Sasso: Let’s stop putting people in boxes

(Indianapolis Star, June 12, 2017)

A few years ago we needed to redo our basement after a fire caused significant damage. We engaged in the unpleasant task of removing the furniture and putting everything else in boxes, which were appropriately labeled. The floor was replaced and new drywall was installed. The restoration work was finally completed. Slowly, we began emptying the boxes and putting items in their proper places. Actually, we did not empty all of the boxes. We made a conscious decision to leave some of them unopened, thinking that if we ever moved to a smaller place, we could get rid of these.

This is exactly what is happening in our country. We have had a major shake-up in government and we are putting everyone in boxes with labels. We seal them shut and hope against hope that we will never have to engage with what or who is inside. This is not just coming from the right, but from the left as well.

One easy way of dismissing a group of people is to put them in a box, to label them with a derogatory name. Once we call someone fascist or socialist, a sexist or a racist, we immediately shut of any possibility of dialogue or engagement. All Republicans are in one box; all Democrats in another. There is a box for Muslims and another for Jews. There is a box for young black males and one for single mothers on food stamps.

We take the words of the people in the boxes out of context, twist them and amplify them in order to get larger groups of people to agree with us. When people we label try to explain themselves, we dismiss them, because after all, they come from people in the box we have “branded.” And so, we end up living in a country of “little boxes made out of ticky tacky”.

None of this name-calling allows for a conversation in which different people can ever get to know one another, to understand each other’s fears, their dreams, and what they really believe. We think the worst of each other, and make enemies out of friends, and antagonists out of partners. When leaders do this, they make war.

We are highly polarized. We read the news, but only the news in our box. Internet logarithms makes certain that the more we read one kind of post, the more we see posts that are of similar nature. We tend to be friends with people who think the same way we do. We are inclined to listen to the radio and television news that agree with us. We rarely step outside our boxes.

Our brains are set up to seek out evidence that endorses what we already think. This confirmation bias leads us to search only for evidence that reaffirms what we already believe to be true. We suspect and criticize any evidence to the contrary, regardless of fact.

If we are going to move forward as a country, we need to ask ourselves – what would disprove what we think to be true? What would cause us to look for that evidence and take it seriously? We need to stop putting whole groups of people in boxes and labeling them.

I am reminded of an ancient Jewish story that tells of two friends in a boat. One starts drilling a hole under his space. His companion asks, “What are you doing?” The friend replies, “Why does it bother you? I am only drilling under my own seat!”

We are all in the same boat; we are really all in the same box. It is time we recognized this.