Decades ago, hatred began to build in online chat rooms, where people (protected by the anonymity of their computer screens) could post judgmental vitriol with little accountability. We thought these ugly conversations would stay contained to small virtual spaces; but when millions of people adopt the same bad habits, those behaviors add up to define who we are. Hatred begets hatred and nasty words based on nastier (and often false) sentiments, have since spread through social media – and bubbled over into the offline world, too.
Today, we seem quicker than ever to judge one another, and slower than ever to forgive. We often assume negative intent instead of positive, and point our fingers before we’ve taken the time to explore the nuances of a situation. More and more, we’ve replaced trust in one another with chronic skepticism and defensiveness. We have become accustomed to pitting “us” against “them,” and dividing the world – and its complex issues – into two incompatible halves.
We tend to consume information more superficially. We frequently share articles online without having read them and ‘Like’ posts in our newsfeeds before making the effort to think hard about the ideas we are endorsing. We often resist changing our minds or admitting to ourselves that we could be wrong, because doing so feels like a concession. We are becoming increasingly inflexible and more prone to rationalizing away ideas that don’t confirm our existing beliefs. As a result, we are getting farther from the truth and much farther from each other.
We reflexively retreat to our echo chambers and silos, where we feel comforted by those who affirm our views. Seeing differences as threats, we increasingly avoid confrontation. In a nation in which people used to argue an issue vigorously and then head to dinner as friends, we now risk losing the ability to engage in hearty debate as a means to uncovering the strongest ideas.
Societal stressors have converged to enable these patterns. Divisive political figures have sought to pit us against one another and to normalize treating those with different political views as ‘lesser than.’ Fundamental inequalities deeply embedded in American institutions have exposed centuries of injustice, tempting us to turn our anger and frustration into blame. The atomization of news sources and social media algorithms designed to promote sensational, contentious, and often false stories are contributing to a culture in which it’s easier than ever to slip into harmful patterns of narrow-mindedness, fear, and incivility.
Just as we cannot ignore these forces, we also should not deny our personal roles in creating the climate in which we live. The way we engage with ideas, one another, and our communities shapes our culture; so, we cannot be surprised that our own bad habits are tearing us apart.
The scariest outcome of these cultural shifts is a rise in dehumanization. Across history, every major genocide, including those committed against innocent people in Rwanda, Germany, and Yugoslavia began with dehumanization in the media. We should not underestimate the power of words, which are usually strong indicators of intent and precursors to action.
It is up to us to change the discourse. Yes, social media has made it more challenging to have nuanced conversations grounded in empathy and curiosity, as opposed to judgement and one-sidedness; but even within these constraints, we can strive to overcome our worst instincts with the knowledge that we are all fallible people who mean well. Ultimately, we want similar things like freedom, safety, opportunity, and a better future for our children, who are inheriting the outcomes of our choices.
We have different approaches to meeting our goals, but our differences are the source of our strength. It is upon these differences that America has achieved success where nations corrupted by hatred and division have failed. Collaboration across perceived lines of divide fuels the marketplace of ideas and spurs innovation.
If you feel ready for constructive change, you are not alone. Over 100 foremost leaders have to come together to use our daily habits to improve ourselves and transform our culture in the process. Starts With Us is creating the tools and exercises to help every one of us to collaborate with courage, relate with empathy, and approach the world with more curiosity. We kicked off this morning with a pledge in USA Today, encouraging all of us to disagree better with a ‘frenemy’ past or present. Will you take the pledge and join us?