I know what you're thinking: Stop the presses, a liberal Hollywood celebrity made a fool out of herself. Push past that first instinct to roll your eyes and dismiss this as Hollywood being Hollywood.
You see, it's exactly that dismissive instinct that led Alyssa Milano to say something so profoundly lazy and dishonest in the first place.
I'm referring here to Milano's tweet about — what else? — the Covington Catholic High School teens who have been at the center of an insane media firestorm since a misleading video was posted on Twitter over the weekend. The video appeared to show a group of white teenagers — including some in MAGA hats — surrounding and confronting Native American activist Nathan Phillips.
The pile-on was quick. Internet users across the political spectrum condemned the kids as racist and disrespectful. After the full context — which showed that the kids were the victims of racism and bigotry and not the perpetrators of it — many media figures and celebrities either apologized, retracted, or deleted their tweets.
And so we come to Alyssa Milano, who decided instead to go with ... this:
There's a lot that's wrong with this tweet, including the open petulance involved with basically saying, "These high school kids might not have been guilty of what I was accusing them of, but they're guilty of SOMETHING so I'm not sorry." Alyssa Milano is 46, and the Covington kids are teenagers, but she's the one who has failed to learn to apologize like an adult in this scenario.
The part I want to focus on, however, is the part where Milano casually dismisses the entire pro-life position as "bigotry." I don't have to explain to this audience what is wrong with this deliberately insulting dismissal of the sincerely held political beliefs of roughly half of all Americans. I do, however, want to remind all of us that we are all in perpetual danger of falling into the same trap Milano finds herself in.
Milano's tweet yesterday wasn't good or excusable, but it was an exemplar of a fairly common reaction for human beings. We all (obviously) believe that our own conclusions are correct, and that they are the result of proper thinking applied to facts. Therefore, anyone who disagrees with me must be either stupid or evil. When confronted with someone who is manifestly not a moron, the assumption must be that the person is blinded by evil — usually bigotry of some sort.
Milano isn't nearly alone in this. In fact, the whole human race is guilty of it to some degree. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt proposed in his book "The Righteous Mind," humans have an instinctive, evolutionary response to ideas that conflict with our own. That response is sadly not self-reflection, but rather digging in and assuming bad motives/bad thought processes on the part of our opponent.
Haidt argues, plausibly, that humans simply do not have the time or mental energy to reach every conclusion in our lives through a process of honest reflection and search for truth. Instead, we make snap judgments and decisions, and then proceed to dig in and entrench ourselves in our positions. Even in cases where we tend to think, "Well, I believe this way because I've really studied the issue," usually we have actually just adopted a position and then sought out a lot of reading material that agreed with the position we already hold. In today's world, there's no shortage of books that will agree with you no matter what you think.
Alyssa Milano dismissed the sincerely held beliefs of most people who read this website as being both stupid and evil — which, after all, is what bigotry is. The temptation to respond in kind can be overwhelming. In fact, that seems to be what a lot of people are doing. But what, in the final analysis, does that accomplish?
We are moving through perilous times as a country. Bonds that held us together through some extremely difficult times appear more frayed than they ever have been in our history. The fundamental shared assumption that most of our fellow Americans are people of good will and patriotism has almost completely evaporated, and that is more dangerous to our survival than any external threat we face, by far.
If we all go through life assuming that everyone who disagrees with us politically is stupid and/or evil — as opposed to merely someone who has different ideas about what's good for the country — then our national experiment is already doomed and we should just pack it in now.
The basic antidote to this endless cycle of escalating hatred and anger in our political discourse is a very simple question: "What if I'm wrong?" It's a question that we should all be willing to ask ourselves about everything we think or believe. Sadly, it's one we almost never do ask ourselves, because it's uncomfortable. It provokes a natural response of self-defense described by Haidt: "Of COURSE I'm not wrong, you must not know how much I've studied about this!"
And yet, in those quiet moments of sobriety when we aren't angry at a political opponent, we would all concede that of course we aren't always right. Of course we all often make mistakes. It's easy to concede that point generally; it's much harder to do it specifically when you're in the middle of a discussion with someone who believes something that's completely opposed to everything you believe.
But we should all try it, at least sometimes. "What if I'm wrong?" Or, if it makes you more comfortable, "What, other than stupidity or malice, could be leading this person I'm arguing with to believe the way they do?"
Being willing to answer these questions might be the one thing that can save this country.