The Commonplace #9

Let us consider new stories of ourselves and this moment. Stories of coming together, of seeing new ways to be and do. Even stories from the other side, of the people with which we disagree. We are all shaped by story, afloat in the waters of narrative. Stories have shaped how we see ourselves and others, our identity and perspectives. Stories can limit, but also broaden….

  • END RACISM NOW. Here in Roanoke, Virginia, artists and volunteers came together and worked with the city to paint these letters as an enormous mural on the street, in the middle of a major thoroughfare adjacent to the municipal building. Each letter was designed by a different artist, who incorporated their own creative approach. Here it is:
  • The mural painting event transpired peacefully, and relatively smoothly under a baking hot July sun. We learned about a lone counter-protester, who parked his car nearby and blared his stereo. An event organizer approached him, sharing that this event and the mural were about peace and ending racism, inquiring as to what exactly the man in the care was protesting against? The conversation was pleasant and they exchanged contact information. No views were changed, I suspect, but there is something heartening about courteous encounter.
  • Indeed, we may hold more positions in common than we realize. Yes, we are divided. There are bitter divisions. But we remain about as split on specific issues as we have been in the past. Our condition seems rather one of “social polarization”, marked by increased levels of partisan bias, activism, and anger. Many people now more strongly associate their own identities with their partisan affiliations, “… even though issue positions have not undergone the same degree of polarization. The result is a nation that agrees on many things but is bitterly divided nonetheless.”
  • This social polarization threatens not only our civic health but our physical health and safety as well. Polls have confirmed that people’s views on the pandemic, and on safety measures such as masking and social distancing, relate to their political views and affiliations.
  • So, do we just need more courtesy as well as more capacity for empathy, more concern and care? Yes AND no it turns out.
  • Writing for Fast Company, Robin Wright asked if part of the problem is that we are caring for each other TOO much. Empathy, it appears, is not so straightforward. Wright shares a study published in the American Political Science Review finding that “…empathic concern does not reduce partisan animosity in the electorate and in some respects even exacerbates it.”
  • The downside of empathy is that having high-empathy for in-group members (those we associate and identify with) can also cause us to have lower empathy for outgroup members. Scott Barry Kauffman in the Scientific American, explores the challenges of empathy, concluding that the findings here are not all negative and that,

“what we need is a stronger motivation for outgroup empathic care. The best way for that to happen, in my view, is not by decreasing one’s general disposition toward caring for the suffering of others, but by increasing one’s contact with members of the outgroup and focusing on common experiences and concerns that we all share.”

  • So, how does this relate to story? Kauffman continued, by suggesting that,

“the only way out of this mess is to not treat political affiliation as a zero-sum game. That requires seeking out stories of suffering from as many different walks of life as possible.”

  • Our current crises can exacerbate some of the difficulties of connecting and some of the negative implications of empathy and identification. Writing for The Guardian in 2017, John A. Powell described that, “When societies experience big and rapid change, a frequent response is for people to narrowly define who qualifies as a full member of society – a process I call ‘Othering’.”
  • Powell writes that “othering” concerns assumptions about groups that pose a threat to a member group, an “in-group”. Our media consumption, partisan ideologies, and social media feeds can contribute to our own individualized bubbles, where the stories we hear reinforce our fears and concerns about “others”. Other groups, other people, other issues.
  • “Othering” stories are also over-simplified narratives. In times of crisis and complexity, we look for ways to reduce that complexity. Sometimes that is useful. But we need to recognize and seek out the complexities, ambiguities and nuances. These stories are less neat, but more substance. We need to gather and share, savor and spread bridge-building, bubble-piercing stories of hope and healing.