Lately, I’ve been arguing against the perpetual “us vs. them” method of storytelling because I think it’s ruining our ability (and desire) to understand each other. Opposing groups have always been quick to condemn “the other,” but the degree to (and zest with) which we do it these days borders on alarming.
Apparently any sort of dissenting comment on a message board is trolling. -sigh-
And he’s right. While you might think “social” media should involve an exchange of mutually-respected POVs, that’s rarely the case. Instead, like-minded tribes flock together and hurl stones at one another with such zeal that anyone offering even a mildly disagreeable opinion is immediately branded as The Enemy. With “discourse” like this, is it any wonder we all cling so desperately to our own fishbowls and echo chambers?
Since when did we become so convinced of our own infallibility that we’re now completely unwilling to consider the opinions of others? Shouldn’t global access to information make us more skeptical of absolutes, and therefore more accommodating of our individual differences? Or maybe it’s just the opposite: when we’re presented with so many opposing viewpoints, perhaps we cling to our own ever more fiercely because admitting we might be wrong would undermine one of the only “truisms” we don’t feel compelled to question on a daily basis.
Whatever the reason for our social decay, things have gotten out of hand. From the Senate to the cubicles, we’ve lost our willingness to listen to, learn from and discuss any assertions other than our own. And as this erosion of civility continues across all walks of life, we run the risk of handing future generations tracts of dogma instead of the ability to reason.
But it doesn’t have to go on like this. We just need to take incremental steps away from our own intellectual isolation. As such, here are 11 ways you can stop perpetuating the cycle of exclusion.
1. Stop preaching to the choir.
Everyone loves being told how smart they are — or, more importantly, how right they are. The assurance of being correct is a drug like no other. And the “connectivity” of the Internet provides you with an endless supply of listeners who’ll fall all over themselves to agree with you, no matter what you believe.
If you really believe something, try selling it to someone who thinks you’re wrong. If you’ve ever tried pitching social media to a hostile boardroom, debated the existence of God with an atheist or argued with a child who refused to buy into your set of rules, you quickly realized that “just because” is never the right answer. Defending your beliefs helps remind you why you do believe them in the first place — and, occasionally, it reveals the gaps in your own logic that might lead you to question your own certainty.
2. Stop letting yourself be preached to.
If you only consume streams of information that reinforce your own presumptions, two things happen: you’ll never learn anything you didn’t already suspect was true, and you’ll never be surprised. The people who sell you the information you’re imbibing already know that you’re naturally opposed to philosophical conflict, so they have no reason to rock your mental boat. And the more candy they feed you, the less likely you are to stray.
You wouldn’t consent to eat the same three meals every day for the rest of your life, so why sign up for the informational equivalent? Start sampling.
3. I agree with you, but…
A good friend of mine once noticed that I always got extremely aggravated whenever I’d argue with a certain ideologically opposed family friend. His point of view made as little sense to me as mine did to him, and each of us refused to concede any points because we were both dead sure we were correct on all counts.
After hearing us debate our polarized philosophies on several occasions, my friend suggested I employ the concession above. By doing so, he explained that two things would happen:
- I’d establish a common ground, thereby dissolving the brutal tone of the debate, and
- I’d clarify the specifics of what we were actually disagreeing about, rather than allowing the discussion to roam unbounded.
So I tried it. And it worked. And no, even today that family friend and I still don’t see eye to eye on the vast majority of the world’s problems. But we can also drink a beer and talk about football without every conversation dissolving into an indictment of our belief systems. Sometimes a truce is a two-sided victory.
4. Ignore national politics.
As someone who’s spent the past decade getting irate over American politics, only to look back and realize I could have been doing something useful with all that energy, I say this with all sincerity: we care way too much about what Washington is doing.
Thanks to our jingoistic American news cycle, people are more aware of what the President is doing on a daily basis than what their neighbors across the street or around the globe are ever doing. Our priorities and sense of scope are broken, with our own government being portrayed as having a disproportionately large impact on our daily lives and well-being, compared with the larger and smaller influences that actually mean more to us in the long and short term.
Yes, we elected them. And yes, they’re going to rape and pillage us as their way of saying thank you. But obsessing over lofty claims, party rhetoric and things that may or may not happen only distracts us from the real news that we could have an impact on, if we only knew it was happening.
5. Focus on what matters directly.
You have bills to pay. You have mouths to feed. You have love to find, and some to give. You have goals, hobbies, passions and concerns. And you have a nagging sense that things could be better in your life, “if only I could ___.”
So does everyone else. Get those basics squared away and you’ll have time to spend on filling in that blank, rather than alleviating your frustrations by obstructing someone else’s attempts to do the same.
6. Focus on what matters globally.
Every time I watch the TV news from another country, I find myself quietly astounded that there is another country besides America. In the US, we only talk about world news when there’s a war, a disaster or a missing blond girl in a hard-to-spell place. But if you venture beyond our borders, you’ll find there’s a swath of other people with other cultures, values, beliefs and problems that need to be solved.
You don’t need to solve them yourself, although that is a pretty American thing to want to do. But just being aware of those problems so you can not contribute toward making them worse would certainly be a good start toward making things better.
And, as a bonus, you might not be so afraid of people with different skin colors, wardrobes or last names.
7. Take direct action in your locality.
Hating either national political party doesn’t get you very far. Neither does making sweeping generalizations about systemic national problems like failing education, absent health care, abused ecology or a corrupt economy, and ending with a proclamation that these problems are “too big to change,” or that “someone should do something about it,” is just an excuse to keep whinging.
Surprise: you’re someone. And no, you can’t wake up tomorrow and fix nationwide problems with a wink and a smile. But you can probably make a difference in your neighborhood. You can probably call your city council representative and ask for help. And you can probably conduct yourself the way you wish your elected officials and other people of influence would, and lead others by your example.
It’s not as folksy as bitching about Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow over wing night with your buds. But it might make everyone’s life a bit more palatable.
8. Hold people accountable.
When your friend, lover, coworker or boss doesn’t do something he said he would, point it out. Don’t be a dick about it, but don’t let it go uncorrected either. Because the more lax you are in your accounting of others, the more lax everyone — including you — allows themselves to become. We’re only ever good people when there’s a reward for it, or when there’s a penalty for being bad. Don’t wait for someone else to enforce acceptable standards; that’s how mediocrity takes control in a lazy culture.
Oh, and when it comes to politics, forget party affiliations: if your elected official didn’t do what he said he’d do, or if she did things you find reprehensible, vote ‘em out. Fear that “the other party would only be worse” is irrational; focus less on how bad it could get and focus more on holding your representatives accountable for doing the job you paid them to do with your tax dollars.
9. Be unafraid of change.
As mentioned above, fear of change is irrational. We’re always petrified of “how bad it could get,” but we forget two things:
- Whatever “it” is, it’s probably already pretty bad now, and
- No matter how bad “it” gets, we’ll live through it.
Look at the vast amounts of shit people have lived through for centuries. For every enlightenment, there’s a dark age. For every scientific advance, there’s a worldwide cataclysm. Your parents always had it better and had it worse, depending on the topic of conversation. And the past always looks more romantic than the future, because the past is something we’ve proven we could get through while the future just might involve that one insurmountable challenge we just can’t overcome.
Don’t bet on it. We’ve come this far without destroying the planet, so one more bad piece of legislation or ill-timed hurricane won’t do us in either. Worry less about the unknown obstacles and fear more the possibility that if we don’t move toward change, this might be as good as it gets.
10. Refuse stereotypes.
The problem with stereotypes is that they’re usually accurate. Clichés don’t happen based on once-in-a-lifetime irregularities; they happen because the same kinds of people repeatedly do the same kinds of things, and those things tend to be irredeemably stupid.
But instead of seeing those aggravations as uncorrectable offenses, ask the larger question: why does this happen? What cultural, sociological, geographic or political influences cause certain people to act in certain ways, or to believe certain things? How do those habits get started, and why do they perpetuate despite their impractical disadvantages? Are they even considered disadvantages by the people who do them?
Once you understand that everything has a root cause (or multiple causes), you can understand our differences rather than writing them off as cultural deficiencies. And that brings us one degree closer to not hating each other.
11. Question certainties.
If you do nothing else, doubt everything. Doubt what you’ve always believed. Doubt what everyone else believes, too. Refuse to say with certainty that any one thing is irrevocably true. See the world as a massive grey area, rather than pillars of black and white.
The world is full of conflicts and riddles, and we have the capacity to quell some of them and solve others. And yes, by doing so, we just might create more problems in the process. Such is life. But whatever worldviews we form, and whatever actions we take, we should be making our decisions based on data, not ideologies.
And if that means you spend a little less time watching TV news, a little more time talking to those neighbors you’ve never actually introduced yourself to, and a lot less time posting anonymous hate screed to your social network of choice, then maybe 2011 won’t seem like the festering shithole 2010 seems poised to become.
And that’s a start.
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