Why Is Everything So Black and White? Where is the Gray?
I recently attended the Dad 2.0 conference in San Diego. We filled up some rooms with several hundred dads and some moms and we talked about fatherhood and the interwebs. I attended two panels that still occupy space in my brain. One was primarily about racism and the other was about advocacy and using our social platforms to advocate for our positions and how that would/could impact our ability to work with companies that want to advertise on our sites or sponsor content that we produce.
I’m not too concerned about whether companies want to/don’t want to work with me because of opinions that I express. I don’t write for a living and my blog is not our primary source of household income. I am however interested in using my platform to make change to improve the world for my kids and others.
The big question that occurred to me during those panels and that continues to roll around in my head is “how do we find the gray?” There are so many issues where people hold black and white views and this seems to be especially true in the US. Race, abortion, religion, politics and climate change are just a few of the topics that generate heat from both sides of the spectrum. The fact that I even used the term ‘both sides’ suggests that there are only two perspectives. What about the middle ground? How do you find common points of agreement if when everyone seems to be taking opposing positions.
A Matter of Perspective
When I was in university we spent time talking about post-modernism, which really just means that there are multiple truths and multiple perspectives. I always understood this to be about perspective.
If ten people witness a car crash they will all remember different things. What they remember will depend on where they view the collision from, their life experience e.g. a car enthusiast will remember details about the cars involved, a nurse may notice the injuries sustained and not remember any details about the cars. A pedestrian will remember that one car cut them off as they were about to cross the street, a driver might remember another car coming out of nowhere or the colour of the stoplights. They would all tell a different story about the crash and none of them would be lying. They would all be telling the truth as they understand it from their perspective.
The same is true about social and political issues. We all have perspectives from which we view various issues. On abortion for example, someone raised in a strict religious home with limited sexual health education and who has never dated will have a very different perspective than a parent of three kids who experienced an unintended pregnancy in their teen years. Neither of them will be wrong, they will just live with different truths.
The challenge that we have arrived at now, and not just in the US, is that people seem to have stopped making the effort to hear the other perspectives and learn from those who hold a different point of view. Instead we have arrived at a place where viewpoints have become more extreme and polarized. Many more people have black and white opinions. I am right and you are wrong and there is nothing in between. We have lost the ability, or perhaps the willingness, to see the gray.
How Did We Get Here?
Erosion of Social Capital and Trust
Robert Putnam argues in his book Bowling Alone that we have seen a decline in trust in our institutions and a loss of social capital. He suggests that this is a result of fewer people getting engaged in community organizations (like bowling leagues and service clubs) where we can interact with people of varying viewpoints and have discussions about issues of the day. I haven’t looked at the data he makes available on his site to judge the validity of his conclusions myself, plus frankly I’m not enough of a data guy to be able to identify flaws myself.
His book was published in 2000 and I think things have shifted since then. My sense – no data to back it up – is that people are still getting involved in communities and discussions, although many of these are online now. The challenge is that we are getting involved in silo’d groups with people who think like us. We join activist organizations, evangelical churches and causes that we each believe in. These groups get increasingly focused on their perspective. I used to work in politics so I understand what it is like to be involved in an organization where most people are singing the same song. Everything your side says is right and everything the other side says is wrong. Since the other side is always wrong, you don’t have to listen to them.
If someone from the other side of an issue or multiple issues happens to have elected power, you will tend to distrust them and everything their party/government says and does because you know they are wrong. Throw in some media stories, it doesn’t matter if they are well researched or made up, so long as they agree with your view of the world. Those stories reinforce your perspective that you are right and those stories get shared around by like-minded people and you get confirmation bias where everyone from your side reinforces each other’s beliefs and perspective.
I am going to be careful here. As an atheist I have a perspective on religion that is different than someone who subscribes to a particular theology.
All religions have sects and branches that are more liberal and more conservative. The more conservative branches tend to work towards civil laws based on their particular religious beliefs and what they feel their guide books suggest. In Islam we see this in the Taliban in Afghanistan and Daesh/ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In Christianity in the US, we see this in the evangelical movement. I’m not sufficiently familiar with other faiths to be able to point to examples.
In both the evangelical Christian movement in the US and the Taliban / Daesh in the middle east and Afghanistan we see a desire to impose their particular brands of religion on others regardless of what those others believe. In the US this shows up in arguments to ban abortion, ban Muslims from entering the country, opposition to same-sex marriage and adoption, and the fight against trans* rights in the form of bathroom laws. When taking these positions there is often a complete disregard of those who would be impacted by these laws. Largely I believe that those on the Christian right think that they are doing the right thing for all people and doing their part. I don’t believe that of the leaders of the evangelical movement. I see them as hypocritical, power-hungry people who are misleading and using the true believers for their own ends. I don’t know enough about those who subscribe to the ideology of Daesh to say whether or not they believe that they are adhering to Islam. I believe the same of the leaders of that movement as I do of those those who have the loudest voices in the evangelical Christian movement.
People who have strong religious beliefs tend to congregate on a regular basis for religious services and people who seek power – whether elected or otherwise – see the opportunity to draw the support of those motivated groups of people by campaigning on their issues to secure their support. Like the media outlets that court controversy to draw bigger audiences for advertisers, the power seekers magnify the voice of minority groups to draw more supporters to their cause.
As those running for elected office in the US, Canada and other jurisdictions look for support they build campaigns designed to appeal to particular voting blocks – especially those groups of people who reliably come out to vote. On many issues this means dumbing down complex issues to simple campaign slogans which cut through the media noise so we get slogans about family values and banning things like abortion, muslims and immigration.
Media and Social Media Bubbles
In the 1980’s television began to diversify and with these increased options of news sources we saw shifts from everyone watching the same few news outlets and getting the same news to outlets that became more partisan on either side of the spectrum. Controversy draws audiences and bigger audiences mean bigger advertising revenues. That process evolved to a point where everyone can find a news source that most closely aligns with their political perspective which means we no longer get the same news with the same perspective.
Social media only adds to this biased perspective. We follow people we agree with on Twitter. The Facebook algorithm is designed to show us stories that are similar to others we have liked and viewed. It shows us more content from people who post content we like and it doesn’t or at least didn’t discriminate between journalism and made up stories designed as click bait to draw traffic to websites that generate revenue from selling those audiences to advertisers.
In both traditional media and social media we end up in information bubbles viewing and hearing stories within our respective silos and we are not often exposed to stories from alternative perspectives.
This is more true in the US than Canada, although we certainly encounter it. I’m not talking so much about the hardcore partisans who support their party at all costs. I am talking about the political divisions that are particularly apparent in the US, where there are currently only two parties with any realistic chance of holding power at the state and federal levels. When you have only two parties that means that on many issues you are only offered two perspectives on an issue and since one party is standing in opposition to the other we only hear the black and white views.
In Canada we have three major parties that have and could hold power at provincial and federal levels and we have a fourth – the Green party that has a loud enough voice that their perspectives on issues are also often heard. Since there are more political party choices, there is a significant portion of the population that does not identify themselves with a specific party. People shift their votes depending on election platforms and what they think of the leaders and local candidates. Each party absolutely has a committed partisan base of support. Generally our party affiliation lines are not as rigid and loyal as we see in the US where there are only the two viable options.
Different Information = Different Language
If we are getting our information from sources that provide different stories and a different perspective, we lose the common language of discussing issues of the day. In the US, we see people being fed a regular media diet on one side about the crimes committed by immigrants and Muslims in particular and on the other side a regular feed of information about the benefits of immigration and the numbers of people killed by Americans with guns. The result is two totally different perspectives on law and order and rational conversations about gun control, personal safety, crime and terrorism are almost out of the question, not to mention any discussion of Islam and immigration.
If we aren’t speaking the same language it becomes very difficult to engage in policy discussions that capture the complexity of an issue and provide opportunities for finding things we agree on and developing solutions that work for everyone.
This article speaks to some of the challenges that have appeared in the US as a result of these changes.
How Do We Find the Gray?
“Where is the gray?” is perhaps another question to consider. Obviously the gray is somewhere between the two extremes of any issue. There are many so-called moderates out there who do not sit at the extremes of every issue. They often have more nuanced views of the things that people seeking power want us to see as black or white.
I’ve been thinking about all these issues and wondering how to look for and help other people find the gray. I don’t know how to help other people find the gray yet. For myself I have decided to look for and listen to more conservative voices. I generally consider myself to be progressive and for many people that puts me on the left of the political spectrum – depending on who I am compared to. Compared to Americans, most Canadians would fall on the left side of the American spectrum. In Canada I think I am more in the centre. Either way I am trying to find more people to listen to who have different perspectives than me. In addition to following more conservatives on Twitter, I have followed more indigenous people, more people, especially women of colour and more men that are sexist jerks. Ok, well not many of the sexist jerks. I can only be so tolerant of other perspectives…
Looking For Other Perspectives
I want to know more about what other people are thinking and why they think that way. I have long been able to look at an issue from multiple perspectives, but in recent years I have realized that there are perspectives that I don’t know enough about to be able to consider and so this is one way that I can find more gray.
Over the past several weeks I have been following more people on Twitter who have different perspectives than me. In addition to following more conservatives, I have followed more indigenous people, more people, especially women, of colour and more men that are sexist jerks. Ok, well not many of the sexist jerks and none of the white supremacists. I can only be so tolerant of other perspectives…
Listening To Each Other
Here is the challenge. In order to find the gray we must be willing to accept that we might not be right and that someone else might have a better answer. In order to find that better answer, we need to listen more closely to one another. In my short time thinking about this issue and seeking opinions from other people I have found a lot of closed ears.
I have encountered quite a number of Trumpeteers – hardcore Trump loyalists – who include in their Twitter bios that they will block any leftists who follow them. That makes it hard to listen when you outright refuse to acknowledge the right of others to speak. I have not directly engaged with any of the Trumpeteers to discuss any issues so I don’t know how willing they are to converse. I have engaged with Canadian conservatives and found many who are open to conversation. I have also been blocked by several conservatives over the years who opt not to have policy discussions with me.
On the left side of the spectrum I have found many people who say they tried reaching out to conservatives or they tried to discuss complicated issues online only to be blocked or personally attacked. It is also hard for those people in more vulnerable positions like women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, people of colour, and Muslims to engage with those who say hateful things about them.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I honestly don’t know.
It is one thing for me to read and listen to a broader range of perspectives. I am a straight, white, Canadian man. Nobody is threatening or attacking me. Nobody is talking about deporting me or reducing my rights. Sure I occasionally get push-back from those I attempt to discuss issues with, but it has never resulted in personal threats against me or my family.
If any of those things were happening to me or being said about me based on my sexual orientation, gender, sex, skin colour or religion I would not be so interested in listening to those who were saying or supporting those things.
Perhaps my plea is to the moderates to listen to one another and consider other perspectives before speaking. I would love for those on the extremes to listen to and consider other perspectives. I don’t think that is going to happen in any major way. Individuals may open their minds to the possibility that they might not always be right. It is unlikely that change will happen en mass.Listening to people with perspectives different from our own helps us to learn from one another.Click To Tweet
My Challenge to You
If you are on Twitter, find 20 people with different life experiences than you and follow them. Read what they post. If you are not on Twitter, seek out people who are sharing stories that are different from your own and read them. Listen to a podcast discussing issues from a conservative or an indigenous perspective. Watch a film or read about the life of a person of colour. Consider the differences between the life experience of a white woman and a woman of colour. Read about a religion different from your own – look for positive perspectives. Challenge yourself to look at an issue that is important to you from the perspective of someone you disagree with.
If you really want to step it up a notch, join a bowling league/service club/community association and engage in real life with people who don’t necessarily hold the same views of the world as you do.
Finding the Gray / Grey is not Black and White
Before anyone starts in on me, I know I have chosen to spell ‘Grey’ the American way. Most of what I have written about in this post involves US examples so if I am going to write aboot Americans, I figured I should at least use their spelling of the colour/color.