Divided opinion? Or ‘diverse opinions’?
The website dictionary.com defines the words ‘divided’ and ‘diverse’ in the following ways:
• of a different kind, form, character
• of various kinds
• including representatives from more than one social, cultural or economic group…
The definition of ‘diverse’ feels much richer and more full of potential than the description of ‘divided’; divided seems to imply that any meeting of minds will be unlikely.
However, when talking about opinions on any given topic, our news media seem to focus primarily on the word ‘divided’.
For example, we’ll see a reporter interviewing two people, chosen for their conflicting views, and the conclusion will be along the lines of, “we can see that opinion is sharply divided” or “the proposed way forward is clearly dividing opinion”.
The result? People believe in that deep divide. It’s presented as a simple binary choice, and the language makes the division even greater.
What if the word ‘divided’ is actually part of the problem?
A friend recently raised this question, and it got me thinking.
On any major issue there are often two ‘sides’ – two opposing camps with a giant divide between them. The invasion of Iraq, vaccines, US politics, immigration, veganism… the list of divisive issues is long.
Most people seem to gravitate towards one side or another. Opinion on each side of the divide often becomes entrenched – encouraged and cemented by the similar views of other people on each side.
It is also reinforced by the powerful drip feed of carefully selected ‘news’ and information fed to us by social media to support the opinion we already have.
We end up forming a fixed opinion, and we stick with what we think we know without necessarily recognising how that opinion has been shaped.
Are there really only two or three ways of seeing anything?
Many politicians would have us think so, yes. They will encourage us into tribes that they can then exploit for their own ends. Creating an ‘us and them’ is very useful. We begin to take refuge with those who are like ‘us’ – sheltering from the dangers of ‘them’.
Arguably worse is that if we dare to explore an opinion or share a post online that seems to support the other side, our own tribe will judge us harshly. We have committed an unforgivable crime. We are seen as a threat to our own tribe, regardless of how pertinent our point may have been.
As a result, it can be very hard for anyone on either side to shift their view – or even entertain the idea that other views might sometimes have merit.
Eventually, we are so tightly aligned with our tribe that we will support them no matter what – or sometimes out of fear. The results of this can be devastating, for example what happened in Nazi Germany.
Do we have to be 100% on board with all of the views of our tribe?
We can easily forget that there can be diverse opinions (plural) about everything.
In his 2001 speech about terrorism, former US President George W Bush famously issued an ultimatum to the countries of the world. He warned them, “You are either with us – or with the terrorists.”
There was no middle ground.
No room for voices that raised concerns about his assumptions and actions.
No scope for discussion about the consequences of such a statement.
No room for nuance or moral debate.
To disagree would be siding with the terrorists. He was creating two polar opposite camps and an either/or world: ‘with us’ or ‘against us’. No common ground to share.
Let’s look at another example: the 2016 referendum that led to the UK leaving the European Union (EU). In other words, Brexit.
As a British national this vote was hugely important to me. My own personal view is that the UK is much better being part of the EU, and I despair at the amount of racism and xenophobia the referendum has unleashed and for all the lives that have been turned upside down.
One of the arguments from the ‘leave’ side was that the EU has lots of faults. They may well be right – it’s certainly not perfect and aspects of it do need reform (in my view). But, given how much was at stake in the referendum, anyone on the ‘remain’ side who was also vocal about the need for EU reform risked being seen as crossing the line into enemy territory.
What’s true and what’s false?
Right now, I’d hazard a guess that very few of us actually know what’s true and what’s fake. Everything can be manipulated. Algorithms are powerful. Fact checkers can be subjective.
We must surely keep asking questions – about what we read, what we hear and what our own tribe is saying – and then each make up our own mind somehow, in order to move forward.
Let’s look for example at the world’s response to coronavirus:
I personally have friends who’ve had the virus and have really struggled with it. I also have two contacts who’ve been seriously ill and hospitalised with it. In addition, the virus is not something I’d want to have myself.
At the same time, I am puzzled by the world’s response. Consider tuberculosis (TB), which is spread through the air from one person to another when someone coughs, speaks or sings. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1.5 million people died from TB in 2018, and TB is “one of the top 10 causes of death [worldwide] – and the leading cause from a single infectious agent”. The WHO website also states that “multidrug-resistant TB remains a public health crisis and a health security threat and that cause-of-death statistics help health authorities determine the focus of their public health actions”.
So why has the world not been in lockdown for TB?
And why is there now increasing censorship on social media against anyone asking questions about coronavirus?
And why aren’t governments making it a top priority to educate all of us about how to nourish our bodies, stay in good shape and become less vulnerable?
I suspect the answers to these questions could be about power and money, but of course I don’t know for sure. If you have any thoughts please share in the comments. But before you do – and this applies to all of us – first to consider whether your answer is one that simply aligns with your tribe or whether it is one you have researched more widely yourself across tribal lines? I believe we all need to do this.
Asking questions about major issues in the world – whatever the subject – is vital.
Any functioning democracy surely requires people to ask questions and explore other truths. If we simply attack those who hold views that don’t align with the whole of our tribe, how will we ever have conversations that lead to greater understanding?
Let’s look at our original definition of the word diverse: “including representatives from more than one social, cultural or economic group…”
Whose insights about an issue have we not considered? Who is not being heard? How is a current issue affecting people of different faiths, genders, colours, age, physical ability, social background, financial status, etc?
We all have different life experience that can add value, insight and depth to our opinion and encourage others to question their own.
If the dominant narrative encourages compliance and demonises those who do ask questions, where will we end up? We need to hear these diverse opinions, because they have the capacity to inform and broaden discussion, for wider benefit.
If we don’t, how will we ever learn to question ourselves? Unpicking our own beliefs is uncomfortable, because we’re invested in them.
We also need to find courage to express our own diverse opinions and not be shamed into binary and tribal choices that ultimately serve only those with the most power.
In a world fixated on ‘divided opinion’, divisions will simply increase. Disagreeing with someone over one aspect of a big issue doesn’t mean we have to disagree with them over everything to do with that subject. We need critical thinking. We need to encourage a rich well of diverse opinions. That in itself will also help us see the common ground between us and make it easier to really listen to each other.
Why won’t people agree with me? – insightful article from the Onwego blog.
The dangers of tribalism– engaging 11-minute illustrated video from Kevin deLaplante
Video: How authoritarian-style leaders divide us – Abigail Marsh, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Georgetown University, analyses the slippery slope between protecting your in-group and attacking the out-group.