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A Rush to Judgment

The cable news networks are buzzing today with stories about the gunman who opened fire in a packed movie theatre, about the negative campaign ads coming from both the Obama and Romney camps, and about the dispute between Viacom and DirecTV.

When you read this post, these stories may be long outdated. But you could comb the headlines on any given day and come to the same conclusion that I have about the stories in the news. Each story is, in essence, a rush to judgment.

Within hours of the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colorado, Facebook friends, Twitter followers and news anchors on every major station had pronounced the shooter “psychotic,” “evil,” “an aberration of nature,” and worse.

In the heat of the election, political rhetoric has become increasingly polarizing. The election is still four months away, but the bombastic attacks have forced a rush to judgment. Declaring a status of “undecided” or “independent” invites scorn from both sides.

Even though Viacom and DirecTV have come to terms today, just nine days after the blackout of programming started in a contract dispute, the finger pointing continues. Every competitor has jumped onto the bandwagon, including those with a history of their own blackouts and disputes. This rush to judgment is an opportunistic ploy to convert subscribers, even though there is no guarantee against the same situation.

Within each of these situations, there is ample room for backlash against the rush to judgment. But it is noticeably absent in news coverage and conversations. It seems in these, as in most topics these days, that there is no dialogue and no push back. We adopt black-or-white perspectives. We are content in the absolutes and we push others to the extremes, too. Gray is no longer acceptable. The rampant polarization of opinions makes my head spin as I search for the middle ground that has somehow been forgotten.

What boggles my mind most is that the rush to judge has so completely replaced a more rational approach. What happened to checking the facts? To hearing all sides of an argument before forming an opinion? To keeping an open mind? To giving the benefit of the doubt? To thinking for one’s self rather than following the crowd? Quickly choosing sides based on affiliation alone isn’t responsible. Judging others’ opinions because they differ from our own is narrow-minded. Why have we chosen to limit ourselves in these ways?

This rush to judgment isn’t just in the choosing of sides, though. It’s in the villainizing of those who take opposing views (or even slightly different views for especially hot topics). It’s as if no one feels secure enough in his or her own opinion to hear from the other side. It comes across as a lack of respect and common courtesy.

I liken it to a herd mentality. While there is strength in numbers, there is also weakness in following the crowd without knowing where and why and how you are following them. For those who are Republicans and vote a straight line party ballot, do you honestly believe that every conservative candidate and issue is absolutely the best choice? For those who are Democrats and vote a straight line party ballot, do you honestly believe that every liberal candidate and issue is absolutely the best choice? Or have you over-simplified the way you think and respond automatically -- to the point where you are no longer thinking?

There is a tendency called “confirmation bias” to which we are all susceptible when it comes to forming an opinion. Confirmation bias happens sub-consciously. It is what we are doing when we favor information that confirms our pre-formed opinions. For example, if you were looking for information about a subject, you would overlook or dismiss information that opposed your viewpoint. And you would readily accept and place undue weight on information that supported your position.

I think we are all falling into this trap more often and more easily. We hunker down on positions we’ve decided are “right” without truly researching them, and we close our minds to any information that would cause us to reconsider what we are backing. This stubbornness makes it impossible to meet in the middle and to understand others. It is downright unproductive.

Worse yet is that this trap makes us defensive. Because we are so adamant about being “right,” we rush to judge everyone else as “wrong.” We don’t seek to learn or grow or understand. Instead, we label and stereotype and demonize others. We make harmful assumptions. We fail to give the same credence, credit, grace and good will that we expect from others.

What if we all stepped back to acknowledge that there are two sides to every coin? What if we engaged in spirited debates with truly open minds so that we could genuinely seek to understand others’ opinions? What if we placed a greater value on learning and knowledge – not just the knowledge that supported our own case, but a broad base of knowledge that advanced our collective thinking?

In order to take even a small step towards this approach, we’d have to give up our rush to judgment. That may be the most difficult part of this challenge because judging others makes us feel superior. But I don’t think avoiding a rush to judgement and confirmation bias is impossible. If we are going to improve our connections with others, it has to start somewhere. Let me suggest a simple question as a starting point. It could work in any situation, with any person.

“What is it about this point of view that I don’t yet understand?”

By seeking to understand (without arguing or judging), perhaps we would again find our middle ground, the place where we are united.

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