We live in a time-stressed culture. “Faster and better” are spoken so frequently as a pair that we’ve come to view them as synonyms. Faster might be nice for internet connections, but it causes problems when applied to human beings. Fast food is not better food. Quick naps are not better sleep. Ten minute medical appointments are not better health care. Sound bites are not better conversation.
This cultural value of speed over quality has devastated our ability to communicate about complex subjects. Whether you’re talking about a newspaper article, a Facebook post, a tweet, a radio interview, or a spot on TV, there’s rarely enough time to delve below the thinnest layer of a complex issue. Caving to time pressure, ideas which cannot be adequately addressed quickly are simply dropped from the conversation.
As communication fails, there is a strong tendency to replace careful consideration of complex issues with simpler, fast messages indicative of polarization and dogma. Messages which, in a complex world, are almost never an accurate reflection of reality. Is murder wrong? Yes, most people would agree with that statement. But where do we draw the lines between murder, self-defense, assisted suicide, acts of war, failure to prevent suicide, negligence, and accidents? If you’ve ever served jury duty, you know that details matter.
Unfortunately, in America and abroad, the sentiment of “we’re right & they’re wrong” tends to be quite popular.
Such polarization quite effectively shuts down both communication AND scientific advancement. Science, you see, thrives on differing perspectives. Take that away, and all you have left is dogma. Once you join a group with a strong set of “required beliefs,” your own freedom to think is quickly eroded. You better not listen to the other side, because they’re obviously wrong. And heaven forbid you talk about the weak points of your chosen side! Polarization generally devolves into agreeable nodding or hurled insults.
At that point, everyone loses. Because here is the truth about polarization: if an issue is polarized, both “sides” have something vital to offer to the conversation.
Stop. Think about that for a minute. Humans aren’t polarized on the subject of eating broken glass. Humans aren’t polarized on the benefits of breathing water. When there is truly no doubt, there is no polarization. Polarization only occurs when we face a complex issue, form vitally important questions and discover that there are no perfect answers. Uncertainty frightens us, especially when the stakes are high. So we make ourselves feel more confident in our choices by ignoring doubt and complexity, convincing ourselves that there is a “best & simple” answer; all of which also makes communication faster...but not better.
To make things even more interesting, there are forces that deliberately encourage polarization in order to distract from unfavorable aspects of complexity. It’s an effective strategy used for thousands of years by those who wish to manipulate large groups of people. Divide & conquer, baby! Polarized people can’t join together to advocate for their common interests, because they don’t believe they have any. Add in a dash of fear and you’re in the driver’s seat. Kind of convenient if you’re a large corporation trying to avoid awkward questions about your product, government regulations and/or a lack of them.
So, Sister! Can you spare some time? Regardless of the cause, polarization interferes with communication and helps no one. Perhaps it’s time to take back our communication and break down polarization? Here are a few suggestions that have helped us.
First, acknowledge that no one perspective owns the whole truth. Like all true scientists, we hold dear our curiosity. Explore other perspectives as much as you explore your current perspective.
Second, prepare for push back and don’t take it personally. Polarization is often driven by fear, so have some compassion for those being tossed about by the waves of fear-mongering. Don’t demand a conversation from someone who isn’t ready or interested.
Third, seek out someone you love and respect and ask them to talk to you about their perspective. Then listen. Just listen. Avoid any urge to rebut, focusing honestly on understanding. If you can ask truly exploratory questions, do so. If not, skip questions and look for points of agreement instead. End the conversation with a “thank you.” These conversations take courage.
Fourth, try to find someone non-polarized on the issue and share these new viewpoints with them, in person if possible. When an issue becomes polarized, it can feel very lonely to be the one who refuses to “pick a side.” Seek others in the middle.
Finally, when it is safe to do so, speak out for complexity when you encounter polarized attitudes. You won’t always be able to do so, and that’s okay. But when you can say something, say it.
There is no formula or magic wording that will make a polarized person suddenly open up to a new perspective or even a conversation. If you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall...you probably are. The trick lies in being ready when an opportune moment arrives...and in remembering suggestion #1. It’s not just the other people who can learn something new.
This isn’t easy. The allure of polarization is most intense when the pressure to conform is blended with fear and the deeply desirable reward of inclusivity or societal acceptance. Doing what everyone else is doing is just plain easier. Until it isn’t.
These strategies can work when discussing abortion, marriage rights, politics, parenting...and vaccines.
On Saturday, May 10th at 5:30pm we will be hosting a screening of “The Greater Good,” a documentary that raises important questions about the impact of current vaccine policies. Fundamentally, “The Greater Good” asks whether we can do better. However, as a documentary film, “The Greater Good” has a perspective, it has bias, and it does not cover all aspects of the issue. 84 minutes is clearly insufficient to such a herculean task. It does, however, create many opportunities for our brains to generate the greatest of treasures: questions.
Our goal is to create a safe and respectful experience. We hope that a wide variety of people will come, with a wide variety of perspectives. It’s not just a movie screening. It is also a first step toward regaining our ability to discuss vaccine medicine, informed consent, and diversity in health care on Vashon Island.
Stepping out of polarization takes time, effort, and a bit of courage. Please join us.