A few days ago, while catching up with a friend on the phone, I mentioned that I was hosting a young woman from Ukraine in my Toronto home. Her immediate response: “But I thought you were against lockdowns.”

Huh? What did one thing have to do with the other? And then it clicked. To be sure I had understood her correctly, I said: “You’re surprised that I’m helping a stranger, because you assumed that as a lockdown critic I don’t care about other people. Is that it?”

Her silence spoke volumes.

From earlier conversations, I knew that my friend supported Covid-19 restrictions “for as long as it takes” and felt intense frustration at people who didn’t comply. She, in turn, knew of my deep reservations about lockdowns, which had evidently caused her to put me in a box called “people who don’t care.” When she learned that I was hosting a Ukrainian woman, another box popped up in her mind: the “people who care” box. This was an impossibility, a two-plus-two-equals-five moment, hence the amusing non sequitur she blurted out.

The whole thing reminded me of the famous cat experiment concocted by physicist Erwin Schrodinger to illustrate the limitations of quantum theory. In the experiment, the cat ends up both dead and alive, which clearly makes no sense. To my friend, I had become Schrodinger’s cat: a bad person and a good person at the same time—a person who makes no sense. She didn’t consider that the boxes themselves made no sense.

The compulsion to box

We all put people in boxes, dozens of times a day. In moderation it’s a useful strategy—a cognitive shortcut that allows us to navigate the world without devoting hours of brain power to figuring people out. If I meet a marathon swimmer, I assume she’s not a regular smoker. I don’t expect to find an oil magnate at a Greenpeace rally. But according to Mónica Guzmán, author of a new book called I Never Thought Of It That Way, we’ve taken these shortcuts too far. Way too far.

To make her point, Guzmán describes an online quiz run by the New York Times during the US presidential election of 2020. The news outlet displayed photos of the contents of various refrigerators and asked readers to guess whether the fridges belonged to Biden voters or Trump voters. In making her own choices, Guzmán admits reaching for stereotypes: “If I saw a lot of mass-branded stuff—Coke, Velveeta, Kool-Aid—I’d think, that’s a Trump fridge. If I saw specialized, snobby stuff—almond milk or Greek yogurt, I’d think, that’s a Biden fridge.” She did terribly on the quiz—as did most other participants. Of the 176,985 guesses that came in by July 2021, only 52% were correct, barely outperforming pure chance. So much for shortcuts.

As a left-leaning Mexican-American journalist whose immigrant parents voted for Trump—both times—Guzmán had extra motivation to get past lazy shortcuts: she loved her parents fiercely and didn’t want their political differences to stand between them. She insists we can all do the same. But how? As expressed in the book’s subtitle, “how to heave fearlessly curious conversations in dangerously divided times,” Guzmán encourages people to lean into their natural curiosity—to replace assumptions with questions and give space for people to respond.

Pandemic boxes

The Covid-19 pandemic has put our penchant for boxing on full display. Within days of the pandemic’s inception, people began building boxes around their enemies. I call them the Covidian box and the Covidiot box. People in the Covidian box tremble in fear, have received their second booster, and are prepared to wear masks for the rest of their days. People in the Covidiot box think the virus was planned, mistrust the vaccine, and listen to Tucker Carlson.

The boxes make caricatures of us all and don’t line up with reality. Take me, for example: I never believed the pandemic to fit into a grand plan, but saw lockdowns as a socially destructive instrument and a troubling precedent. I lined up for my three jabs without hesitation. When it comes to masks, I support both individual choice and respect for other people’s comfort levels. All told, I don’t fit comfortably into either the Covidian or Covidiot boxes. Does anybody?

When the Canadian truckers’ convoy began its long cruise to Ottawa in January 2022, a further box sprang up around those who supported them. The box quickly filled with epithets: anti-vax, anti-mandate, far-right. Once again, the box didn’t come close to describing me. While I had mixed feelings about vax mandates, they never rose to the level of outrage. But the convoy represented something deeper to me—a revolt against two years of government overreach—and I supported the right to express that. I wrote an article in the Ottawa Citizen explaining my position, but most of my friends didn’t read it. Instead, they asked me how, as an immigrant and daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I could possibly lend a word of support to such a racist, nationalistic, and anti-Semitic protest.

To be fair, I’ve done my own share of boxing. If I spot a young man wearing a mask while kayaking on a lake, as happened earlier this spring, I immediately think, “that’s one neurotic dude.” I don’t consider the range of alternative explanations: perhaps the kayaker had such a nasty experience with Covid that he’ll move mountains to avoid a do-over. Perhaps his spouse is finishing her sixth round of chemotherapy and his mask expresses his fear for her future.  Perhaps many other things. But my thoughts flow along well-worn grooves, manufacturing judgments before empathy has a chance to slip in.

Required reading

That’s why I keep Guzmán’s book on my night-table: to prevent my inner judge from taking over. Let’s be honest, judging is fun: it allows us to broadcast our virtue, to feel superior to those folks over there, and to bond with people who share our judgments. But in these absurdly polarized times, judging widens the gaps between us still further. Resisting this impulse can’t help but bring us closer together.

When we run into one of those folks, someone who votes wrong or acts wrong or thinks wrong, Guzmán suggests we ask ourselves what information we may be missing—and then make it our business to find out. We may learn that they voted for the “bad” candidate not because they are racists, but because their wheat farm is hanging on by a thread and the candidate reached out to the farming community. Or maybe they stopped supporting top-down Covid restrictions after losing two businesses or watching their child sink into depression when jazz band got cancelled.

As far as I’m concerned, Guzmán’s book should be required reading for everyone, down to the youngest humans. The publisher should issue a middle-grade version and a picture-book version for preschoolers. Long before algebra and capital cities, children should learn about boxes and how to stop jamming other people into them.  Drama clubs should put on plays about boxing and unboxing, about watching what happens when we allow humans to express their gloriously contradictory selves. Maybe there’s a marathon runner who does smoke. Imagine how interesting it would be to talk to her and find out what makes her tick.

When you get right down to it, we are all marathon runners who smoke. We all contain multitudes, and our thoughts and behaviours have tangled roots. I have unselfish motives for opposing lockdowns and selfish motives for hosting Ukrainians, and all kinds of other motives that don’t land in either box. As Guzmán puts it, “people are mysteries, not puzzles.”

As the pandemic lurches into its endemic phase, leaving people to make more individualized choices about public safety and personal agency, we would do well to remember that.