In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, we’re getting a real-time demonstration of the how division is fuelled at the expense of progress in contemporary western society. With huge numbers coming out in protest, the news cycle predominantly focusses on rioting and looting, the most explosive and controversial parts of the picture. Battles rage in the comments sections, where one liners and hashtags carry more weight than considered thought. Alienating ideologies flood the public conversation and retribution takes centre stage.
The environment of constant controversy and censoriousness appeals to our most basic instincts — our tendency to adopt a blinkered view, close out the nuance and form opinions based on simple snapshots. Those to the right have a tendency to zone in on the violence, theft and wanton recklessness and recoil in anger. Those on the left have a tendency to see heavy handed police reactions against peaceful protesters and recoil in a similar way. One side closes off any consideration of peaceful protest and leaps to a condemnation of the entire movement. Others allow anger to become justification for anything, no matter how savage or harmful. When we allow our first look to shape our opinions on the entire movement, we’re pushed into binary positions with no room for nuance — we reduce ourselves from human to animal, complex to basic. We become fools.
As a result, we play into the hands of those misguided souls out there taking advantage of unrest to sow more discord. When we focus on the fringes and ignore the nuanced middle ground, those that profit from division, or simply don’t have the moral fortitude to overcome their tribal nature, see their tactics working. Ironically, those that are so outraged by their narrow focus on anarchist thuggery, are playing into the hands of the very movements they decry. And those that lose control in reaction to tribal provocation, surrender themselves to the will of the provocateur.
When evil thrives in calm, give it chaos and when it thrives in chaos, give it calm.
If the news media doesn’t have the space or incentive to promote positive stories or show the entire picture, we have to go in search of it and share it ourselves. There are countless examples out there of people coming together, despite their differences, to promote tolerance and an end to discrimination and hatred. Huge numbers are out there leading by example, combatting hatred with restraint, without diminishing the power and passion of the message. We need to celebrate these stories, learn from them and upgrade our understanding from an oversimplified reaction to a nuanced opinion. And we have to help those around us do the same.
If you find yourself being pushed and agitated toward a simplified, binary position, perhaps by your political identity group or a flood of biased sentiment in news media, social media or among friends and family, resist. See the entire picture, make a conscious effort to see from another perspective and look for the humanity in every situation and action.
Take to google and find the video of Sherriff Chris Swanson taking off his riot gear and walking with protestors. Hear the measured speech of a Stockton resident speaking compassionately with police. Consider the importance of a quote like “His uniform doesn’t make him a robot. Just like the colour of your skin doesn’t make you a criminal”. Watch protestors standing in the way of looters and thwarting vandals in several cities and police joining protesters in taking a knee and observing silences.
It’s easy to caricature the other, to dehumanise individuals, groups and movements that we don’t instinctively identify with. It’s easy to identify the enemy and leap to condemnation without consideration. It’s in our nature to defend and deflect but this struggle will only be overcome through compassion and dialogue across the spectrum.
Each and every one of us has the ability to overcome our shortcomings. Be hard on yourself, hold yourself to a high standard and refuse to take the blinkered view. And at the same time, be tolerant of others, allow them the room to be human.
“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself” Marcus Aurelius
Tolerance dies in obscurity whilst we continue to fan the flames of ignorance and tribalism. That fire has been burning for too long, it’s time we put it out.