This presidential election brought up the memory of a question in the study guide for the old SAT test. It was a sentence-completion question, the kind where you fill in the blank with, more often than not, some obscure word you wouldn’t find in the vocabulary of most adults, let alone the average teenager.
This particular question was the last of the section, which indicates the highest level of difficulty. And indeed it was. I’d estimate that at least four out of every five students eliminated without hesitation the correct answer: discriminating.
It was a question about a chili contest and how the judges were able to note “subtle differences between dishes that most people would not detect.” But it was often the first answer choice that students eliminated—it obviously had nothing to do with acting out of prejudice toward others, those eighty-ish percent would point out.
At one stage, while explaining the original definition of the word “discriminate,” I went to dictionary to look up the roots. Somewhere along the line, the word had popped out of our English word “discern,” which came from the Latin discernere, from dis- (“apart”) and cernere (“to separate”). Picking apart, observing subtle differences—there’s another, all-too-familiar name for that: critical thinking.
I remembered the SAT question not because of the rampant discrimination (in the negative sense) through the many long months of the campaign, but more so because of the alarming lack of positive discrimination when it came to the facts. I’m enough of a realist to know that all politicians sometimes spin the truth, bend the facts or outrightly lie (as we all do on occasion). But what is staggering to me is how the people of this country opened the White House doors to a president-elect with such utter disregard for truthfulness.
I understand that he and his team figured out how to use misinformation to ride a wave formed from powerful emotional undercurrents in the country. I can also sympathize with the urge to act irrationally out of anger, fear or frustration. But what common ground do we have in this free, democratic society if not an allegiance to discerning the truth from the information we have available—as muddy and complicated as that process can often be?
Without rationality, how can democratic debate exist? Without factual accuracy, how can we determine the needs of Americans who feel forgotten—let alone enact and enforce policies to address those needs? Where is there earth solid enough for us to stand upon together if objective truth is no longer one of the values we share?
We all have lessons to learn. They’re about restoring respect.
First, especially for all the smart people out there, it’s a sense of respect for the tremendous power of human emotions—starting with your own. Emotion trumps reason every time (and puns that gross aren’t easily forgotten). Only by taking your own emotional temperature can you tell when a fever is coming on. People with a fever don’t act; they react. Thought goes out the window, instincts take over, and trouble begins. There’s no control and certainly no appealing to reason at that point.
When you’re in tune with your own feelings and the way they color your view of the world, you can start to tune into others’ and discern who’s too feverish to listen, who might be soothed back to reason, and who has the same receptivity you do.
Then, out of respect for knowledge and intellect, rebuild your world view from the ground up. Start with the good discrimination—the kind that sifts reliable data, facts and objective observations out of personal biases, competing interests and misinformation. Don’t feed preconceived notions or simply reinforce the beliefs passed on to you by family, friends or even your teachers. Question everything, and dig until you find solid ground within yourself, in light of the facts and your own experience.
Learn how to determine which sources of information are reliable; call out the nonsense when you see it. Check your facts, strive for the truth, and inspire others to do the same. Your opinion does matter, and every person’s opinion deserves a place in the world—as long as it’s founded upon respect for human dignity.
Understand that if your views are anchored in conviction, carefully reasoned and well communicated, they’ll resonate with more people—if they’re listening. While you cannot satisfy everyone, but know that if you engage both emotion and reason, you can learn to make more people listen.
Want to make a difference in the world? Practice the art of discrimination—for good—and make it a cornerstone of your education.