“Are all people like this?”
“So much…bigger on the inside.”
– Doctor Who, The Doctor’s Wife
We live in such a competitive, noisy world.
My line of work – marketing – involves generating a certain degree of noise that can be heard amidst the cacophony of messages being shouted from the rooftops every day. Some of them are healthy. Some aren’t. Where it gets sticky is how we resort to being heard. Let’s just take our Facebook News Feeds, for instance. Look on there, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find at least one clickbait headline about something crazy some celebrity did over the weekend. Go down a few lines, and there will be a “sponsored” post for which some company or organization with which you’ve never been connected has paid just so someone with your demographic data points can see it. Then, even further down, you’ll find a news story from an obviously biased source written to pit one group of people against the other. And if you see a “trending” icon above it, you can click and find other perspectives on the topic that effectively do the same thing.
With all of this noise, we have to adapt. We have to find some way to filter it.
Some of our methods are helpful – and necessary. We look at who’s calling us on our cell phones before we answer. We install ad blockers on our internet browsers. We take some measures to ensure our kids aren’t being affected by unhealthy influences. But where it goes sour is when we mentally wall ourselves off from anything that even feels disagreeable. We now have the ability to construct a reality for ourselves in which our news, our information, and even our relationships – especially online – can be customized and individualized to fit our every whim. No longer do we have to suffer through the uncomfortability that comes with hearing a different point of view. We can insulate ourselves with all the bias-reinforcing sources we want to hear – and after a while, every opinion we hold dear feels like the most reasonable, the most sensible, the most moderate.
That’s enough of an issue to talk about on its own. But the way our cultural conversations are imbued with false dichotomies – our desire for each issue we discuss to boil down to a simple binary choice – is compounding it to an extent that has rendered reasonable discourse near-impossible. Let’s go back to our News Feeds. Chances are that throughout this week, you’ll run into at least a handful of heated online discussions, some of which may be engineered by news and opinion-providing entities seeking to thrive on all the likes and comments. These shouting matches are typically characterized by Side 1 and Side 2 arguing and flaming with no intention of budging. They may even walk into the conversation with a pre-determined narrative that they hope to reinforce, and anything that doesn’t fit within the confines of the narrative is discarded and ignored.
This isn’t productive. It’s not persuasive. It’s certainly not edifying. And unfortunately, it’s not limited to the impersonal medium of online conversation. After a while, we reach a point where we amalgamate. We take Talking Point A and Compatible Opinion B and group them together with similar ones to build that narrative, to form Paradigm X with no room for deviation. Then, we give that paradigm a name, a sense of identity around which we can rally so the “not-we”s who subscribe to Paradigm Y can be put down. Ultimately, whether or not we intend for it to be so, our upholding of “X” is based on negativity. Before long, it’s no longer primarily about X being good on its own merit – instead, X is good because X is Not Y. And on and on this dance goes.
I don’t say this as if I’m some wise rhetorician who looks down on all the discord. I’m not. I’ve been this. I’ve added to the verbal crossfire. And most unfortunately, I’ve reaped the saddest consequence of it: broken relationships.
It’s sad because we forget just how complex and interesting human beings are. We’re flawed and fickle, but we are also invaluable and intricate. It’s so easy to set all of that aside when the veil of online anonymity obscures our perception of others, or when we allow a disagreeable opinion in a face-to-face conversation to define an entire person. People are so much more than their talents, their failures, their triumphs, their shortcomings, and yes – even their opinions.
I can’t tell you just how many relationships I’ve missed out on – or even broken – just because I was afraid. I was afraid that the comfortable reality I constructed for myself would crumble when I realized that life was a bit more complicated than just Paradigms X and Y. I would have to relinquish that illusion of control – that idea that I had everyone figured out and categorized – by stepping outside the comfortable talking points that fit within the binary. I would have to entertain the notion that maybe I’ve been wrong about something – that perhaps the methodology packaged in the delivery of the paradigm I value was flawed and needed some work. (I’m going to address issues about being right / wrong / etc. a bit further in my next post.)
Over the past few years, I’ve been blessed with an incredible, colorful spectrum of relationships. I don’t say that simply as a positive, cheery statement, because it’s actually been a grueling growth process. Do we always agree? Certainly not. Do we hold hands around a campfire and sing Kumbaya? Nah. Are there times when we need to address our disagreements in the context of relationship? Yes, and it’s not easy. But that’s the beauty of it. We have the freedom to agree to disagree. We have the ability to view others as more than just data points, labels, and descriptors. We have the responsibility to examine ourselves and our own shortcomings in light of what we learn from others. It’s hard work. It’s painful. It’s heartbreaking.
But it’s also life-changing. It’s how we grow.