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A Thousand Points of Light,
A Thousand Shades of Gray

by Jeff Gates

I sat riveted to my TV set, like many Americans, as Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas gave their sides of the story. As one of the Senators on the Committee put it, someone was lying, and we, the Congress, and we, the People, had to determine who that was. What became clear by the end of the proceedings was that, while we could form opinions, nothing was conclusive. It was very unclear who to believe. In fact, it was impossible. And that, above much of what we witnessed that weekend, is an important lesson for all of us.

Complex social and cultural problems like sexual harassment are never black and white. Even though we strive for clarity, they are laced with levels of meaning and understanding. Our opinions and final decisions should take into account these shades of gray. Yet, we are not taught to look for context, those interrelated conditions which surround, and ultimately define the event. Complicated issues are culled to their most simplified form by politicians, the military, those on the extreme Right and Left, and by our own editing process in order to make it easy to understand and as a way to justify our own belief systems.

text Phrases like "the American Way" become synonymous with what is good in this country. However, grouping everyone's experience under one umbrella limits our understanding of the heterogeneous quality of our society. The 1970s slogan, "America--Love It Or Leave It," was, and often still is, endemic of our intolerance for any attitude which questions long held mainstream cultural values.

A week after the end of the Persian Gulf War I was walking across from the White House. On the other side of the street was a group of people, waving placards and celebrating our "victory." One sigh caught my eyes and pulled at my heart. "Honk! We won!" it said. Like many, I had mixed emotions about this military engagement and our involvement in it. While I deplored violence as a solution to geopolitical conflict, I also recognized the dangers of allowing someone like Saddam Hussein to have free reign. Yet, our foreign policy also fosters and encourages dictators like Saddam if a more terrible evil is perceived to exist. In a way, this situation was partially one of our own making. It certainly was not a black-and-white issue. To see that sign as a summation of our collective and individual thoughts and emotions made me angry. To reduce the complicated nature of these events to winning and losing seemed to ignore the pain and anguish felt both personally and publicly on all sides.

Yet, as children "cowboys and indians" was how we learned to play the game. There was the good guy and the bad guy. The demarcation between right and wrong seemed clear and clean. As adults, anyone can now be the enemy: artists, women or men, Arabs or Jews, Blacks or Whites. We are quickly moving toward the extremes, all in the name of understanding. How ironic.

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© 1991 Jeff Gates. No reproduction in whole or in part may be used without prior consent of the author.


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