Ever wondered why politics and religion divide more people than they unite? Most of the discussions involving these subjects that I’ve been a part of have ended bitterly, often ruining personal relationships or leading to really awkward confrontations. Why does it happen? What drives us to uphold our ideas and defend our leanings and go great lengths to protect them?
Our discourse is based on the idea that people slot or identify themselves in different parts of a spectrum. Like the Left and the Right which are the extremes in the spectrum of political ideology. The engagement is then based on certain assumptions — conscious, subtle, wrong, right, of all kinds. The idea of a debate is to find a middle ground, a place in the spectrum where both sides feel is sufficient climb down but still retain their original shade. In an idea world, social media should help us explore the different shades and test our ability to climb down and find that sweet spot. But, given the nature of the medium — of being rewarding for being quick and interactive — it is increasingly difficult for people to see, let alone embrace, the other shades.
For most of us, the need for instant gratification dictates our actions on social media. As a result, our ability to see the different shades in the spectrum — or tolerance — has reduced considerably. The first step to addressing the issue is to understand how our brains work.
Always ask why, not what
And, to understand that, we need to ask questions, in terms of whys.
Why did you get angry yesterday? Why did you decide to do a certain thing? Why are you passionate about a certain political party? Why am I writing this? Why are you reading this?
As you can see, a psychologist deals in terms of whys and not the whats. It helps us see beyond the action, be more understanding of ‘their world’. Yes, everyone has their own world. The key to understanding politics/religion/ or any abstraction is to understand the other person’s world. People will do anything to protect their world of ideas and interpretations of the things around them.
Social media fights
I’m sure you’ve been a part of discussions (fights, too!) on social media. Can you remember what prompted you to enter the conversation?
1. You either genuinely believed that you could explain the situation better, or
2. You wanted to add another valid point to it, or
3. You believed you needed to correct a wrong/false/wrongly understood/misinterpreted statement, or
4. You were plainly angry or happy seeing the post.
Let’s go through these situations and see the how our minds work.
You believe you can explain better? How? You can explain. Sure. But how did you come to know it’s better than the other person’s? Let’s assume you have been exposed to the information before or an expert on the subject and that has shaped your views on the subject. That makes the difference, isn’t it? Shaping. You have been shaped — or, your views have been shaped — in a certain way. Likewise, the other person’s views are shaped by another set of environmental factors.
The idea here is to understand that both parties truly believe that they have the better opinion. It always comes down to your better vs. my better. The better of your world vs. the better of my world. Your ideas vs. my ideas. Now, which is better?
By now you should realise that complexity increases with the amount of adjectives being used. Because my better is based on what I’ve experienced. And, my definition of beautiful, helpful, ugly, bright, loud, toxic, good, bad, useful, wealthy, so on, are based on my environment and a host of other factors. Each of the adjectives evokes an image or an idea and we see the world through them. Our realities, therefore, are made up by us. My good and bad are bound to be different from yours.
Now, go through the adjectives that I had marked in the lists.
Do you see a pattern?
Everything that we believe in or see is a matter of perception. It is relative. When two ideas collide, they need to look the whys — the process of understanding what made a particular adjective attain a certain color? And, on why the same adjective manifests in different colors at the same time. This process of understanding the different shades of colors is a debate. It will help us find the middle ground, or the right shade in the spectrum without being bothered about our original shade. The more we do that, the less acerbic and more inclusive we become.
Further, we will realise that each adjective is merely a place in a spectrum. And, opposites need each other or define each other. This phenomenon is beautifully explained by this verse in the Tao te Ching:
Under Heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast with each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonise each other;
Front and back follow one another.
Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no talking.
The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,
Creating, yet not possessing,
Working, yet not taking credit,
Work is done, then forgotten.
Therefore it lasts for ever.