Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Soft Opinions

Sometimes our convictions aren’t as deep as we think. Sometimes our convictions are soft. Sometimes they’re soft without us even being aware of how soft they are.

Let me tell you a story.

A Christmas Tale

One episode of Picket Fences, written by David E. Kelley, began at a school recital at the small and harmless town of Rome, Wisconsin. The teacher, Louise Talbot, is rehearsing the nativity scene with the kids towards the upcoming Christmas pageant. She’s playing the Virgin Mary. The police comes in, uncomfortably forced to enforce a court order to stop the rehearsals and to stop the show. It’s no longer legal to have religious content on public property.

Louise, who’s been one of the best teachers in the school for the last nine years, thinks it’s ridiculous and refuses to stop. The sheriff is then forced to arrest her and bring her before the town judge. The judge releases her and explains to the townspeople why they can’t have their pageant the way it’s always been done. He suggests, however, doing it on property that’s not public.

But now that Louise in the system, her fingerprints turn out to be the fingerprints of a man who’s been missing for quite a few years. It turns out, and Louise can no longer deny it, that she used to be a man. She had spent a couple of years dressed as a woman, then had a sex-change operation.

The school board is flabbergasted. They summon Louise to answer some questions. She appears, and with the help of a friend, shames them for thinking what they’re thinking to do. The day is almost won, but Jimmy Brock, the sheriff and a member on the board, turns the tables on Louise (classic Kelley) and shows everyone how she, by definition, has to be mentally unstable. So how can she teach our kids?

Louise is soon fired. She sues the school, and we head back to court. The judge (there’s only one judge in the small town) reverses the school board’s decision for being blatantly bigoted. The rehearsals for the nativity scene continue with Louise still as the Virgin Mary. But now that the news is out, parents come to the class and pull their kids from the pageant. Louise doesn’t want to, but relinquishes her role in the pageant so that the kids may have theirs.

The pageant, then, continues as planned. When the nativity scene arrives, the kids change the text, and talk about how the kids don’t want to live in their parents’ bigoted world. They refuse to accept the bigotry, they say, and invite Louise back to the stage. Their speech is moving, and in an emotional scene Louise walks out from the audience and stands on the stage. A few grownups in the audience begin to stand and clap. Slowly, more and more grownups stand up. A few more grownups look around, and they come to their feet and clap, too.

Now... you get that, right? You can understand people looking around, seeing that it’s okay with everyone else, and getting up as well. Seems natural, doesn’t it?

Soft Opinions

The thing is that these are the same people who only a few moments ago were sure that this was a line that could never and must never be broken. And when they saw that many other people accepted the new circumstances, they immediately saw that there was no real harm. Their opinions seemed to be hardnosed and steadfast convictions. But as soon as the rest of the people didn’t agree, the convictions behind the opinions vanished.

Sure, it’s a TV show and it didn’t happen in real life. But their behavior probably seemed natural to you as I told you the story (and certainly if you saw the episode). It’s easy to believe, because that’s how most people would behave.

So: How many of your convictions are soft? How many things you consider are lines in the sand are actually lines in the sand on the beach? One wave, and they’re gone.

Make a List

Test yourself: What convictions, what issues, what opinions do you hold that you’re certain of? What would you fight for? Make a list. Then look at the list and as you go down the list, issue by issue, imagine that everyone you know suddenly believes in the opposite.

How many of these positions would you keep? How many of these issues would you still believe? Which of your opinions are soft and would change if everyone else’s opinion changed? Which of your opinions would never change no matter what everyone else thought? Which opinions would you really fight for?

It’s election time. Time for real opinions, not soft ones. Now, seriously, go make that list.

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