I have a secret indulgence: I like to lay in bed in the morning and read email and blog posts on my phone. So Friday morning, while indulging, I discovered that the internet had blown up overnight about a dress. Specifically, what color the dress was. Was it white or was it blue?
“Huh. Crazy internet,” I thought. “Clearly the dress is white.”
When I got up, I showed the photo to my man. “What color is this dress?” I asked.
“Its blue,” he said.
“That’s so weird,” I said. I read him the article I’d found about how the difference in perception was due to how our eyes receive color and how our brain analyses that information. And then we continued with our morning.
Later in the day, I scrolled through Facebook again and noticed that the debate was still raging, but what struck me most was how angry people were getting in defense of what color they believed the dress to be.
I saw people being dismissive of people who saw the dress in other colors than they did. I saw someone say it made her feel angry when someone told her they saw other colors than she did. Some thought it was a joke or a hoax, and others started to doubt their own eyesight.
The heat and volume of the discussion reminded me immediately of other topics that have recently been debated in the media (both social or traditional):
- gay marriage
- capitol punishment
- The Affordable Care Act
- whether “free speech” applies to religious satire or not
- home birth vs. hospital birth
- breastfeeding vs. formula feeding
- Democratic vs. Republican ideology
Some of these positions are backed up by evidence, and then we argue about whether the evidence is valid or not.
Quickly, the arguments wind themselves into name calling and finger pointing and mean words. A few stand on the sidelines and wonder, “Can’t we all just get along?”
It appears we can’t.
“We live in polarizing times,” my black-dress-seeing man said, when I told him about my observation on the dress debate. It is as if we say, “If you aren’t with me, you’re against me,” instead of “We can’t agree on everything, so let’s have lunch.” Even our politicians are so dug in to their opposite positions that it is becoming hard to pass a law or a budget in our Senate or our House, either.
Is it because we are afraid to be wrong? Afraid of what it might mean to be wrong? Is it because we are afraid of what it might mean for other views we hold tightly if the other person is right?
Two articles published in last summer, one in the Atlantic, and one in The Washington Post, discuss the results of a Pew study that showed that political polarization in the US is rapidly increasing and becoming more and more deeply embedded in our society. In a nutshell, the study showed that higher education makes liberals more liberal and conservatives more conservative. We tend to marry and live near people who hold similar views to our own, and people with social and geographic mobility (which increases with higher education), tend to move to and live near other people who think like they do.
But the good news, The Atlantic article says, is that we have the ability to overcome our polarization. How do we do that?
What if we approached divisive topics with curiosity, rather than anger? What if we actively tried to put ourselves in the shoes of people on the other side of the argument? Wouldn’t that change the conversation entirely?
Instead of “It’s blue and brown. Period. Next?” ask, “I wonder why we each see different colors? What would cause that?”
Instead of dismissing the opinion of someone who votes a different party line, ask, “What top three issues would you like your elected representative to vote on, and why?”
Instead of spouting an opinion over where birth should happen and how, ask, “What was the most magical part of your birth experience?”
Wouldn’t those questions lead to a much more interesting, connecting conversation? It would take courage. It would take a willingness to see outside of your opinion, and accept that your might might be changed. Or that you will be thrown out of certainty into doubt. But how much could we gain from connecting rather than dividing?
What if instead of assuming there is only black (or blue) and white, we actively look for the grey?
Is there one topic that you feel strongly polarized about? What is it?