Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Healing Divisions: Empathy, Filter Bubbles, and Free Speech

There is a lot of conflict and division in the world.  The recent U.S. election is just one of many examples of this.

What can be done to mend the conflicts?  

I found a relevant TED talk a few days ago, featuring a social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt.  He discusses the psychology of political difference, and also some ideas of what we can all do to help mend the divisions.  

One of the simple challenges he poses to us all, is to practice empathy.  It is easier to empathize with a person who has suffered in a way that we can understand or relate to.  He points out that it may be much harder for any of us to empathize with someone whom we strongly disagree with.  This lack of empathy with our intellectual or political opponents consolidates division, dislike, disrespect, and even hatred.  

A very important obstacle to empathy in the modern world is a technical one:  people who espouse a particular viewpoint may, through social media, or through other information sources, only expose themselves to those who already share the same views or opinions or backgrounds.  Some services, such as Facebook, may deliberately filter information to be attuned to your interests and opinions.  This "filter bubble" phenomenon leads to a reduction in empathy between opposing groups, and therefore magnifies division.  

I encourage all of us to have a practice of learning why people feel or believe the way they do, even if they have very different opinions, feelings, or backgrounds.  You may still strongly disagree at the end of this exploration, but at least there will hopefully be less enmity, and more understanding.  You may discover that despite many differences, that there are unexpected areas of common ground.  Such common ground can lead to peace instead of war.  

A foundation required for this process to work is freedom of speech...I am very troubled by processes in which communication is suppressed.    Even in the seemingly warm-hearted area of mental health care reform, I have seen processes of change in which dissenting voices were not welcome...the human tendency to suppress opposition in the name of efficiency or progress is universal.  We must always take steps to protect our freedoms.  This requires a certain bravery to express ourselves, even when your voice is a lone voice of dissent in a crowd...but it also requires a deliberate commitment to empathize, to strive to understand the feelings, thoughts, and motivations of those who disagree with you.  Such empathy must be practiced as a basic discipline of life.  

Another recommendation I have is to be aware of the "filter bubble"and to step out of it regularly.  Read widely, from as many different sources as you can.  This doesn't mean you need to agree with positions you find objectionable, but at the very least it does require you to be more aware of personal stories that you might not have been aware of before.

Addendum (in response to a message about this post):    I am not meaning to suggest some form of passivity or tacit acceptance of situations which are alarming or wrong -- in fact, I strongly encourage using your voice!  And there may often be a need for voices of protest or anger...but I also believe that strong leadership is needed to mend conflicts, which includes a voice that can speak to all.  In large-scale human dynamics, people have a tendency to veer gradually towards extreme positions...for those who are drifting towards extremism of any kind, I think that an empathic voice can be much more effective to reverse an extremist trend, compared to an angry one.   I think of some of the great voices in history, such as Martin Luther King's.  

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