Dr. Kevin Healey is an Associate Professor of Communication at UNH.

America today stands at a crossroad between democracy and autocracy. So say a range of voices including Democrats and Republicans, at least those who haven’t fallen victim to conspiracy theories and personality cults.

This month’s mass shooting in Buffalo, NY shined a spotlight on such hate-filled theories, especially the so-called Great Replacement Theory. Yet even as the names of theories change, the crossroads seem all too familiar.

In fact, the notion of standing at a crossroad is deeply ingrained in American popular culture. As legend has it, blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil while standing at a crossroad. When he returned he was transformed, and through his playing permanently altered the sound of American popular music. A crossroad is a dangerous place, to be sure, yet it’s a place of opportunity as well.

Johnson’s artistry was steeped in African-American hoodoo traditions, where meeting a powerful entity at a crossroad is often a way of gaining control in a violent, unwelcoming world. The courageous few who survive the encounter give the rest of us new options for living. A “crossroads” moment can be a much-needed wake-up call that, with wisdom and luck, can point us toward our true nature. A better version of ourselves.

Sometimes, a combination of compassion and critical thinking is all the magic we need to survive and thrive beyond a crossroad. Recall the classic riddle in which you come to a fork in the road where two strangers stand, arguing. One stranger always tells the truth. The other always lies. You don’t know which is which, and you only have time to ask one question.

The solution? Choose either person and ask, “If I were to ask your opponent which road leads to my destination, what would they say?” Then, no matter whom you’ve asked, head in the opposite direction. Why? The liar will have falsely represented what the truth-teller would say, while the truth-teller will have accurately reported the liar’s disinformation. Either way, the answer you get is the opposite of the truth.

The brilliance of this approach is that it diffuses the question of individual character. Arguing with the two strangers is not just unnecessary, but a waste of time. Solving the riddle and moving beyond the crossroad requires stepping back to understand the big picture. What matters is how all the parts fit together — the lies, the truth, the crossroads, the destination. The truth transcends the differences between the two strangers, never mind your feelings about each. Critical thinking is magical like that.

I’m reminded as well of the scene from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets where Ron, Harry and Hermione become entangled in the Devil’s Snare. Like the tendrils of political division, the Devil’s Snare feeds on fear and mindless gut reactions. The only way to release the grip of the roots is to stop fighting against their grip. This isn’t passivity. It’s resistance through reclamation of the very equanimity that’s been stolen from us.

These forms of paradoxical wisdom are fundamental to Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violence, where love is the most impactful political act. It’s also the hardest political act since it requires looking beyond our adversaries’ character flaws to see the bigger picture. It requires us to ask, despite all evidence before us: How can we all become part of the same loving community?

Whether we’re talking about the Great Replacement Theory or some other viral narrative, we can take a cue from King and ask ourselves: What disposition does it generate within and among us? A feeling of resentment, fear and antipathy? Anger and contempt? Moreover, are these the dispositions we wish to cultivate and live within?

In fact, what is the disposition we do wish to live within? Compassion? Wisdom? Love? With those deeper commitments in mind, we can evaluate the narratives we encounter through social media and cable news. It seems like a simple approach, and maybe it is. But, helpfully, it’s one that transcends political ideology.

What King understood so well is that when standing at a crossroad, asking the right kind of questions means thinking critically, holistically and systemically. That’s how to diffuse the role of anger and the rampant, malicious commitment to deception we face today. But that kind of thinking is risky and dangerous because it will likely change our situation forever. Once the right questions are asked, we can no longer remain complacent where we stand.

What does it mean for America to move beyond the crossroad and become what it’s truly capable of becoming? That question was the impetus for King’s famous “dream.” It’s not about distinguishing “real” from “fake” Americans. It’s about creating new ways of being together. Expanding the circle of embrace. America isn’t a particular set of people. It’s an idea, a vision, a dream. When we experience the dream as reality, it’s magical.

Ironically, as we find ourselves at this crossroad yet again, some folks are purposefully making it harder to think systemically, holistically and critically. At this moment, in some states, it is literally illegal to think systemically about race and racism in the context of public schools, and to educate children to develop such critical thinking skills.

When we cut off that capacity, no one wins. It’s like hobbling ourselves so we don’t have to risk moving beyond the fork in the road, with whatever fearful mysteries lay ahead. It’s Jim Crow for the mind: a willful blindness that favors the “lone wolf” theory of mass murder at the expense of any serious solutions. It’s not a dream, it’s a nightmare.

Standing at this crossroad, surrounded by words of contempt and animosity, the nation itself seems to be singing, “I believe I’m sinkin’ down.” Every new Buffalo is yet another wake-up call to become who we are as a nation. Pray we can muster the power and magic to do so.

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