Binary days

There was a time, not so very long ago, when we watched in consternation the way in which citizens in China and the Soviet Union, along with other totalitarian countries, consumed state-generated propaganda, wondering, "What must they be thinking?"

How could an entirely different belief system prevail simply because of information being witheld and misinformation being fed?

We know that we, too, have been duped at times about the reality here at home, but we also saw that mainstream media, over time, could show the darker truths about the Vietnam War, about the civil rights struggle in the American South, about Nixon in the Watergate era. There was choice and freedom to choose.

Now that the choices have seemigly proliferated, which reality do we choose? The seeming disconnect between conflicting versions of reality prevails, both as a cause and effect of growing polarization that's taken hold not only on our political system, but in society. What had been described just a few years ago as a "culture war" between urban and rural America has been ratched down in the ways "red" and "blue" America interpret almost every aspect of daily life.

Or so we're told.

I've taken in part in "bridging" efforts aiming to narrow the chasm, where well-meaning people have worked to get out from under the labels imposed upon them by media that have defined the political landscape as stark polarities, by the baiting of politicians like Donald Trump who deliberately seek to bait us with perjoratives.

By falling for oversimplified criticisms voters for their choices, blaming people for the positions they've taken, and simplistic categorizing and stereotyping of people as monolithic groups without accounting for gradations, subcategories or any recognition of underlying complexities,we've done a disservice not only to our fellow humans, but to our own notion of the multi-dimensional nature of reality.

The binary thinking that's come to dominate almost every aspect of modern life, as nuance and subtlety get steamrollered in a rush to oversimplification, has reduced our thinking to the level of soundbites. Many in this society seem no longer curious about or patient with one another.

We tweet rather than explain, we rush to assign everyone to one pole or the other, devoid of context.

One eastern Kentuckyan, after multiple in-depth conversations with a Massachusetts delegation aiming to understand cultural differences between them, concluded, “If we’re going to make the world different, where we recognize that we’ve been divided, where we set out to defeat the culture wars, where these sides no longer exist, the work has got to be done in a whole lot of different ways, where we don’t see each other as enemies.”

Another participant of the cross-cultural dialogue, from Massachusetts, concluded, “We didn’t step on their story. We understood that this was their story, their way of thinking, and people wanted to own their story. They wanted us to see their resilience, which we did, their hospitality, their dignity and their strength." ... We should “not let the media and politics divide us in such profound ways and create enemies of us. We’re living in a moment when we feel trampled upon by history.”

AND YET these attempts at reaching out to see where we do come together, part of a painstaking effort that took days to build trust and foster genuine curiosity about the reality of "the other," don't take place in a vacuum.

We're surrounded by attack messages every day that tell us to distrust one another's motives, hostile voices that try to reaffix labels, and work at reducing complex realities to black/white, left/right, good/evil labels. It's deliberate binary thinking that erases any notion of seeking common understanding or truly knowing our neighbors and what underlies their belief systems. It eradicates any possibility of compromise, or even deeper understanding.

Ultimately, it reduces our humanity. We become algorithms and pawns of unseen manipulators.

"We have met the enemy," said Pogo. "And it is us."

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