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Perspective: It’s time for more grace in our public discourse

Our brains are wired to pay attention to negative information. But our higher selves can do better than that

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Illustration by Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Among the growing list of worrisome symptoms in our hyperpartisan society is an increasing tendency to judge entire communities by the ugliest examples of a select few actors.  

This has become endemic on partisan news sites and throughout social media. More than simply drawing attention to especially painful or sordid cases, what differentiates these examples is the insistence that one horrifying account is somehow representative of a whole group of people.

As we absorb a daily diet of such claims, we might be forgiven for coming to believe that all police officers are ready to use excessive force on minorities, all millennials spend their days playing video games while eating avocado toast in their parents’ basement and all conservatives are itching to subvert democratic rule, or liberals, if you happen to watch the other news channel. And people may also see a darkly deviant act of violence or sexual assault by a Catholic, Muslim, Baptist, Jew or Latter-day Saint as somehow indicative of an entire faith tradition.   

None of this, of course, is new; the tendency to overstate the significance of ugly examples is a feature of human history and not a bug. Arguably the most prominent example in American history was the anti-Black propaganda that persisted in the decades after the Civil War. As Utah State historian Patrick Mason points out, of course, Black people sometimes did bad things during this period, just like white people did. When that happened, however, the surrounding community would “seize upon any aspect of Black criminality and play them up — even when the stories were exaggerated and made up.” 

As settlers filled the West, similar rhetoric was used to demonize Native Americans. As Mason told me, “An Indian steals a cow, and now all Indians are thieves.” As a result, more aggression against Native Americans and the Black community was rationalized.

Philosopher C.T. Warner famously posited that in the presence of deep resentment, those who refuse to seek freedom from animosity are ultimately driven to deform and distort the whole world around them to justify their resentments.    

So perhaps it makes sense that such misrepresentations have been commonly applied to groups held in suspicion by the majority — groups that are already unpopular or marginalized. 

There are some biological reasons for this. Our brains are wired to pay attention to negative information that could be threatening. Social psychologists have also found that, “people are more likely to draw inferences about others based on extreme behaviors than based on moderate ones.” 

But our tendency to be fascinated by especially lurid stories can’t account for all of this. It’s not every person or group that is subjected to such scrutiny, after all; it’s mostly people or groups we already don’t like.

There does seem to be a distinctly heightened appetite in our increasingly secular society for targeting religious communities in this way. Since tragic accounts of sexual assault have come to light among a subset of leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church, the vast majority of our Christian brothers and sisters have mourned these painful revelations. Despite the fact that faith communities more often help mitigate and guard against many of the well-known risk factors for child sexual abuse, it’s striking how infrequently criminal behavior is portrayed for what it is: sharply deviant from the norm in these communities.

Instead, too often, it’s cynically presented as characteristic and illustrative.  

Certainly, any criminal act or accusation must be taken seriously, and wrongdoers brought to justice. But taking something seriously means thinking carefully about it, and not exaggerating the meaning or scope to include innocent bystanders.

For instance, some have attempted to suggest that serious, but sporadic cases of sexual misconduct among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints represent smoking-gun evidence of a far more systemic problem. When encountering a story that focuses on the religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation of an individual and their negative behavior, it’s worth thinking hard about whether it’s exceptional or representative of an entire group.

It’s heartening to see vivid counterexamples to this trend, such as Duke University volleyball player Rachel Richardson. Even after being the target of some racial taunts by a fan at a recent BYU-Duke game, Richardson cited her faith in God as the reason why she responded to the outreach by the school athletic director with compassion and gratitude. This remarkably mature young woman was quoted as saying, “I don’t want BYU to be singled out or looked at as a bad institution because of this one thing ... that doesn’t represent the entire university of BYU.”

We don’t have to fall into these patterns of hasty overgeneralizations. Yet all too often, how we respond may depend almost entirely on how we feel about a particular group.

This brings to mind David Brooks’ damning appraisal of our national response to the hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Highlighting the distinct lack of corroborating evidence for what happened at a party three decades earlier, Brooks suggested that there was, at the very least, a need for intellectual humility to appraise and measure the contradictory testimonies.

Yet he went on to lament, “Commentators and others may have acknowledged uncertainty on these questions for about 2.5 seconds, but then they took sides. If they couldn’t take sides based on the original evidence, they found new reasons to confirm their previous positions.”

Sound familiar? That’s what we do when we stop seeking for a truth beyond our own thoughts, feelings and biases — and instead, eagerly collect evidence to confirm whatever we’ve already come to believe.  

We all know better. And we can all do better.  

For the sake of our national future, I hope and pray we can. 

Jacob Hess is the editor-in-chief at Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”