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What We Think They’re Thinking

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When Christopher Columbus wrote a report concerning his first voyage, he described the people he found: “they are timid and full of terror” and “they are very guileless and honest.”

Timid. Terrified. Guileless. Honest. Notice that the first two assessments—“timid” and “terrified” can be read through observation of physical reactions. “Guileless” and “honest,” however, came to Columbus through assumption: he thought he knew what the people were thinking. 

A list of impressions reported by Europeans when first they encountered non-Europeans would be quite a long list. How much of it would be of the “what we think they’re thinking” variety?

Think of the history of anthropology. Think of the justifications for colonial wars. Think about what both sides of the US culture wars think of the other side. 

Everyone thinks they know what others are thinking. On the positive side, this is a human capacity that in the field of psychology is called “theory of mind.” It’s what gives us positive characteristics such as empathy. 

That same capacity, when we forget care and compassion, leads us to dismiss other human beings as irrational beings.

Passing judgement on people based on what we think they’re thinking is the very height of hubris.

It is one of the engines behind white supremacy. It is also an engine of elitism and classism. The powerful, privileged, educated cultural elite look down from their high horse and ask, “what are they thinking?” 

Like Columbus, the question behind the question is: Are they thinking human thoughts? Are they rational animals?

When some discover that I grew up poor in the Ozarks, I’m asked to speak for “my people.” Poor whites, in other words. How can it be that the base voters of the liberal New Deal later became the base voters for Trumpism? 

Whatever could they be thinking?

I don’t make assumptions about what they are thinking. I listen and I ask questions. How could they? The answer is simple: Both the New Deal and Trumpism represent destruction of the status quo. The status quo is what poor Ozark farmers hate. Their message is simple: Burn it down! The entire system is rigged and the more monkey wrenches thrown into it the better. 

But what are they thinking?

They are thinking that the American dream passed them by. They are thinking that the system is rigged. They are thinking that their most deeply held values are an object of scorn. They are thinking that the ruling elites consider them “a basket of deplorables.” 

What are they thinking?

The better question is: Why do you think their thinking isn’t thinking?

It’s about that speck in your sibling’s eye and that log in your own. (Matthew 7:3)

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