Road trip March 2009

In this excellent read about why things feel more divided than ever, Chel Wolverton points out a number of important items. If you haven’t read the post yet, go do so.

Welcome back. There’s an underlying subtlety that I think is worth pointing out. The nature of our relationships to large groups of people today has changed. In the old days, we had our local community, and our reach and influence didn’t extend much beyond that. Power for the average person was a circle of friends at the bar or bowling alley, but beyond a few elite, no one had reach or influence over large groups of people.

Today, that’s changed. Now the average person can, if so desired, put together large groups of people. 55,000 people follow me on Twitter, as an example, and I have neither enormous wealth or massive fame to create that, so that pegs me as being average. Even if you assume that 50% are robots and 10% actually read what I share ever, that’s still 2,750 people, which is larger than a lot of towns. There are kids on YouTube with audiences and followings in the millions. That’s a lot of power, and spoken so truly by Emperor Palpatine, all who have power are afraid to lose it.

That fear of losing power, that fear of forfeiting the base that you’ve created, tends to make you protective of it, which in turn tends to make you antagonistic to those around you who are not part of it. These are the subtle dynamics that are amplified often into cults, where groups of people vilify others to remind themselves why they’re there and drinking strangely purple Kool Aid. These are the subtle dynamics that create cult leaders. An excellent TED talk by Jonathan Haidt put it best: when we as humans do something as a group, we transform the mundane into the sacred simply by virtue of getting others to buy in.

Ask yourself this: do you know someone in social media who you respect and look up to? Because of that respect, do you elevate what they have to say to the point where sometimes you don’t even critically think about it? My hand is up. There are some folks who I respect and catch myself rubber stamping what they’re saying sometimes – and that path leads to dangerous conclusions.

I suspect we are divided because we want to be, because it reinforces in our own minds that we have made the right choice in our affiliations, in who we call friends, in what we believe. The reason why compassion is so hard is that it often requires us to admit we’re not fully right, that the other person’s point of view or associations or choices may have some merit. I was watching two groups of friends and their respective tribes have it out on Facebook yesterday, which was immensely saddening to see. Both perspectives were partly correct and both perspectives were incomplete. As Stephen K. Hayes once said, the universe is big enough and wonderful enough to accommodate all of these paradoxical, different points of view.

If something is divided, the logical way to heal that division is to build a bridge. In order to build a bridge, you have to set foot on the other side. That’s what we have to evoke in ourselves, and doing so is a simple question that you can print out and tape to your desk wall:

If I wanted to, what can I find that’s good and right about the other side?

If you’re a liberal, ask yourself that. If you’re a conservative, ask yourself that. If you’re having an argument with the leader or followers of another personality online, ask yourself that. If you’re the leader of your own tribe, ask yourself that often and ask your tribe to question themselves frequently. Use your power, the power that others have granted you, to bridge gaps rather than widen them. That’s the responsibility that comes with the power.

Our mothers used to say, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. These days, with the increased reach and power that we all have, I would ask you to take that a step further: find something nice to say even when you don’t want to. That’s the first step in building the bridge.

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