Discernment In Times of Societal Divide

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I came across this recent post from my friend on Instagram, Lauren Ramesbottom. It’s quite timely and well written, a very important read. I thought it was important to share:

Discernment is defined as the ability to perceive or judge well, or make careful observations and distinctions when seeking and identifying ‘the truth.’ It is something we do every day, consciously or not, and it is informed by our ability to think critically, rationally and, when necessary, objectively. Oftentimes, this is easier said than done.

In 2022, our world is split into two distinct parts; our online and offline experiences. We like to think they’re one in the same but, let’s be real – they aren’t. Much of our reality is influenced by the consideration of public perception, so much so that we subject our offline life to constant efforts of curation incentivized by our online personas and platforms. We often tell ourselves that visibility and digital connection is the catalyst to actualization and success – but it’s also often the catalyst to ideological confusion, anxiety and comparison, groupthink, and social dogmatism.

As we attempt to navigate this age of information, we soon realize that an influx of access doesn’t necessarily translate to an influx of comprehension or clarity. We also come to face the intensity of our need for attachment and social belonging; isolation/rejection is a frightening concept for many of us, especially when we have two worlds in which we can feel its effect (the real world and our online world).

And whether we want to admit it or not, we are all influenced by a need to belong, a need to be right, and a need to find (and hold onto) purpose and identity. This is a core part of the human experience – and this, I would argue, has been put to the ultimate test over the last two years of the pandemic.

It’s been two years of fight or flight, and while the details of our individual struggles vary, the general theme across our population remains the same – it’s been a hard two years. Many of us are emotionally and mentally burnt out and on edge, and our nervous systems are effectively fried.

Throughout this prolonged trauma response, we have been bombarded with skewed media reporting and fear mongering, political pressure and divisive rhetoric, and a moral dogmatism attached to what was positioned as the solution to the pandemic. And we are so attached to the original narrative we are sold, that we are seemingly unable (or just unwilling) to course correct as we receive new, important information. The more we know, the more clarity and informed direction we should have but, instead, we remain stuck in place, arguing in the same broken, emotionally-charged circles.

It seems to me that we have latched on to ideas and information desperately, as a means of survival, and many of us have allowed our beliefs to become a part of our identify, much like a personal religion that we expect everyone to subscribe to. We have over simplified complex matters via an increasingly narrow lens: Vaccinated = good and caring, unvaccinated = bad and selfish.

We’ve weaponized the word ‘anti’, leveraging it at every opportunity to denounce someone as ‘less than’ or a threat to the (morally superior) collective. We have left little to no room for nuance or reasonable debate and dialogue because we are no longer challenging each others’ beliefs; we are attacking each other’s identity and moral standing. We have set ourselves up for relentless social cruelty and fragmentation in the purview of politicians and policy makers who directly benefit from this continued in-fighting and unrest. Remember, what is the best way to destroy something? From the inside out. Social media has become our governments’ uniquely powerful trojan horse.

I keep telling myself that we are all just in survival mode and, as such, any negative behaviour observed within this landscape should be interpreted graciously. But it feels like we’ve lost ourselves in this, and I feel like I’m watching the collective erosion of nuance, rational debate, and critical reasoning in real-time.

I don’t see people offering (and certainly not going the extra mile) to qualify their opinions, or subject them to fair and constructive rebuttal. I don’t even see people (politely) agreeing to disagree. Instead, I see increasingly dismissive and inflammatory rhetoric hurled from one person or group to the next.

And we are so terrified of being lumped in with the wrong group, cancelled, or effectively ‘othered’ and dismissed that many of us are self censoring or shrinking for sake of self-preservation. As Mark Groves so eloquently put it, “We are constantly in this negotiation of how do I be connected to you, and be connected to me? Most of us, whether we recognize it or not, mainstain connection with groups and others in order to be loved by them, but we abandon our own values and our own self to maintain a sense of belonging. But it’s a sense of belonging that’s created on a false self.”

As you might have guessed, exercising discernment at a time like this is, for many of us, nearly impossible. We are more susceptible to groupthink and social pressure than we ever have been, and we’ve all been abused by fractured narratives, the media, and political agenda for so long that many of us simply don’t know what’s true anymore.

Because of this, many of us are finding solace in the selective unity of polarized groups, rather than the larger collective. We are withdrawing and sinking deeper into our respective, largely uncontested echo-chambers of opinion. And let me tell you – confirmation bias is one hell of a drug.

My intention here is not to tell you how to think or act, or chastise your attempts to prioritize your values and/or individual pace. But at the very least, I hope to speak to (and advocate for) the importance of rational discernment at a time of intense social and political divide. I urge you to remember that two people can be informed, sane, and otherwise legitimate, decent, and well-intentioned – and still disagree on an issue or their interpretation of the same piece of information. I urge you to remember that ideas cannot (or at least, should not) be accepted as truth without first (and repeatedly) being challenged. I urge you to remember that censorship is a slippery slope. I urge you to try and see the trees from the forest.

After all, there are few (if any) examples in history where a reductionist, dogmatic, and divisive approach to social and political conflict ends well. It might feel okay when it’s working in your favour, but what about when it isn’t?

I also urge you to interpret the views and opinions of others (including mine, of course) under an increasingly cautious and critical lens. Is the language being used emotionally charged, or inflammatory in nature? Is it fact or fallacy? Does the suggested conclusion logically follow the premise of the argument? Are there contradictions or conflicts of interest to consider? Are claims substantiated? Is the person expressing that opinion welcoming debate and respectful conversation, or are they pushing their ideas and claims forward without any opportunity for (reasonable) rebuttal? Are they exacerbating the social and political divide with the presentation of only two options; for or against, right or wrong, pro or anti, good or bad? Is the argument logical and nuanced, or performative and tribunal in nature?

Because right now, I’m seeing an overwhelming amount of information and opinions shared across social media that that are not only leveraging inflammatory and divisive rhetoric and reasoning, but are deeply hypocritical and conveniently dehumanising. It feels as though we are constantly arguing against oppression and cruelty, and yet, in that same breadth we are frequently gaslighting, gatekeeping, and breathing more life into the very system of behaviour we claim to hate. How can we argue for compassion and community, and be so selective in how (and to whom) we offer it?

We also seem to forget that it’s not the instinct to speak in a condescending manner (or wage wars of moral superiority) that wins arguments – rather, it’s evidence. Qualified, non partisan evidence derived from research, historical insights, and lived experience – not from Instagram, or a clearly biased media conglomerate. Sure, those are great places to start and should help to inform your individual curiosity about a given topic, but the curiosity that dictates your opinion shouldn’t begin and end there. In other words, if you read something that interests you, angers you, shocks you, confuses you, or otherwise captures your attention – Dig into it further, beyond a platform that circulates largely unchecked, emotionally-charged, or anecdotal findings and opinion.

And I mean, when did we stop debating and start hurling insults or commentary riddled with judgement and shame? When did that become the gold standard of online engagement? Once again, this brings me back to my argument against selective reasoning – how can we vilify and hold accountable those who don’t align with our preferred narrative, if we won’t apply that same criteria for criticism to those who do align with our preferred narrative?

We so readily – and often, vehemently – identify and persecute what’s wrong with the ‘other’ group, but conveniently deny or ignore what’s wrong with our own. We look for reasons to cancel, call-out, and dismiss, rather than reasons to discuss, come together, and better understand. We seem to be attacking each other at every opportunity (especially) over the last few days) and then turning off our comments, dismissing, insulting, or ignoring each other at the first sign of resistance or rebuttal.

And so, the ideological cavern between perceived sides – far left or far right, pro or anti, acceptable or extremist/fringe, minority or majority, good or bad, right or wrong – is seemingly growing deeper with each passing day. This is dangerous.

As Africa Brooke has shared across her (brilliant) platform, not only is keeping us divided lucrative as for those in power, but “the reality is that unforgiving culture – casual dehumanisation, public shaming, spectacles, out-working one another, oppression olympics, the extremes of identity politics, binary thinking, refusal to accept diversity of thoughts, re-branding division tactics etc. – isn’t going to magically fix itself. As fully grown autonomous adults, we ALL play a part in opting out of this game.”

We can evolve. We can forgive. We can accept that the human experience is complicated, especially right now. We can leverage and act on information and evidence, rather than shame and guilt. We can disagree, respectfully. We can stop fanning the flame of division across social media. We can find common ground and moments of unity with people or groups who don’t align perfectly with our own beliefs. We can be authentic rather than performative. We can sit with discomfort, rather than seeking to displace it onto someone else. We can (and should) allow others to challenge our opinions, bias, and motives. We can (and should) move beyond binary schools of thought. We can (and should) actively seek out nuance. We should be wary of blind partisanship. We should detach our identify from our ideas and beliefs. We should place a critical lens on those figureheads who make and enforce the policies which harm us and emblazon in-fighting. We can (and should) resist the urge to gaslight, dismiss, or cancel, and instead seek out opportunities for growth and understanding.

Perhaps more importantly, we should at least attempt to view our current circumstances under a broader lens that seeks out and embraces solutions and a positive outcome for the collective whole, rather than continued division and disparity.

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