infidelities. So what? Is that supposed to make it better or go away? Cheating is like pregnancy—you’re not a little bit cheater. You is or you isn’t.

OK, which writer was from (1) Redwood City, California (on the peninsula, near Palo Alto, and which from (2) Califon, New Jersey (central NJ, 60 miles outside of NYC). (Answers: A1, B2 just in case).

Too easy? OK, Case 2: the subprime mortgage debacle. Match the editorial opinion to the publication:

A. Maybe financial regulation will mean less financial innovation. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

B. Do not ban financial instruments. The pariahs of one age—program-trading, short-selling, junk bonds—are usually reborn in respectable garb in the next. The system…rarely makes the same mistake twice.

Which was (1) The Economist, and which (2) Newsweek? Not too hard either, I suspect. (A2, B1 in case I’m wrong).

I’m not saying this predictability is surprising. I’m reminding us it’s not.

Pollsters know this well. So does anyone who cares to take note of his commonsense observations. We are all quite familiar with the notion that others’ opinions are linked to other patterns, hence easy to predict.

Yet we’re also very fond of the idea that our opinions are different. We hold the Keys to the Truth.

(Or to be more precise, I hold the keys to the Truth. You, on the other hand—not to be rude about it, just stating the facts—only have opinions. Which, given who you are, are quite predictable. No offense—I’m just saying.)

And of course we (me too, in this case) tend to prefer the company of those whose opinions are enlightened (i.e. resemble ours). If you can’t remember which bloviator is O’Reilly and which is Limbaugh, then you probably don’t hang out with those who do. I mean, why bother listening to the unenlightened, right?

And when the inability to see others’ perspectives is brought face to face with our tendency to behave very predictably, we all get bent out of shape about it. Because while we see consistency on big issues as a virtue, we see predictability on said issues as an insult.

Case in point: Obama’s recent comment about “typical” white people. Let me be clear about my own opinion: he was speaking about the belief systems of the majority culture, which happens to be white—and in that sense, he was completely, 100% correct about what he described. Hence, typical. (Bad majority culture politics, but quite accurate use of the English language).

“Typical” majority culture behavior is to equate majority norms and perceptions with “normal.” And it is equally predictable—typical, you might say—that this view drives minority culture people nuts. ("You tell me that’s a Top 40 song? And just whose Top 40 did you have in mind?")

It drives them about as nuts as majority culture people are driven when someone points out to them the utter predictability of blind spots in majority culture people.

Part of the reason racism is so intractable is that we so easily impute beliefs to others—with a great deal of accuracy, by the way—at the same time we resist so strongly the idea that another person’s idea might be as legitimate as our own.

To a majority culture person, it is hard to imagine Obama equating in the same paragraph his grandmother’s mildly racist statements to his minister’s outrageous comments. Yet to a minority culture person, it is hard to imagine how someone could ignore the minority/majority context—Grandma’s mild reaction was proportionate to the mildness of her experience of racism; Jeremiah Wright’s response was equally proportionate to his far-more violent personal experience of racism.

As an evolving species, my guess is the way to “I’m OK, You’re OK” must first go through “I’m an Idiot, You’re an Idiot.” The first step is to admit there’s a problem. That requires listening to one another. Arguably the hardest thing to do.

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