Standing On Uncommon Ground

For anybody paying any attention, it can appear as though the future of humanity as we know it is in great peril — sea levels rising, racial schisms, religious fanatics overthrowing national governments — and trying to talk about our problems is becoming increasingly difficult.  How is it possible that, even in the U.S., where almost every person has more opportunity and economic resources than the majority of the world’s population, we see such vast, seemingly irreconcilable differences amongst our population?  The upcoming U.S. presidential election has made it abundantly clear just how disparate the world-views of Republicans and Democrats have become, where even conclusive scientific evidence does little to sway the opinions of large segments of constituents.  How did we get here?  Why is it that our level of cooperation and civil discourse is not scaling with our knowledge and experience as a nation?

We have reached a point in which many people have ceased listening to contrary points of view, and have subscribed to one of a handful of available memes with which to characterize their entire outlook on life.  Why, in a time when opinions and information are more readily available than ever before, do we see such a lack of common ground?  Personalities and opinions that lie more towards the center of the spectrum are either not interesting enough to be given a platform, or not appealing enough to really sway public opinion, and what we end up with are demagogues and ideologues who only energize the polarization in our society.

Technology, rather than acting as a tool for discussion and facilitating the average person’s search for truth, is the approximate cause of this rift in society.  The majority of society engages with these major issues via social media, and thereby effectively absolves themselves of the usual constraints of civil discourse.  Reading the comment thread below any YouTube video is analogous to reading a transcript of high school linebackers at the line of scrimmage during a homecoming football game, where the only goal is to humiliate and degrade your opponent as thoroughly and concisely as possible.  Social media enables any person to publish their most radical thoughts to huge audiences, without any expectation of reconciling any differences that may exist.  The more controversial an opinion is, the more publicity it receives, and the more visible it is to others entering the discussion.  This method of communication is what effectively silos our population and promotes anger, resentment, distrust, and dishonest characterizations amongst members of different groups.  Any tweet or Facebook post on the “Black Lives Matter”, for example, soon becomes a battleground for conflicting egos, replete with responses of hate, incomplete information, and glib rhetoric that will only bolster certain stereotypes and increase the fracture in our society.  These extreme responses stem from a lack of concern and disinterest in finding common ground between one’s perceived adversaries over social media.  Through Darwinian-like processes, where the most contentious viewpoint becomes the most consumed, polar opposite outlooks rise to the surface, and we find ourselves with a dearth of nuance, gray area, and the appropriate amount of skepticism.  Despite all of the positive effects of social media, we should be wary of how it is being used and its effect on public opinion.

Communication is really the only tool we have to guide our collective behavior before resorting to violence, and having the proper social infrastructure for effective communication should be of the utmost concern.  One does not have to search for long to find a current example of a major communication breakdown, e.g., illegal immigration, global terrorism, climate change, etc.  These issues, though deeply complex, have the distinct characteristic of being controversial only because of their prospective solutions, as opposed to something like gay marriage, which is flat-out rejected by a portion of society.  In these cases, why is data, logic, and experience so seemingly ineffective in forming a general consensus?  It is precisely the overabundance of misinformation and falsities, largely propagated through social media channels, that conflate these issues and lead us to a state of confusion.  Our reluctance to change our own opinions and diverge from our predetermined array of world-views, combined with our broken modes of discourse, perpetuates these divisions in society and induce us to spend more resources on resolving these conflicts.

When engaging one another on topics of importance, we need to focus on setting aside biases and emotions, understanding conflicting perspectives, and reaching rational conclusions.  Effective communication can help us to mitigate any differences between different factions and focus on finding solutions as a whole.  As civilized creatures who believe in basic rights and obligations, it would do us well to remember our shared goals and use them as a foundation for making the world a better place.