A topic of conversation in our monthly coffee club video call this morning was polarization — how different sides increasingly do not listen to each other but instead amplify their own positions. We can each come up with several examples, either from the political, or cultural spheres. Social media have made us all spectators in various clashes, as I noted about the Internet of Beefs. Each side is focused on winning but in the end, like many a divorce, neither side does.
“Listening to SCAN on the radio this last week, especially on the AM band—and then watching and listening to much of the Impeachment trial on TV and radio—it became clear to me that the Republican and Democratic parties are like divorced parents fighting over children who are also taking sides. Typically of people who don’t get along, they make broad and demeaning assumptions about each other, full of characterization and dismissiveness. Whether they are right or wrong about each other are beside this simple point: they are locked in a conflict that will only be resolved, unhappily, when one or the other wins. —Doc Searls 2020-02-01
Unfortunately — in an economy fueled by advertising — taking a neutral position does not make business sense. Constant outrage brings more eyeballs, so that is what both mainstream media and consumer social media encourage. Outrage has made Facebook so successful. Leaning toward neutrality — like the news outlet Ha’aretz does — is a dangerous business position when advertising pays the bills.
“The map [below] depicts Twitter accounts that tweeted about the Israeli shelling of a UN school in Beit Hanoun on July 24th. Palestinian sources said it killed some 15 people; Israel said it was a response to anti-tank fire from the school and that only one mortar landed in the schoolyard, which was empty at the time. Whatever the facts, it was one of several events that set off a firestorm of media coverage and tweets.
The Twitter accounts are arranged according to how many connections they share; the closer two accounts are, the more accounts they both follow. The bigger the circle, the more followers that account has. What emerges from this is distinct groupings: “pro-Palestinian” in green on the right; “pro-Israel” in blue on the left. Lotan has colored most of the international journalists and media outlets in gray; they clearly have more followers among the pro-Palestinian side. The dark blue group in the upper left are American conservatives and Tea-Party types, while the lighter blue are Israeli media outlets and blogs, and American Zionist figures.
The standout here is Ha’aretz, the left-wing Israeli newspaper. While closer to the pro-Israel side, it clearly has a lot of pro-Palestinian followers. It’s fair to say that readers of Ha’aretz’s English edition include the only groups of people from the two sides who are reading the same news.” —Quartz 2014-08-04
Constant outrage becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy when consumer-focused digital platforms constantly reinforce our prejudices.
“The team, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, also found evidence that the overlap between alt-righters and others who dabble in intellectual dark web and alt-lite material is growing. The authors estimate that about 60,000 people who commented on alt-lite or intellectual dark web content got exposed to alt-right videos over a period of about 18 months. The work was presented at the 2020 Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in Barcelona this week.” —MIT Tech Review 2020-02
In addition, we are inclined to reinforce our prejudices, even in light of contradictory evidence, in order to remain members-in-good-standing of our ‘Tribes’. We are hard-wired through evolution to want to cooperate and belong to our social groups because that is what has kept us safe.
“In ideologically charged situations, one’s prejudices end up affecting one’s factual beliefs. Insofar as you define yourself in terms of your cultural affiliations, information that threatens your belief system – say, information about the negative effects of industrial production on the environment – can threaten your sense of identity itself. If it’s part of your ideological community’s worldview that unnatural things are unhealthful, factual information about a scientific consensus on vaccine or GM food safety feels like a personal attack.” —Adrian Bardon, The Conversation 2020-01-31
It seems there is at least one practical way to reduce bigotry and prejudice. Recently published peer-reviewed research shows that ‘peer canvassing‘ can change people’s minds. One example provided comes from the campaign to adopt Proposition 8 [an anti-LGBTQ initiative] in California.
“The woman in the video starts off ambivalent on transgender issues. But through deep canvassing, the activist is able to turn her around. Specifically, the canvasser asks the voter to recall a time when he or she was discriminated against. Toward the end of the conversation, the canvasser nudges the voter into thinking about how that experience can relate to the plight of transgender people. The idea is that people learn lessons more durably when they come to the conclusions on their own.” —Vox 2020-01-29
We can change people’s minds if we have non-confrontational conversations in safe spaces and withhold judgement. If we want to progress as a society we have to get better at having these conversations. As I mentioned at the beginning, this conversation started today in our safe space — the coffee club. Creating temporary or more permanent safe spaces for conversations to gain understanding is becoming critical for our society. Governments and civil society should focus their efforts on facilitating these, whether it be physical or virtual spaces. Cities, in particular can play a pivotal role as learning networks. Trust makes for deeper conversations.