Is It Too Late to Get Along?

Can we bridge the gap between Americans?

If you randomly select 5 Americans and give them the statements (or tweets) of a certain conspicuous politician and ask them “is this truthful?” chances are you will get at least 2, if not 5, different responses. Why do some people believe what is an obvious lie to others?

Even before adulthood we already “know” what is right and wrong. We develop most of our notions of what the world is like during the process of growing up and hanging out: of becoming and being a member of a group, a portion of society. We are shaped by who we interact with on a daily basis, what we look up online, the schools we go to and whether or not we follow a particular religion. But we are also shaped by who we avoid and don’t interact with. Missing a chance to experience something different from our own worldview can be very dangerous; it leaves us blind to the possibility that not everyone experiences the same reality.

For example, when a politician makes negative comments about certain group, say Latinos or Muslims., an individual who is Latino or Muslim may feel personally attacked, marked and potentially afraid. But another individual, who is not Latino or Muslim, and not having experienced this kind of directed antipathy towards him or her, may not feel that personal attack, and thus might not see those comments as anything more than general political campaigning. Both of the individuals truly feel they are “right” in their interpretation of the events. And they may be speaking the truth from their own experience

This pattern emerges from what social scientists call enculturation and development. What we think of as “normal,’ what we consider intuitive knowledge and common sense, rarely emerges from some inner biological core subconsciously telling us what is “true.” Rather, it is more likely to be the result of the experiences we’ve had throughout the course of our lives and the way they’ve interacted with and shaped/influenced our bodies and brains. The anthropologist Tim Ingold tells us “to exist as a sentient being, people must already be situated in a certain environment and committed to the relationships this entails”…these relationships are built up and modified over the course of our lives. This is especially dangerous in the USA today as isolation and ignorance are major factors shaping these relationships for Americans.

Despite ubiquitous Internet access, rampant social media, the 24-hour news spew and the blogosphere, most people limit their intake of information to very few sources, ones that are familiar and reinforce their worldviews. Lots and lots of events, actions, histories, experiences, speeches, sufferings, deaths, lives, successes and failures are being filtered, strained, cut and reduced to teeny little streams of information that are biased—that is, intentionally shaped and curated for specific target audiences. We are divided up and ensconced in isolated “truth” bubbles and our opinions are being weaponized.

Most people today have access to more than enough information to figure out what is accurate and what is not. But the divisions are powerful; the cognitive filters and enculturation run deep. And when you add on massive intentional targeted manipulation of information, like Russia’s contribution to American “news” during this past year, it doesn’t feel like we have much hope.

Humans are amazingly capable and can be among the most empathetic and intelligent beings on the planet. But it takes a ton of work, and it looks like most of us are not going to make the effort.

Take racism and enculturation for example. The pundit Chauncey DeVega tells us that “many white Americans will not admit to being a racist or holding any ill intent toward people because of their skin color. In today’s multicultural and diverse America, who would? But we must all remember that admitting to being a racist is not a necessary requirement for being one.” Racism is often the result of enculturation, not overt intention. We have ample evidence that our criminal justice system, our school systems and even the medical systems are structurally discriminatory (see herehere and here for examples and discussions of the actual data demonstrating this). But for people not on the receiving end of that discrimination there is no direct experience of the discrimination, little if any contact with it, thus it is not part of their enculturation. So these folks might not see it, or believe other folks when they report it, even when the data are available. Ignoring racism is perpetuating racism.

But it is not a lost cause. There are numerous voices in the information streams trying to clarify, untangle, and help us to see each other’s experiences as potentially valid and important. We need to take more responsibility for our information streams and our enculturation. Now.

We need to listen to Michelle Obama when she says “Our glorious diversity — our diversities of faiths, and colors, and creeds —is not a threat to who we are; it makes us who we are.” We need to make this statement true, not just hopeful.

I am not naïve. There are many are ideologues or fanatics who won’t change –who revel in their ignorance intentionally. But most people are neither of those things. Change is only possible if we try. The alternative is increasing division and more hate, fear and ignorance.

Last night President Obama reminded us of how difficult this is and how important it is to our society. He quoted Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Here are three not-so-easy steps to start that process:

1) Find a way to spend some time with people you did not grow up around, are not familiar with, and listen to them. Try to get a glimpse of how someone very different from you sees the world. Van Jones did it, the rest of us can at least try.

2) Challenge your own news stream. Take an item or a bit of content from your favorite news source and really dig down into it. Not just via sites or sources you are familiar with, but ones that will give you a range of information and perspectives. I offer some tips on how to do this in a previous blog.

3) Be creative and collaborative outside your immediate circle; we humans are exceptionally good at doing this. Be active, connect and contribute to building bridges, not walls. We have the capacity to work towards a more connected and just society, one with more shared experiences. Segregation and ignorance are harmful in so many ways, we need to push against them.

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