This article originally appeared at WALReader.com, the website of our magazine.
A quick story about sports. I promise, it’s relevant.
I remember talking about sports with my friends a few years ago and Tom Brady’s name came up. As with most celebrity figures, people had vitriolic feelings one way or the other about him. A few of us, myself included, had finished reading the Wells Report which made it quite clear that he had participated extensively in a cheating scandal. There were a few in the room who loved Tom Brady and refused to read the Wells Report, but watched his rather substantial highlight reel more regularly. It was difficult to deny, watching him play, that he was one of the best quarterbacks of all time. We progressed past the whole topic with no consensus.
During my drive home, I thought to myself, having seen two pieces of compelling evidence, that I somehow had to make a choice. He was either a dirty cheater or an athlete with incredible talent. It took me several minutes to realize that these two things were not mutually exclusive. I did not have to believe my eyes only half of the time. He could be a great player and a rotten sportsman simultaneously.
Why is it that I, among other friends, felt the need to either deify or demonize him? I had all of the information in front of me, but I felt forced to choose which set of information to believe and which to discard. The answer was something that transcends mere bickering about sports: Tribalism. That night, we were divided into teams that either loved him or hated him. And that left no team interested in hearing the truth, excepting the truths that reinforced their team.
This was on my mind today as the news wrapped up, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez making headlines for her statements about religion. As a theological scholar as well as a political analyst, this made for bait I simply don’t have the capacity to resist. In one video, she stands boldly before her peers, telling them that if Jesus were here today, His ideas about loving our enemies and welcoming strangers would be considered incredibly radical and uncomfortable to some of the self-professed Christians in Congress. I loved it. While I would be the first one to shove a wedge between church and state, I have seen the state and its inhabitants makes it difficult to operate as a church and stay true to the teachings of Christ by both law and culture. Indeed, the environment on capital hill is one of demagoguery and lies which are very antithetical to Christianity.
But, just as I was inspired by this video, I saw two more tweets from her that made me feel the exact opposite way about her. She lashed out at two Congressmen who believed in creationism, telling one that he didn’t believe in science and the other that he can’t believe in chromosomes as a creationist. Of course, to all but the completely indoctrinated atheist, this is totally absurd. It would be akin to a Christian of accusing an atheist that he believes in magic since that’s the only explanation for the Big Bang. Of course, AOC isn’t the first person I’ve heard state this moronic belief and the example I used is one I’ve heard an idiotic Christian spout off. Both are either intentionally misleading or woefully misinformed. I will let the “evil or stupid” debate play out on another stage, I’m no judge of character.
But I found myself unable to talk about both statements because everyone would go to their respective tribes. They either love her or hate her and any statement that contradicted their bias was not to be heard out. It’s unfortunate. And, as liberty loving people, I hope that we would push ourselves to get past this. I hope I don’t sound to condescending; I struggle with it too! Going back to the Tom Brady subject, I find it incredibly hard to accept both truths even today. But it’s a challenge worth engaging in.
I like to think of it as a buffet. If it looks good, let’s fill up our plate with it. And if it’s gross and moldy, let’s pass. We should treat each individual dish with an discerning but honest eye. The tendency, philosophically and metaphorically speaking, is to say that every food item at this buffet is either good or bad. If we say that it’s all good, we run the risk of eating some pretty gross food and filling our bellies with some average dishes instead of only a few spectacular ones. If we say that it’s all bad, we starve needlessly. When we seek the truth, we should be ready to dig in and ready to walk away after assessing the dish for ourselves.
Liberty lovers should be used to this. Tom Woods, one of the greatest advocates for liberty in our lifetime, has said a handful of supremely indefensible and, frankly, stupid things. He’s got 1500+ episodes on his podcast; believe me, if you talked that much, you’d say some stupid things eventually, too. Of course, as a personality, he does not accept these blunders as errors and will defend them and belittle those who call them out. But this role, the role of assessing what he says is intelligent and what he says is misguided or wrong, is not his role to be in; the role is ours. Many are eager to throw him under the bus entirely, dismissing volumes of grand work due to a few bad phrases. Unknowingly, they also toss out the liberty lovers that joined because of him. Many others are blindly defend his every word, trying to force these few lowlights into a position among the highlights. They will claim it as genius and are unwilling to entertain that he is a human who committed a human action; a mistake. Likewise, they unknowingly poison the fount that liberty comes from.
Challenge yourself. When you hear the name of someone, ANYONE, your brain will trigger a response based on your previous bias. This isn’t always bad! If you hear that Harvey Weinstein is hosting a private audition, maybe don’t show up. To revert to the analogy, I’m not telling you to go ahead and eat questionable food. But you are allowed to look without it hurting you. Let’s take AOC and Tom Woods for who they are: People. People who say smart things and dumb things. Maybe you prefer the food at the Tom Woods buffet more than the AOC buffet. That’s OK, but that doesn’t mean one is all good and the other is all bad. The advantage of ditching tribalism is that we can recognize wisdom and folly from any source.
There’s a delicious power in that.