Reconnecting Through Our Shared Humanity Is the Most Important Project at This Time in History (Examples)
The ‘two personas’ is a concept that is central to everything we do here are Harmony Interfaith Initiative. It is a simple concept with broad implications.
It goes something like this: Each human being has two personas; the human and the ideological. The human persona consists of all the things that make us co-human (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and the ideological persona consists of all the beliefs and values that cannot be independently proven or disproven (if someone can be persuaded one way or another, then the concept is usually ideological).
As far as we can tell, there are two extremes related to this idea of the two personas.
One extreme is the danger of dehumanization. When people focus on ideological differences and consistently refer to each other using discriminating labels then a door is opened to alienating ‘the other’ and making the human being somehow less than human. That creates justifications to deny basic human needs, a willingness to go along with social marginalization, and a readiness to condone violence. Once violence is condoned, the otherizing is complete.
The other extreme claims that “we are all the same” and misinterprets any attempt to discuss differing beliefs as an attack on someone’s humanity. Ideological differences are dismissed as trivial and only the human persona is allowed to exist. This kind of reductionism can cause problems, but people who refuse to see ideological differences usually do not resort to violence.
We Have Created a Social Imbalance
From an integral standpoint, every human being is a complex mix of these two personas, but our information-driven society has placed such an overemphasis on the ideological persona that it has created an imbalance, politicizing and polarizing everything in ideological terms, from word-use to basic human characteristics such as gender and skin color.
Based on this discrepancy, we can say without hesitation that the most important project at this moment in history is to reclaim a social connection to the human persona, to move away from dehumanizing and otherizing in the direction of co-humanizing.
Here are a few examples to support that hypothesis:
Example 1) The Dangers of Otherizing
“These people. What these people don’t understand is…”
That’s how it often starts. Otherizing begins innocently enough, but before we know it we’re stuck on a slippery slope to extremism. Attempts to create a little bit of an ideological distance often end in full-blown labeling where no co-humanity is allowed.
The more extreme the labels become, the easier it is to stop seeing ‘the other’ as fully human. Betty Williams underscores this point forcefully:
“It is much harder to kill your near neighbor than the thousands of unknown and hostile aliens at the other end of a nuclear missile. We have to create a world in which there are no unknown, hostile aliens at the other end of any missiles.”
With the overuse of ideological rhetoric, people have created aliens in their own backyards, failing to see that their neighbor is equally human. How can people love their neighbor as themselves if they cannot see their own humanity reflected in their neighbor?
Example 2) Lack of Nuance
The social sciences have shown time and time again that people’s beliefs are generally more nuanced than they appear to be. Believers in a particular cause or ideology may have core values in common with their group, but, when they get a chance to illustrate their personal preferences in detail most of them employ a sliding scale with some variations.
For most of us, knowing that serves as a welcome relief. People are not homogenous; their beliefs are more varied than they appear to be.
The problem is that without having direct conversations, we cannot ascertain for ourselves whether beliefs are nuanced or if people are as fanatical as we imagine them to be. For the sake of social harmony, we need to be willing to explore the possibility of finding nuance for three reasons:
This last point is probably the most important one. For instance, if Claire is not an extremist, but is frequently called one despite her nuanced beliefs, she will start to see those who use unjust labels about her as extremists themselves and will not want to engage with them in any way, thusly widening an already growing divide.
Example 3) Refusal to Engage in Dialogue
Honest and respectful dialogue is a vital part of generating social harmony, but, for that to take place, people must at a minimum be capable of seeing each other as co-human. No one will ever be persuaded by a convincing argument if they are not first respected as human beings.
In a world where people see only ideological differences, where contempt of ‘the other’ has become all too common, then why on earth would anyone want to enter into a dialogue with someone who they feel is not equally human and therefore has no right to their personal narrative? There is no room for dialogue in such an atmosphere.
Example 4) Traditional Media and Social Media
Polarized media plays a substantial role in expanding divides. Consumers now choose media outlets that serve ‘news of the day’ in narratives that fit their worldview. Confirmation bias has become big business.
Nowhere, however, is the gap widening faster and in a more pronounced way than on social media.
There is a simple reason for that.
Think about it.
Of the two personas, which one do you interact more with on social media?
Exactly—it’s the ideological persona.
In fact, nowhere is the ideological persona more noticeable and less nuanced than on social media.
Everything is black and white.
You are either for or against.
Shared memes and bite-size snippets work like dynamite to enlarge divides between people. Constant ideological sharing is creating more and more personal distance—even between people who’ve known and liked each other for a long time.
“How can such and such believe that?” is one of the main complaints that I hear in my workshops.
Example 5) Road Rage and Internet Rage
John Cleese created a fabulous miniseries for BBC 1 in 2001 called The Human Face. In the series, he presented a segment about road rage that I have often used to illustrate Internet rage. Cleese and his team demonstrated that when two people are walking down the street and bump into each other, there is usually a slight exchange of facial expressions and body language that diffuses tension and allows both people to continue on their way without incident. When people are in their cars, however, there are no such exchanges. Without diffusing facial interactions, emotions can flare up and end in absolute fury. That is road rage.
I believe that the same is true about the Internet. In the online domain, there are no face-to-face interactions, no exchanges of body language, and little or no nuance in communications. People can spin themselves into states of outrage in reaction to what they perceive as personal slights, reacting to an imagined tone and body language that often reflects their own emotional state more than anything else.
Would things be different if these people were in each other’s presence?
The answer is most likely yes. At least two things would be altered. One, general social conduct would prevent one person from saying what he or she wrote without any hesitation on the Internet. Two, if the person said something inappropriate, the face-to-face interaction might well diffuse the situation.
There is an exception to this reasoning in our changing world. Because people are relentlessly exposed to ideological differences, both in traditional media and on social media, in-person interactions may no longer be enough to diffuse situations like they used to be.
For example, everyone in the USA is familiar with the idea of being exposed to differing political views during Thanksgiving celebrations. Before the Internet, Uncle Bob might have said something inappropriate or politically insensitive, but because Samara had known him as a nice human being for most of her life, she would have shrugged it off. Nowadays, she would have been exposed Uncle Bob’s rants and inappropriate memes on social media every day for a year, and when she finally met him at Thanksgiving, she’d have a hard time seeing him as a nice human being. She might, in fact, be unable to shrug it off and enjoy his company.
What is true about Uncle Bob is also true about every other assertive meme-sharer and ideologue. This is one of the challenges of our times, one that we must tackle if we want to live in harmony with each other. We are on each other’s social media feeds all the time, but not in each other’s lives.
Example 6) Ideological Purity
To further complicate things, we now live in an era where online ideological tribes are growing in number and diversity, where everything from large groups to small fringe camps can easily congregate because geographical restrictions have been eliminated thanks to the Internet.
If you think of how tribes were traditionally formed, entry barriers used to be a mix of family, friendships, geography, interests, strong beliefs, trustworthiness and more.
Today, ideological purity is the only measurement that counts.
If you doubt me, try entering an ideological space online and say something remotely antithetical to the beliefs that the group shares. You will get clobbered. When ideological purity is the only thing that binds the group together, even modest critiques and friendly evaluations are met with harsh reactions.
As in previous examples, the missing element in these online tribes is the human persona. There are no face-to-face interactions and no body language to interpret. Thousands of years of collective evolution, from tone, tenor, eye contact, energy, micro-expressions, and non-threatening demeanor are all absent, which means that we are navigating in uncharted territory.
We Must Recognize Our Shared Humanity
Will everything change for the better when we find ways to incorporate the human persona in our interactions? It may not be that simple, but overall, the answer is yes.
I believe that we must find as many ways as possible to incorporate the human persona into our lives by increasing human-to-human contact, reminding ourselves that at the end of our keyboard is a person with a beating heart who feels and breathes and loves and suffers, and by supplementing every statement about ideological differences with a sense of shared humanity.
In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
“All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.”
We can only create harmony and build bridges between strong differing beliefs if co-humanity is the link that ties us together.
This article was adapted from my new book:
Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides
Ideas that promote social harmony and bridge-building across divides.
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