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2011 Zuccotti Park, David Shankbone

The better we understand together, the smarter we are. We’re facing a “Tragedy of the Commons” right now, and it stands to impact everything we do moving forward.

The Tragedy of the Commons moment we face today is not only about cattle, as it was in 1833 when the term was first introduced. If you are not familiar, it looked at the needs of the individual cattle farmer weighed with the needs of the community on public land. It is also not only about nuclear war, as when Hardin reintroduced the term in the 1970’s. Now it is about our commons of public discourse.

Fundamental to who we are, as humans, is our ability to interact and solve problems together. Like you, perhaps, I’ve been completely shaken by our increasing failure to do this. I have been shocked by the terrible opinions and statements some of my friends have made on the internet. I’ve been dispirited by how whole swathes of people in groups across the world seem to think and make sense of our present situation.

So, are people getting more evil and dumb? I trust the people who think differently than me in their sincerity. They think they are right. I do too. That might be part of the problem. Such is the nature of the types of complex problems we face that one person cannot have the whole answer anymore. If you are sure you are right, you probably only have a partial read of the issue. I can read and learn for the rest of my life and not get to the end of the factors that impact on social justice. You and I do not have the evolved capacity to know the whole truth about global warming, or the coronavirus. Anyone making definitive statements about how schools should be open or closed has erred on the side of simplicity.

What do we do about this? The better our discourse, the more we can make realistic assessments, and the smarter our decisions. It is becoming ever-more important to have skills in these areas, and to develop facilitation capability as a separate skill for collaboration.

We seem to be moving in the other direction, though. Rather than moving towards discourse, we are moving apart.

Here’s an exercise. When there are groups of people that you see as “the problem,” and that you see as stupid or bad, before you ignore them or attack them, try this: Take up their point of view. Instead of unfriending them, or “cancelling” them, ask them for a conversation offline. Read what they are reading, ask them for more information. Don’t just do it once, but give it a day, or a week.

No one is perfect enough to be entirely wrong. At a simple level, a liberal-minded person will see a poor person and say, “Society has let you down.” A conservative-minded person will see a poor person and say, “You have let yourself down.” Both groups have a valid perspective.

When we argue only our point of view, particularly in the amplified voices we have on social media, we do this “double down” version of public discourse. We don’t actually talk, but we do warfare for our side of the argument. We lose the potential for human understanding, and we lose trust for people we cannot afford to live without. In a very important way, as any of you who have argued on Facebook will know, we lose our minds.

Facebook and other social platforms only show me what I want to see. If you’ve seen “The Social Dilemma” you will have a sense of the detail with which your preferences have been mined. The Artificial Intelligence system that runs Facebook knows and determines what people see. So, my right-wing friend does not see the news stories about people being beaten by the police, but instead sees stories about rioters attacking police.

When we discuss this, we have to realise we may have been coming from different versions of the story. I have to remember that my relative in conservative rural America does not see the dangers of untested COVID treatments. Instead she sees stories about how the media shuts out stories about alternative treatments. We are both left scratching our heads, wondering how the other could be so stupid not to see what we see.

Those are our online “tribes.” We are kept apart by algorithms, and our realities grow farther and farther apart as we are channelled by A.I. Every time we engage in arguments using memes and slogans we are engaging in memetic warfare. To engage in social media is making this problem worse.

If you are in a disagreement, and think that you…

— are sure of your position,

— think you have all the facts,

— and because of your surety, you think the other person is evil, ignorant or painfully deluded for their position…

…if this is your situation, then you have swallowed a belief system and you are not thinking fully for yourself. Importantly, if this is you, then you think you are just being reasonable. Question that. Don’t be quick to block or drop friends whose ideas offend you.

If this is not your position, you are likely to be curious about what leads others to think in this other way. What are you missing? Perhaps you have further to learn? Yesterday I watched a video of far-right ex-military who are itching for civil unrest following the US election. As much as it troubled me, I watched the hour-long discussion to try see what they see. I can say, now, that I have learned why they think as they do. I can see the logic in their positions. I don’t agree with them. I think they have a dangerous agenda, and will do what I can to block it, but I am not ignorant of their sense-making. That’s important.

The prevalence of social media and the complexity of the our lives means it is more important than ever that we look at how we communicate. When the internet was young, we hoped it would connect us all, and level the playing field. Like the buckets of water in the sorcerer’s apprentice, it has overflowed and flooded our lives, not only in volume, but in its impact. In this playing flood of information we are acting with old tribal and simplistic models of communication. It is time for us to become wise.

Written by

I’m a teacher in the Diamond Sangha Zen tradition. I speak and write about learning and attention, and I coach and facilitate in private practice.

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