Personal Journeys with Gramma

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Knee-Jerk Thinking: Tell Me Quickly; What Do You Choose?

byfyDo you ever look at the world and wish it were simpler? Do you wish it were like computer code—a series of yes or no questions, an easy quiz that won’t take much time? I yearn for simple—simple and fast but good. Researchers claimed that John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the presidential race because he looked better on television. Nixon had a team to manage his image the next time he ran, so he won. Have we moved past knee-jerk reactions since then? Apparently not. How else could a single, unsubstantiated—ultimately discredited—claim against Hillary Clinton sway a presidential election to a reality TV star at the last possible moment? People impulsively changed the channel.

In a 1979 movie titled BEING THERE, an intellectually challenged man who calls himself Chance the Gardener has grown up knowing only two realities—his garden and TV. He has no subtle comprehension of the world, but his simplistic view is mistaken for genius. How? Roger Ebert, the famous film critic, explained: “Sensible public speech in our time is limited by (1) the need to stay within the confines of the 10-second TV sound bite; (2) the desire to avoid being pinned down to specific claims or promises; and (3) the abbreviated attention span of the audience, which, like Chance, likes to watch but always has a channel-changer poised.”

Ebert went on to ask, “Is it possible that we are all just clever versions of Chance the Gardener? That we are trained from an early age to respond automatically to given words and concepts? That we never really think out much of anything for ourselves, but are content to repeat what works for others in the same situation?”

In 1979, many scoffed at Ebert’s questions, but perhaps they are more poignant today. Now that the president of the USA chooses to communicate on Twitter, and political comedians elucidate serious issues for the populace in short monologues, have we given ourselves to knee-jerk reactions born of Tweets and posts? Of course, this question goes far deeper than politics. The answer illuminates the ways in which we choose to think about all our difficult problems. How is it that we choose our purchases—everything from medications to cars—from ads? How much information do we grab from Google—explanations or brief blurbs? Why don’t more people insist on fact checking?

Mr. Trump seems to be a perfect model of the simplistic populism movement with his brash, egotistical claims and vague promises that are meant to soothe the moment instead of being reliable predictions of actions to come. He seems to be a man who hasn’t spent much time digging into issues, preferring quick media news bites to extensive briefings, so he makes decisions based on his impressions (and the urges of those near him). In spite of his alleged wealth and obvious power, he feels like somebody you might have met while waiting for your car to be serviced instead of a world leader. He feels like a billionaire version of Chance.

I look in the mirror and wonder how much I’ve come to be like our new president. How often do I scroll when I should read, choose to stay home instead of immersing myself in my community, follow people I respect instead of deciding by myself? Does seeking wisdom within preclude being well informed? A fool and her lifestyle are soon parted. Simplistically, I believe as does Chance the Gardener, “As long as the roots are not severed, all will be well.” …But what if the roots are severed?

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