The other day, I came across another commentator insisting they knew the real purpose behind Bill Gates’ latest remarks and actions. Maybe you’ve seen it too? 

If not, you likely saw something like it from one of the many people insisting they’re in possession of special insight into the true meaning of the latest words from President Joe Biden or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, or Dr. Anthony Fauci or Dr. Robert Malone.

These commentaries go something like this: “Bill Gates said this recently. But don’t believe it. Because I’m here to tell you what he really believes and what he truly wants.”

Is there more to the story when it comes to the words we hear from public figures or their action?  Without question, there usually is. And for people whose decisions influence vast numbers due to their role and power, it’s only natural that any of us would wonder about their motives, and appreciate those who thoughtfully scrutinize their work. Critical thinking and even skepticism can be a positive force.

The problem comes when many of my fellow countrymen and women immediately write off the plain meaning of someone’s words — and insist there is always something else going on.

Maybe there is. Certainly, there could be. But is that the likeliest possibility?

Probably not. It’s vastly more likely that this person actually believes what they’re saying —even if the perspective seems outlandish to you — and that they’re trying to do something positive for the world, however misguided it may be.

Can public school teachers conclude emails to parents with a Bible verse?

The reality behind dark stories

No one has to convince me — or you — that there is real darkness in the world today. And many of us love a good scary story, the kind that makes your hair stand up just a little. Advertisers and many media outlets love a frightening story, too — unfortunately for the truth, the darker, the better. These sorts of stories draw viewers, listeners and readers back for another dopamine spike. 

Why risk publishing a story about a complex issue someone is trying to navigate when you can seize upon a single line that will be red meat for your audience? Why offer the full context of someone’s latest speech when a darker interpretation gets more clicks and shares?

In fairness, sometimes a dark reality and a dark story are the same thing. And sometimes they’re just not. 

One of my college mentors recounted a story from when half the country thought President George W. Bush was the worst thing in the world.

After working on a campaign to defeat him, her colleague recalled one day coming face to face with Bush while passing each other at an event. Even that brief moment was enough to “feel a sense of his humanity” — with that living, breathing reality challenging the long-held caricature of the man as a monstrosity.

What would our own experience be like if we actually met the person we believe is doing terrible things in the world? Would we come away thinking they were even worse than we had imagined … or better? 

I’ve witnessed this sort of moment a number of times over the years, especially between liberals and conservatives, including LGBT+-identifying folks and religious conservatives. And it always surprises me how quickly nervousness melts away and affection takes its place. 

The most common take-away goes something like this: “I still disagree with you just as much as I did before ... but you’re not half bad … and I kind of like you, too.” 

It’s also common to see people come away convinced that, even though this other person may be wrong about X or Y, they have arrived at that position reasonably and sincerely. In other words, they’re not just lying or trying to hurt others with their views. 

And that’s really the alternative to all the dark ruminations about what’s “really going on” with this person or the other: taking as our default that Bill Gates (or anyone else) really believes what he or she is saying. And that, however wrong they may be, they believe their words and plans are a good thing for the world. 

Perspective: A radical solution for peace in the Middle East

Wouldn’t that be the simplest, most parsimonious explanation — the Occam’s razor — for the myriad different positions people have taken about politics, the pandemic and the latest social controversy? 

To be clear, I’m not a member of the Bill Gates fan club. I have serious questions and concerns about his approach to resolving pandemics. But I know enough people who think about health like he does that I don’t find it hard to believe that he’s sincere in his proposals and plans. 

Similarly, back during former President Barack Obama’s tenure, I often heard conservatives insist that the president hated America, that he was lying to us, and there was a larger, evil design behind his political moves. I remember telling neighbors and friends, “I know lots of people who think like Obama — and I’ve never met one of them who wants to overthrow the Republic.” 

None of this is to deny that real conspiracies exist. But if we start to automatically disbelieve the words coming out of people’s mouths, and always read into them dark undertones as an automatic default, the world can get pretty dark, pretty fast. 

So let’s all keep thinking critically, carefully and thoughtfully while assuming the best about most people around us. That friend who’s gearing up to vote for someone different than you for president? Maybe they really are motivated by hopes of fresh good being done for the country, rather than secret wishes to undermine democracy.

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And those neighbors who reached vastly different conclusions about the recent pandemic? Chances are they’re not actually rooting for a depopulation agenda — and really do think their preferred approach would make more people healthy.

In short, even when we might differ substantially with someone, consider adhering to the credo on a placard at Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity: “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.” 

Yes, there are some monsters out there. But chances are, the person you’re listening to right now isn’t one of them. 

Jacob Hess is the former editor of Public Square Magazine and writes at Publish Peace on Substack. 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, he also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”

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