Maintaining Cautious Optimism in Times of “Us vs Them” Thinking
The news is hard to read these days. There seems to be an increase in polarized thinking and intolerance of people perceived as different. The person who went on a shooting spree in an LGBTQ dance club in Orlando was driven, in part, by (possibly internalized) homophobia. The mainstream response to the shooting and to bombings in Europe has contributed to increased violence and Islamophobia in Europe and North America. The small majority of British citizens who voted to withdraw from the European Union were partly motivated by the perceived need to stem the flow of immigrants coming to “steal” British jobs. Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for US President, because of his open hatred of pretty much anyone who could be labeled as taking resources and rights away from “Real Americans.”
This hatred is fuelled by real issues of economic and social inequality, but people’s anger and especially fear is being displaced onto groups of people perceived as being different or “other,” who can be blamed for people feeling powerless. This division into “Us vs Them” is not accidental. It serves the interests of people in power by diverting attention away from the complex causes of people’s situations. It is further reproduced, simplified, and sensationalized by media that is focused on stories that make and maintain money. In all of these situations, people have taken actions that go against their own interests and wellbeing out of hatred for people who have been labeled as outsiders.
I’ve been reflecting lately on how the increase of “Us vs. Them” thinking is impacting how we approach conflict in our immediate context, whether that be with people we care about, or people we don’t know.
We all experience polarized thinking
When our thinking is polarized, we think of opposites as being the only possible reality (“Us vs Them,” “Good vs. Evil,” “Wrong vs. Right”). We close our minds to the possibility that things could be more complex, or that there could be options in the middle. This often happens in conflict, or when we feel threatened.
As Bernie Mayer explains in his book, The Conflict Paradox: Seven Dilemmas at the Core of Disputes,
“We are more likely to resort to dualistic thinking when we are upset, angry, or scared; when we have a long history of negative interactions with those we are in conflict with (or impute such a history by stereotyping); when we are protecting our sense of who we are; when we believe we are defending others we care about very deeply; and when our ability to communicate with others is limited.” (2015, p.23)
In other words, the higher the stakes, the more we are impacted by a situation, and the more negative ideas we have about the people we are in conflict with, the more likely we are to feel that we are right, and anyone who disagrees with us – or is different from us – is wrong. This is a very common response. It’s actually a natural part of our ingrained response to danger (for a neurological explanation of this check out this article).
But things are rarely how we perceive them
A couple weeks ago, I was biking to a meeting, and another biker cut in front of me in a way that felt dangerously close. My heart rate skyrocketed, and my immediate response was to feel fear and then annoyance. He looked athletic, and was wearing a Blue Jays cap and a basketball shirt. My fear and anger led directly to the mostly unconscious thought, “He’s just some jock who doesn’t care about how he affects other people.” I then noticed he was wearing a pink pin on his backpack. I moved forward to read it, and it said, “Consent is Sexy.” I was surprised, and slightly embarrassed. I felt much warmer toward him, and quickly forgot I’d been upset about him cutting me off. I also appreciated that he made me question my assumptions.
To give you some context, in my other job I work with people who are feeling guilt and anxiety about sexual experiences that didn’t feel good, or that they regretted. I have also been impacted by recent news reports about colleges and universities in North America facing challenges to their lack of response to complaints of sexual assault, especially when the complaints are against star athletes on the school’s sports teams. Looking back, I realize that I was actually putting my anger and fear about a social issue that feels out of my control onto this person on the bike who looked like my stereotype of a college athlete. In reality, I know plenty of sporty men who care deeply about having consensual relationships, but in that moment of fear, my polarized thinking was activated, and I couldn’t immediately access that knowledge.
So what does this mean for how we interact with each other?
We all make the kinds of assumptions I made about the biker. I’ve never met anyone, no matter how wise and self-reflective, who doesn’t sometimes get stuck in polarized thinking. I am lucky, because my career forces me to question my assumptions when I notice them, to see people as complex, to expect people to surprise me, and to seek out the underlying concerns, needs, values, and feelings that often drive people’s actions and ways of being. Most people don’t have that constant pressure. That being said, I am only able to do this work, because I was motivated to look for complexities and systemic causes, and because I make an effort to practice it a lot. It does become easier with practice. Here are a few suggestions:
Go out and meet people who aren’t like you, and who you might disagree with. Ask them about themselves, and try to really listen to understand what’s driving their perspective. That doesn’t mean you have to agree. In fact, it may give you insight that can help to encourage them to understand your perspective as well.
Get to know yourself on a deeper level. What fears, hopes, expectations, or beliefs might underlie any assumptions you are making about other people? Are there ways in which you blame individuals for larger social issues that feel too big to tackle? There are many ways to do this self-reflection. Some people write. Others talk with a spiritual guide or therapist. Some find ways to listen to what their body is telling them about what’s going on under the judgment. I personally have found that the two tools that help me most are meditation and having challenging conversations with people I care about.
Seek out and talk about exceptions to the negative news, as much as you seek out the negatives. Read books and watch movies that give you a broader perspective. This doesn’t mean pretending everything is great. Just try to notice when people do things that surprise you, or that go against expectations. There is always more than one story in any situation.
In my experience, there are huge benefits to doing this work.
First, when we become less judgmental, our relationships improve. We have less conflict, more understanding, and deeper connection to people in our lives. I have found that as I continue to challenge my “Right vs Wrong” thinking, people notice and feel a little bit safer to do the same with me.
Second, accepting that people don’t fit into easy categories, and becoming curious about who they really are opens us up to new experiences, and new connections that can enrich and expand our lives.
Finally, and I think most importantly, if we can let go of the belief that people are “Good or Evil” or “With Us or Against Us,” then there is room for optimism to grow. I am talking about a cautious and realistic optimism that it is possible to have different relationships, slowly, with lots of work, but on a societal and global scale, as well as on a personal scale. Mayer (2015) explains that learning to approach a conflict with realistic optimism can create a “magic connection between the energy and courage that optimism provides, and the wisdom and balance realism offers” (p.81).