Over the last few years, we have all been gaining access to extraordinary volumes of information at extraordinary rates. That information seems to be driving a growing chasm between ‘us’ and ‘them’. As mediums like social media (and more traditional media) grow in influence and seemingly perpetuate that narrative, I find myself asking who is ‘us’, and who is ‘them’?
Is your ‘us’ and ‘them’ based on political affiliation, like the NDP versus UCP, or Alberta versus Ottawa? Are the categories geographically based, like western versus eastern Canada? Is it premised on race or religion? Or those who pay taxes and those who are paid by taxes? Rural Alberta versus urban Alberta? The list is endless, and we all seem to default to a dichotomous relationship of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.
In his book Factfulness, Hans Rosling talks at great length about humanity’s attraction to binary thinking – that there is a basic human urge to divide things into two groups with nothing but an empty gap in between. We love to separate; we love good versus bad and heroes versus villains. We pit our province against ‘theirs’, and our ideology against ‘theirs’. It becomes dramatic because one versus another implies conflict and therefore a winner and loser.
Rosling notes that our tendency to live this way encourages us to imagine division where there may in fact be a smooth range, to see major differences where truthfully there is convergence, and to see conflict where there is primarily agreement. We seem to do it all without thinking. It has somehow become our first instinct, and it is fundamentally distorting data in a way that further perpetuates the problem. The algorithms used on Facebook, Twitter and other social media repeat and spread the most common things spouted. Our minds and cultures are being conditioned to this divisive way of thinking. It is time for the moderate middle to stand up for itself. The question is, how?
To start, I think we all need to increase our awareness and critical thinking about communications or stories that paint a picture of two separate groups miles apart. Most likely, the reality is that they are not nearly as polarized as the communication makes them out to be. I imagine the majority of Canada is right there in the middle, agreeing on most and disagreeing on some (as is healthy and necessary), where some would like us to believe this gap exists. As well, we need to be aware of the comparisons of extremes. Those who want to create ‘us’ and ‘them’ seem to use data from the far extremes but present them as the averages of the two groups, again portraying the divide as larger and further apart than exists.
As Stephen Covey said, seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. If we all did more of this, and the moderate middle was more vocal about it, we might just change those algorithms.
Who is your ‘us’ and ‘them’? Isn’t it really just ‘us’?
John Liston is a St. Albert resident, and is actively involved in both the business and charitable communities. He will likely be sipping a Guinness as you read this. Slàinte Mhath