Dichotomies are Dumbing Us Down as They Drive Us Apart

Photo by Jonathan Harrison on Unsplash

Why multiple perspectives, identities, and stories are worth fighting for

As I tuned into a podcast conversation between Elif Shafak and Chris Anderson, founder of TED, I was admittedly distracted.

Until I tuned in.

After some years of studying, teaching, and working on ways to live with and learn from conflict (“handling” or “managing” conflict isn’t helpful because conflict is inevitable and most of it necessary for human development) I fell in love with Shafak’s eloquent ideas, all of which can be implemented by me. And you. Not our tribes or political identities.

A Clash Between Two Certainties

Whether it’s politics, religion or any perspective we tend to call a belief, the ability to dismiss other beliefs is now easier and achieved more expeditiously than ever before.

As both social scientist and novelist, Shafak begins with a powerful assertion:

We either want to get rid of faith or doubt, yet “we learn from both.”

To paraphrase Shafak’s intro,

faith is far too important to leave to the religious

doubt is way too important to leave to atheists

patriotism is too valuable to leave in the hands of nationalists

politics too dear to leave in the hands of politicians

identity politics is not simple or fixed

We are losing the emphasis on multiplicity.

What some of us think of as intersectionality, Shafak calls multiplicity. She reminds us that the white, male Walt Whitman penned, “I contain multitudes”. She asks us to recall the intersectionality of Audre Lorde, black, lesbian, civil rights activist, feminist, poet.

You can be passionate about helping to right injustice without choosing one identity. (p.s. No one has a single identity.)

There is no single issue that will right the world.

We don’t have to choose one cause, one tribe. Take the women’s movement. Feminism must evolve beyond white straight middle-class women; it must also evolve beyond women and move into what masculinity means.

When some men hear the term patriarchy, many don’t understand and some are offended as they don’t see themselves as complicit, just simply born male. Shafak offers that patriarchal systems are not something most men have decided to “do” to women. Talking down to men does nothing but create another reason to blame or vilify that tribe.

We must listen to each other’s experience.

Using patriarchy as an example, remember we are all part of the systems in which we live. Patriarchy is a system that constrains all of us. For example, many boys grow up thinking it is their duty to commit honor killings, belief systems supported and enforced by their mothers.

And why do we say that it’s natural for women to have babies? Shafak implores us to ask these questions, and include all gender identities and expressions, together.

Begin with two Ls: language and listening.

Don’t go out and try to explain “it” to people. No one knows all the answers. Shafak believes that the tribalist movement we are now experiencing is only the beginning. It is a problem. History can go backwards. We need to pay attention. Democracies can die.

Choose to question, not indict. Remember to listen more than move your lips.

Members of democracies have rights AND duties.

We overemphasize rights. Democracy is a delicate ecosystem. In order to afford rights, we need to understand and enact our duties. Duties to pay attention, become more engaged, to tune in to what others are saying.

That includes becoming politically aware. Especially if we don’t like what we are hearing. Venturing outside of our tribes for better understanding (not necessarily agreeing with or accepting) what others need or want. I have rights but so does everybody else. It’s my duty to help protect everyone’s rights.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Too much exclusive emphasis on data.

Data does not describe culture. Storytelling is the way to understand a culture’s multiplicity. Binary systems/positions is how tribalism starts. Are you pro open-borders or building walls and ceilings to keep everyone out?

Of course that’s a ridiculous notion. We have more choices. We can take more than one of two roads.

Also, we can glean some recent lessons from the tech world. Just a few years ago, the biggest optimists were tech folks. The middle east was going to become one big democracy (e.g., Arab Spring).

But we forgot to see technology’s dark side. Equal voices as envisioned? No. We now have more racist, nationalistic, and sexist tripe online. And these voices are louder, more profitable than ever.

Information is not knowledge is not wisdom.

Shafak believes we use these three terms interchangeably; but information, knowledge, and wisdom are quite different. The more information we have about a subject, sometimes the less we actually know.

Knowledge requires us to slow down, look deeply and analytically. Data helps point us in certain directions, but knowledge fills out the map.

Wisdom goes a step further, combining knowledge with emotional intelligence, embracing stories that aren’t ours, and taking action that makes sense for an inclusive collective identity that never attempts to erase individuality. She reminds us:

Authoritarian regimes require a collective identity that erases individuality.

How can we encourage more wisdom? Keep in mind that we’ve fetishized data and information. But we can explore more angles, become more willing to listen to other views, and reshape policies and practices with knowledge, heart and emotions.

Like New Zealand’s prime minister whose reaction to Christ’s Church terrorist attacks was, according to Shafak, the embodiment of wisdom. She became knowledgeable, did deep work to understand, and responded with both head and heart.

“She didn’t have to prove how tough she was.” Contrary to what we are taught, emotions are not a sign of weakness. They make us better humans.

Don’t be afraid to look back.

People who have survived atrocities don’t tend to talk about evil. They know that really bad things happen when numbness sets in, when the populace is desensitized.

We need our full humanity to get to wisdom. To channel these in constructive ways for change. Before we members of our exclusive tribes turn on one another.

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