My liberal friends accuse me of being a closet neocon because I think cancel culture is a joke and scoff at this new era of national hypersensitivity.
My conservative friends think I’m a flaming snowflake because I refuse to pledge allegiance to a bully like Donald Trump and I admire Obama’s pragmatic swag.
My fellow prisoners often assume I’m a white supremacist based on appearance: clean shaven head with a beard, numerous tattoos and scars. Anyone who has ever read one of my books knows this is not the case.
You’re probably drawing your own conclusions right now.
All these blanket judgements.
But don’t think I’m over here whining about being misunderstood. I judge too. We all do. It’s hardwired into our DNA. Our brains have developed over millennia to categorize, compare, assess. It’s what keeps us out of lions’ mouths, dark alleys, bad relationships, and bad conversations. Rarely do we see the actual person in front of us though, just the story we’re telling ourselves about them.
One of the most influential people I’ve ever met is a pacifist with a horrible temper, a punk rock anarchist who loves listening to the soothing voices of tea-sipping NPR hosts, a vegan who sometimes eats chicken. I once told her she was a walking contradiction. Her response: “…what you call contradiction I prefer to view as cosmically balanced.”
In her weird and wonderful way, she was telling me that life is more complicated than the binary ones and zeros of the judgemental mind.
Another Malcolm—one who’s sold far more books than the author of this essay—wrote about this in his bestseller The Tipping Point. In it, Mr. Gladwell referred to the phenomenon as “fundamental attribution error”, a filtering system in the brain that sorts people into categories based on isolated instances and small sample sizes. But it’s called a fundamental error for a reason: it’s flawed.
Are you a Second Amendment gun aficionado who still sees no justification for fully automatic street sweepers? A climate science believer who abhors the idea of late-term abortion based on embryonic science? Maybe you’re a Fox News watcher but your gut tells you that Joe and Jill Biden are not inherently evil socialists. Or you’re a black man who cringes every time you see Al Sharpton reach for a bullhorn.
If so, then I invite you to the rebellion.
Life is far more complex than the ideological slots we try to jam each other into. Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, said there were so many sides to him that he defied geometry. This is probably true for all of us. For our handful of years in this world of great wealth and crushing poverty, of hope and fear, love and indifference, the best we can do is seek the truth.
The brilliant David Mitchell summed it up beautifully in his novel Utopia Avenue—“Labels. I stuck them on everything. Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. Square. Hip. Queer. Normal. Friend. Enemy. Success. Failure. They’re easy to use. They save you the bother of thinking. Those labels stay stuck. They proliferate. They become a habit. Soon, they’re covering everything, and everybody, up. You start thinking reality IS the labels. Simple labels, written in permanent marker. The trouble is, reality’s the opposite. Reality is nuanced, paradoxical, shifting. It’s difficult. It’s many things at once. That’s why we’re so crummy at it. People harp on about freedom. ALL the time. It’s everywhere. There are riots and wars about what freedom is and who it’s for. But the Queen of Freedoms is this: to be free of labels.”
Stay cosmically balanced, my friends.