Tea Party. Mention the words anywhere these days, and you’ll probably get a vehement reaction. You’ll also hear stereotypes of the people involved.

Which makes the latest CBS News/New York Times poll quite interesting.

The poll’s myriad questions and deft distinctions (for instance, separating Tea Party activists from Tea Party members) yielded an in-depth look at the movement. Overall, the data confirm the popular image of Tea Partiers. Solid majorities are white, male, and conservative. They are angry about a variety of issues and really dislike the president.

But before you buy all the popular images of Tea Partiers, check this out: 

  • 37 percent have college degrees, substantially more than the national average (25 percent).
  • 56 percent make more than $50,000 in annual household income, again higher than the national average.
  • While they like Sarah Palin, a plurality—47 percent—do not think she’d make an effective president.

I don’t want to make too much of these findings; they don’t make the Tea Party exactly a bastion of liberalism. But they remind me, yet again, how often I construct a simplistic image of a certain group (or absorb the simplistic media image) and generalize it to all members. I’ve done it with born-again Christians; now, it appears, I’ve done it with Tea Partiers.

The problem with these images, or stereotypes, is that they prevent dialogue. For one thing, why talk with Tea Partiers if they’re all angry and misapply buzzwords like “socialism” at every opportunity? For another, why talk with Tea Partiers when I know all about them already—or so the stereotype has deluded me into believing?

Polls like these make me stand up and take notice. Suddenly I realize that there’s more to these people than my stereotypes indicate. That stokes my curiosity, which in turn drives me to seek dialogue with members of the group.

Just like that, we’re reaching across the divide.

Too optimistic? I might agree with you if it weren’t actually happening. Recently the Transpartisan Alliance brought together a Tea Party leader with, of all people, a senior representative of MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group if there ever was one. Remarkably, both parties expressed an honest desire to talk—and keep talking. Check out the link to the video on the homepage.*

It’s not what you’d expect from either group, based on the stereotypes. And that’s exactly the problem with stereotypes: they prevent us from starting the dialogue that could move us toward deeper understanding—and, ultimately, the healing of our bitter divides. Let’s let go of them and approach each person for what she is: unique.

*The Transpartisan site may be down right now; I haven’t been able to connect to it for a couple of days. If you can’t either, keep trying; the video is worth the effort.