Defining Moments

A friend posted a riddle presented in his managment class. “If the day before the day before yesterday is Tuesday, what is the day after the day after tomorrow?”

I came up with Monday, since ‘today’ in the riddle seems to me to be Friday. He had the same answer. The instructor said he was wrong, and the answer to the riddle was Friday. My linguist friends and I started tearing this apart trying to sort out what the right answer is and how to arrive at it. Some argued that the conditional ‘if’ phrase is trumped by the present tense verb ‘is,’ kind of like a grammar version of PEMDAS, the rule that guides which part of a math equation one must complete first. Had the question been stated “was Tuesday” instead of “is,” then Monday would have been correct.

(Or so they claim. I have my doubts. Not to mention, searching for versions of that riddle on Google pointed toward a similar-but-clearly-worded variant, one which doesn’t play a trick based on verb tenses but simply asks the reader to figure out the puzzle. I suspect the lesson writers or instructor copied the riddle wrong from the start. But I’m arrogant about these things.)

My frustration with the explanation boils down to playing a trick of grammar rules and definitions. Rather than speak clearly, the riddle as explained by my linguist friends ignores common usage of language and depends on an oft-ignored rule that supposedly shifts the meaning completely from what is implied. It’s someone claiming a simple answer depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is–technically accurate and a proper debate tactic, but readily dismissed as shady or truth-dodging by the average person.

I thought of this little exchange when my Facebook exploded with a mixture of Cecil the Lion and all the videos about Planned Parenthood. I very nearly posted a tweet something to the effect of

Maybe if there was a market for lion parts, PP supporters could get behind hunting. #profitsmatter

Then I realized that would do no good. It alienates rather than persuades. It mocks issues people care about deeply. And I think we have plenty of that already.

I got the video link for a feminist declaring “Planned Parenthood Isn’t Selling Baby Parts, You F@#$ing Idiots” and a day later, the right-wing response “Planned Parenthood IS Selling Baby Parts, You Freaking Feminist Hosebeast.” (They also sanctimoniously called out the feminist for dropping f-bombs left and right, while they stooped to a ‘clean’ version of name-calling that is no better in my opinion.)

Meanwhile plenty of people point out the disparity between response to the PP videos and the slaying of Cecil the Lion. Plenty of tweets and posts encouraging the murder of that dentist, whether by lion mauling or by drilling him a new orifice. Whichever side of the aisle your circle of friends leans toward, no doubt you’re seeing a ton of outrage that invariably paints dissenters as morons, idiots, worthless human beings devoid of morality. “How can anyone support this?!” both sides scream, while talking about two different subjects.

We’re talking past each other. Everyone’s speaking but no one is listening.

When the right yells about baby parts, the left sighs at best or swears at them, because the legal definition in our country is “fetal tissue” or “medical waste” produced by a legal and optional medical procedure. There may be aspects that are legally questionable, like whether “sales” are taking place or procedures are being altered from what the patients consented to in order to produce better remains. But “by definition” they’re not selling baby parts, duh, because you have to remember what the definition of “fetus” is.

And the right shouts, “How can you care about a stupid lion more than you care about the horrors depicted in those leaked videos? Look at the evidence; listen to the words of the doctors and the staff.” Many will admit if pressed that they’d like to see the hunter who killed Cecil prosecuted for where he broke the law, if indeed that can be proven. But to most, it’s just a lion, and doesn’t compare with the human remains shown in the PP videos. Going from a religious or moral definition of all human life as being precious, the anti-abortion / pro-life crowd can’t help but be furious about the sale of baby parts — because you have to remember what the definition of “life” is.

We’re all heavily invested emotionally into so many various societal and cultural issues that it can be hard to hit the brakes and take a look around. Maybe it’s a debate about white privilege and the #blacklivesmatter trend. Maybe it’s the Confederate flag, or gun control. Maybe it’s a fight for rights we feel we’ve been denied, or a challenging sense that the comfortable culture we once knew is slipping and changing into something far different.

The river of outrage in this country seems neverending. It’s easy to forget that there are people just like us on both banks.

Locking in on my one point of view and refusing to consider the opposition only creates tension, division, and strife. Yes, we might never agree… but at least I can do you the courtesy of listening to find out exactly what I’m disagreeing with, and vice versa. (For example, here is a challenging view on Planned Parenthood from a Christian man faced with an impossible choice.)

I’m grateful for my friends on all sides of these discussions who are willing to have conversations and dig down to the roots of where our points of view diverge. I spent a good chunk of yesterday morning discussing the value of life and the question “When is it justifiable to kill another human being?” I don’t think either of us walked away with a different point of view, but we maintained the mutual respect we’ve developed over the years.

For me, that respect is what matters. Rather than debate words and call each other names, we’ve made sure to define our friendship first. We’ve defined our individual morality to include striving to show respect for others, and we make sure our conversations on these subjects are guided by that definition.

A mind that won’t listen can’t be changed. And when my first thought is that someone else is guilty of this, usually I figure out that it’s me.

Let’s not categorize ourselves with “us” and “them” on this or any other issue. We are not engaged in a civil war despite all the cultural issues and debates. We have to figure out how to be “we the people” because that’s what this nation is founded upon and defined by.

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