Living in a divisive world
December 30, 2015
A friend asks what we can do about the partisan, obstinate, and frequently snarky state of public discussion, especially when the topic touches on politics or so-called "cultural values."
Her concern is heightened by research showing it's nearly impossible to correct even obviously erroneous information when it confirms people's pre-existing beliefs.
I wish I had a simple answer. But I did suggest a few concrete steps we can all take in OtherWise: The Wisdom You Need to Succeed in a Diverse and Divisive World.
Here are five things we can each do:
- The first step is to better understand oneself -- all the unconscious biases and prejudices that we carry around, the psychological mechanisms that cloud our judgment and decision-making, and the stone-age legacy that shapes our social life. Not to mention the stereotypes through which we evaluate people rather than considering them as individuals. And our unconscious fears, anger, and resentments. If all this sounds like something to which you're immune, consider taking the implicit bias test at www.yourmorals.org.
The second step is to better understand the people around us who have a different culture, racial background, sexual orientation, political allegiance, religious belief, or who we consider "different" in some other way. Ironically, the trick at this stage isn't learning more about their differences, but about all the ways they are just like us. What we have in common. The best way to discover that is to engage with them. For example, we could take someone of a different political bent to lunch or for a drink. Get to know them and the lens through which they see the world.
And if a "touchy subject" comes up, we shouldn't ask for the check or reach for a clever put down. We should honestly probe for greater understanding. And in that process, look for common ground -- something on which we can both agree. This will be easier if we've already taken steps to broaden our worldview. For one thing, we should refuse to live in an echo chamber, where everything we read, hear, or see confirms our point of view. We should regularly seek out opposing views to better understand them. We can also increase our cultural and religious literacy by reading foreign literature and by making a point of meeting local people when we travel.
But intellectual learning is not enough; we also need emotional learning. If nature made us hostile towards strangers, it also gave us a powerful emotion to keep our tribe together -- empathy. Empathy comes naturally in dealing with family and close friends. We need to learn to draw that circle of empathy larger by trying to see the world through the eyes of others unlike ourselves. To be OtherWise is to see ourselves as others see us and to see ourselves in the Other.
The final step should be easiest, but requires the most discipline. We should refuse to go along with "otherizing" people who are different. We should object when someone tells a sexist or racist joke, not out of political correctness, but because it perpetuates a culture of "us" and "them." It's literally de-meaning because it robs people of their individuality. That doesn't mean papering over disagreements. It means being able to disagree with people without demonizing them. We should make questioning people's motives, intelligence, or patriotism as inappropriate as picking our nose in public. Not only should we avoid doing it ourselves, but we should call each other on it.
These five steps may not make the world more harmonious, but they will make it less likely we become part of the problem. Wouldn't that be a good New Year resolution?