Doing things differently since 1984

The Scary Grey Area

Wow, this has been a crazy week!  As of this past Thursday, I have started my new career, and I want to take a moment to give an extra thank-you to the overwhelming outpouring of encouragement I got from you in the WordPress community.  I have a tendency to assume that everyone generally means well, but even I was really surprised at the positive response.  So, just to repeat it once more, thank you!

This morning, my husband and I voluntarily subjected ourselves to work + school rush hour, when we found ourselves in a small community of cars stuck behind a school bus.  My husband, who is “not from ’round here”, questioned why it was that everyone had to stop for this school bus, which was clearly pulling over into the turn lane for every neighborhood entrance along this road.


I gave him a Driver’s Ed canned response about safety and the possibility of children darting out into traffic, but in doing so realized that, in this situation, that really wasn’t going to happen. “Why can’t everyone be allowed to use caution and a bit of common sense?”

Well, gee, Driver’s Ed didn’t really cover that option.  The old student-cynic in me took over.  “My best guess is that, at some point, a child was killed by a dumb driver while getting on the school bus, and the grief-stricken mother took it all the way to the Supreme Court which made it an all-or-nothing Law of the Land to prevent the possibility of it ever happening again.”

Did this happen?  No idea.  Is it plausible?  Definitely.  Because, as I’ve pointed out before, America is a country that loves its absolutes.  “No tolerance” policies seem the best way, and, though we all think ourselves to be exceptional, we don’t actually trust anyone to make that call for themselves.  If we allow drivers to judge for themselves if it’s safe to proceed, then what would happen?  People would just zoom past, right?  Possibly.  Then again, people tend to rise to meet whatever expectations are put on them.

As you might have guessed, I’m not really just talking about traffic laws.  You see it in politics, education, relationships…. the more you look for it, the more you’ll see it.  America does not like grey areas.  I saw it in the political debates last night.  “Are you for or against Israel?”  “Was it bad or good to tell Mubarak to go?”  If Obama or Romney had said, “Well, it depends what Israel’s trying to do,” or, “Well, there were some good and bad points to it,” he would have been booed off the stage and out of the White House.  It has to be black and white.

When I was in high school and college, I had my own black-and-white issue.  “I would never date a smoker.”  From a very young age, I couldn’t stand being around someone smoking.  For a while, I kept to this rule…. then, I met my now-husband.  A smoker.  (I’d like to point out to his great credit he has recently quit.)  Can you imagine what would have happened if I had refused to see any grey area?  My entire life, from that point onward, would be completely different.


Even a Google Image search of “gray area” (US) vs “grey area” (GB) shows some shocking differences.

I could go on for a long time with further examples.  The rise of standardized testing (only one right answer).  The extension of sporting matches to bring about an actual winner (in Europe and elsewhere they allow ties).  The current polarization of the country into warring political factions.  The insistence even at the University level of coming up with a solid “conclusion” in papers.  I’m not sure if the situation is getting worse, or if I’m just becoming more aware of it, but I keep seeing people clinging to a certain opinion as the “right way”, or searching for a single answer to an open-ended problem.  At best, it’s a bit foolish and inefficient.  At worst, it’s worryingly destructive.  And it’s not a trait universally found… it’s rather uniquely American.  We’re downright scared of grey areas.

I am not trying to downplay the need for absolute truths in our world.  Sometimes, there is a definitive Right Way and Wrong Way, and sometimes allowing the Rules to be bent does more harm than good.  In my experience, however, it rarely improves a situation when Common Sense is barred from it.  And, of course, if we never allow ourselves to utilize our Common Sense, we might just forget how to use it.

6 comments on “The Scary Grey Area

  1. aFrankAngle
    October 24, 2012

    First of all, let it be know that I have a profound dislike for school buses. I know they are a necessary evil, but that doesn’t mean I have to like them.

    Humans don’t deal with gray very well … unless gray provides the advantage for the moment. Yet I’m reminded that of the difference between “the way” and “a way”.. plus that right/wrong is not the same as agree/disagree.

    • abtwixt
      October 25, 2012

      I had thought the same, that humans don’t deal with gray very well… until I went to the UK, where in comparison to the US they are extremely comfortable with middle ground. In many ways, in fact, I found a general aversion to putting any real trust to one viewpoint/side/answer. Though my experience was much more limited, I found a milder version of the same sentiment in France.

      You make a good point that the sides bordering different gray areas can not all be judged in the same way… while murder is certainly wrong (or is it? in war time?), there are a multitude of “ways” one could deal with the convicted. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Randel
    October 24, 2012

    Our very own language, English, strongly contributes to the problem, and makes us think in black and white terms. From a college class I remember that as a lesson. For instance, we can say something is “common” or something is “uncommon.” But, to convey the middle grey area, our language requires us to use awkward constructions like “it is not uncommon.” English forces this use of double negatives to catch the middle areas. So, part of our problem is the language.

    • abtwixt
      October 25, 2012

      That’s an extremely interesting point! I hadn’t even thought about that, but it has long been my observation that language and culture mutually affect one another. Thanks for the brain food, I’ll to have mull that one over 🙂

  3. dinkerson
    December 14, 2012

    Excellent post. I am black and white on many things, yet I tend to challenge and poke at everyone else’s black and white hang-ups.
    Really though, I had never thought of the school bus issue, how interesting.

    Did you get pressed, or did you simply have a post go viral.

    • abtwixt
      December 17, 2012

      Thanks for the thoughts — I revisit this little pet peeve pretty much any morning we’re in the same car! 😉

      My “Skyscrapers to Sesame Street” post got freshly pressed — I wish I could keep it up!

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