For quite some time, I have wanted to publicly admit my confusion.
I’ve hesitated, because confusion is widely viewed as weakness.
Being absolutely certain wins votes, and ensures you’ll have a group to belong to.
Tom Gilovich, a widely respected cognitive psychologist at Cornell University, made the insightful observation that what we believe is heavily influenced by what we think others believe.
Yet, no matter how certain others sound about a range of current important issues, I’m not so sure.
Take abortion, for example.
I believe every woman – perhaps except the mentally insane and the developmentally disabled – has the right to make decisions involving her own body. I also believe that abortion extinguishes a life.
I have had numerous conversations with women who have chosen an abortion. None seem completely at peace with their decision. Dealing with the guilt, shame, and emotional aftermath can take years, or a lifetime.
I’m not sure if the freedom to choose outweighs the deadly consequences of a lost life. It’s not clear to me when life begins.
I’m opposed to telling someone else what they can and cannot do with their own body. I also cannot sanction the wholesale extinguishing of innocent lives.
I hear how so-called pro-choice advocates portray their so-called pro-life counterparts as “anti-women.” I also hear how abortion opponents use language like “murderers” and “unconscionable.”
I don’t have an across-the-board answer to this issue. As is often the case, I want it both ways.
My confusion is likely to stimulate reactive disdain from both sides of the debate. One faction might think of me as a morally bankrupt proponent of unregulated homicide. The other side might accuse me of selling women out.
In truth, I am perpetually wrestling with complex issues like this, trying to hear both sides, and reluctant to take a stand that applies uniformly to all situations. In the end, I prefer honest confusion to simplistic certainty.
Another issue of confusion for me is reparations to African-Americans for centuries of slavery.
Studying black history has increased my understanding of the horrors of enforced servitude: the separation of children from their mothers; the ritual rape, beating and lynching of people of color at the hands of whites; and the emotional and economic deprivation of racism that continues to this day.
One of the first lessons my parents taught me as a child was about stealing: “If you take something that isn’t yours, you have to give it back.”
I was also taught to make amends: “When you do wrong, make it right.”
These lessons have helped me define my personal moral code.
The victim position
I’ve observed that one who assumes a victim position rarely walks taller, or responds thoughtfully to an injustice.
For example, how do you seek an apology, or reparations, without putting yourself in a one-down position? How do you say, “I’m owed” without occupying a seat of indebtedness that reinforces victimhood?
I’ve asked myself, “Who is responsible for the sins of the past?” How much responsibility should I take for the ignorant actions of my tenth-generation ancestors?
I believe I bear some responsibility for reparation, since as a white person, I continue to enjoy benefits that people of color are denied. But how much do I owe? I’m not sure. And how would reparations logistically happen?
I’m not convinced that payment satisfies meaningful restitution for slavery. It will take more than money to resolve issues this complex.
I have other examples of my honest unsureness.
Immigration, and religious freedom
On the immigration debate, neither of my grandparents, who emigrated a century ago from Italy, would be able to easily enter the USA today. Desperately poor, seeking economic opportunity, they seem similar to many seeking entry today.
On the issue of religious freedom, should anyone be allowed to follow any belief system of their choosing without prejudice? Is the United States of America partial to Christians? If “In God We Trust” became a lie, should it still appear on our currency? Who decides?
Yes, I don’t have definitive positions on lots of issues. What I do have are sincere questions, and a willingness to keep thinking responsibly about these issues.
If you are one who holds strong and clear positions that come from a thoughtful weighing of information, good for you. But be careful: There’s a fine line between certain and rigid, and between beliefs and facts.
If you are often confused, or if you think the resolution of issues depends on the specific situations at hand, you are probably part of the silent majority.
I’m with you.