Understanding the Other

As we observe the social and political climate of the United States we can see that our polarization of ideals and paradigms of thought are growing. Recent events such as the Republican party’s failure to unify under a common purpose of healthcare reform demonstrates that our elected officials are also experiencing this divide, bringing into question their ability to effectively govern the populace. Conversations and readings regarding the topic of polarization have led me to conclude that one of the underlying causes for this issue lies within our inability to understand opposing points of view. Instead of trying to explore and understand these view points we safeguard our own beliefs by surrounding ourselves with those of similar perspectives creating confirmation bias. For our collective progress and prosperity it would be valuable to examine the differences within these perspectives to help better understand one another in the hopes of creating a more collaborative approach in addressing issues. I propose that the first step in a strategic approach to solving this challenge is one of individual introspection based on a universal commonality that we all share; that each of us holds a unique perspective about reality that is the result of the summation our own unique experiences. I argue that as progressives we should consider this when dealing those with differing opinions about our political process. I will outline the case supporting my claim, first observing the scientific evidence that supports it, then discussing possibilities of what this means for the individual who accepts it as true, and finally what this truth could mean for the current social/political challenges we are facing today.

Just the facts

The concept that we are the sum of our experiences may seem abstract; however there is scientific evidence to support the claim. When we learn new things the neurons in our brains form connections with one another that acquire and store the information we are receiving, this is referred to development plasticity. Through modern neuroscience we can identify neural connections in the brain formed by observation and learned behavior. These connections build upon themselves as more experiences occur within the same realm of focus. We know that these neural connections are forming at their most accelerated rate during early childhood development where our most basic and fundamental observations and impressions of the world we live in occur. We also know that these connections continue to form throughout our entire life. This would explain why many of us retain preferences and preconceptions from our childhood, especially if these beliefs were reinforced by our environmental structures. It also helps us to understand why there can be so much variation in the human personality when it comes to preferences, opinions, and paradigms of thought. Every moment we experience is reinforcing or making new connections in our brain, further strengthening or weakening existing understandings of the world we experience.

Our conscious experience and physical limitations such as occupying space and time do not allow us to share identical perspectives of the same moment as any other person. The reality of the human condition is that we all share the experience from the perspective of “I” or the Self, therefore it is logical to conclude that each individual has a unique set of experiences that compound to form our perspective and provide us with our own identity.

This intersects with our current political discourse in a number of factors. Most recently we can observe a rise in white identity in politics and Trump supporters demonstrating that the shared identities and experiences of these individuals have coalesced into a movement that has influenced a minimum of 35% of the current US population. So why is it that this section of our collective of individuals have united under the banner of Trump? Well there are numerous correlations that many of these voters share such as higher levels of illness, higher rates of drug abuse and suicide, and both higher incomes and lower education levels than non-supporters. Democratic voters also have a large block of correlations based on shared experiences such as living in high density areas, significantly higher diversity, and a growing tend of not being religious. It is important to note that correlation does not equal causation; however these statistics help us to gain a better idea of shared experiences of these individuals and their perception of reality.

In March of 2016 the Pew Research Center published an article stating,

Overall, 46% of registered voters say that life in America today is worse than it was 50 years ago “for people like them,” while 34% say life is better and 14% think it is about the same. Republican and Republican-leaning voters are more than twice as likely as Democratic voters to say life in this country has gotten worse over the past half-century for people like them (66% to 28%). (emphasis added)

What is clear is that while both sides have statistically relevant commonalities in the experiences they share with their peers, Republican voters are becoming increasingly discontent with their life experiences. If we ponder their experiences this statistic becomes clearer as those living in demographically Republican regions are the people most hurt by changes in clean energy tech and globalization such as the shift from fossil fuels (coal) to clean energy and the outsourcing of low skilled wage labor. Without first acknowledging and accepting the reality that these individuals are experiencing there will be a tremendous challenge in changing their perspective to support a more abundant, prosperous, and inclusive society.

Introspection and Empathy

If we assume the above conclusions are true we can begin to explore what being the sum of your experiences means to both the individual “I” and the collective we. Before we can truly understand the motives of an individual outside of our realm of perspective we need to first look within for a better understanding of ourselves and how our compounded experiences shape the way we think and act. Introspection is the act of self-reflection, examining your own thoughts, feelings, and actions. By practicing introspection we can better understand the deep connections that our experiences form in our perceptions of our shared reality.

There is no single correct way to be introspective and a Google search will provide you thousands of options to choose from; however I would recommend beginning on our own with a simple question, “Why?” Why did I do this? Why did this event happen? Why do I feel this way? These questions have neither correct nor incorrect answers and as you age they may change as your understanding of yourself grows. To be clear the purpose of introspection is not to be critical, but exploratory. Introspection is a game of connect the dots — how was this experience influenced by previous experiences? You may find that many of your memories are tied to a specific emotion or feeling and some of the truths you discover about yourself may not feel good, but the first step for growth is to clearly understand the problems. Aside from time to think I would also strongly recommend the practice of meditation. Meditation has proven and documented benefits that span across a wide range of the human experience. Personally speaking I have seen significant benefits from meditation both in my personal and professional life. It takes only takes 10 minutes a day to start and there are plenty of free guided meditation websites available to you. As with any shift of the human consciousness it begins with the individual.

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him… We need not wait to see what others do. — Ghandi

With a sincere understanding of oneself comes a renewed sense of understanding and empathy for others, allowing us to approach our challenge from a new paradigm of thought. If we understand how significant our experiences are in shaping our current way of thinking and we agree that it is not possible for individuals to have identical experiences. We can then apply the same logic to our “opposition”. For example we can consider schools of thought within the current political spectrum that are sharply divided — the far right and the far left. This conflict of ideas is full of vitriol from both sides that struggle to focus on common challenges, creating further division between one another through opposing narratives. For example, people living in the central United States may be exposed to less diversity then someone living in a major metropolitan coastal city therefore impacting their views on socioeconomic and cultural issues. These differences in experience compound dramatically over time forming a narrative that may seem foreign and at times offensive to those with a different set of observations. While I attempt to persuade understanding and collaboration it should be noted that certain approaches to thought such as discriminatory practices that negatively impact another person’s ability to pursue happiness and opportunity should not be considered nor accepted by our collective whole. Other than those extreme examples we should keep in mind that the perspective of a person that is hearing is technically believed to be true by the speaker with the same fervency as the opposing viewpoint from other “side”. It is important of emphasize that believing something to be true does not make it so.

What I am proposing is that the opposing perspective is very real based on their experiences. If someone has experienced a narrative that is false, then that will be their reality. At its core many citizens feel as though they lack agency, or control of their destiny. This feeling and fear The search for truth is a fundamental pillar of human consciousness and shapes our reality which is why we should recognize that although there is usually a single truth, in many instances the perception of truth can be just as enticing. As evidenced by our recent election, the suffering of some of us can influence all of us. Perhaps that is the fault of the modern progressives for not listening to members of our collective community as well as we should have. Although we are collective we are a collective of individuals and our individuality is what makes our whole great.

When individuals recognize and empathize that each of our perceptions of reality are directly influenced by our experiences and observations we can begin to focus on how to collaboratively improve future experiences for all. Empathy will allow us to better understand and connect with one another to create mutually beneficial solutions.

Proposing Solutions

Reflecting on current events can certainly cast doubt on our ability to unify together within any imaginable time frame however I would propose that we are closer to this inevitability than we ever have been before in human history. The first step to a more collaborative society would be to set a clear intention for all involved, an example could be “To build a world of abundance and opportunity where every individual has access to the resources and opportunity needed to build a meaningful and purpose fueled life, however they define it.” If the we collectively agree that all individuals will choose to strive for our constructed social ideals we can begin to outline major focuses to address the pain points of the majority of individuals in the US. Changing social norms and thought processes relies on demonstrating a clear benefit of thinking and acting upon one set ideals over another. Therefore an inclusive approach with a focus on the socioeconomic issues of our disenfranchised is necessary to be successful.

Three possible examples of challenges faced by a majority of Americans in the US would be economic stability/freedom, environmental concerns, and health and well being. Collectively identifying and agreeing upon these (or other) focal points could concentrate our collective focus and efforts and allow new solutions to be designed using modern technologies and means. By shifting of focus from a competitive social structure to a collaborative social structure we can exponentially multiply our efforts and recognize levels of progress and prosperity for our citizens unlike anything currently experienced.

One of the most common critiques of this paradigm of thought is it is too Utopian and that it is not aligned with the representative democracy we exist in or represent. I find this dogmatic idealization of our governmental structure lacking in fundamental understanding of exactly what our democracy is. The US system of governance is similar to other systems of governance in that it is a technology/tool designed to help us navigate the experience of life. It is hard to compare it to a consumer product but it is not that different in that when your consuming base (in the case of government the citizens) needs change the technology must adapt to meet those needs. Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished them, in their natural course, with those whose will gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19. years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.”

Eventually the founding fathers settled on Constitutional Amendments to change our governing principals but the message resonates true — perhaps we need to fundamentally reconsider some of institutional norms to better adapt to our age of exponential technological growth.

The only thing preventing us from forming a more collaborative society is our own individual unwillingness to do so, but why? Again we return to being the sum of our experiences; there are many narratives being fed to many different groups of people with the United States at this moment in time. Each projecting their own vision of what is true and what is false, none encompassing a collaborative solution. It will be difficult to find a collaborative approach when so many opposing companies are profiting off the spread of a multiple competitive narratives. Statistical evidence already exists of the unified desires of the American populace, for example 75% of the US population views participants in our political process as corrupt and it is no surprise as “dark money” donors funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into campaigns with total donations since 2008 exceeding a billion dollars. We can never have a free and transparent democracy so long as for-profit corporations are allowed to influence our elected representatives through massive campaign donations. Perhaps the time has come to open up discussion about using technology to change our narrative. Our system of governance is a beautiful creation in that it was designed for change through our democratic process. As we continue to struggle with these challenges I believe it is imperative that to keep in mind the commonality we all share in mind when hearing opposing viewpoints so as it find common challenges and begin work to solve them.

To conclude, perhaps it is time to begin thinking about the way people think and make choices not as an act that exists in a vacuum, but rather a decision compared against summation of their entire existence. Introspection and empathy will enable us to better influence our collective society towards a more abundant and progressive direction. If we accept this as a possible reality then we open new doors and conversations about improving the collective experience for all of our citizens. By raising our collective human condition we can better take advantage of our most valuable resource, human potential.

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