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Destroying the “Us and Them” Mentality – A Vision for Efficient Civil Discourse

Us and them. It’s part of our DNA, and it’s who we are. It’s what defines our personal identities and the force that drives our economies. But does it help community engagement and the democratic process? Far from it. It hurts me just thinking about it, and I’m seeing this mentality dominate our conversations and hurt the individuals in our society. It’s a social virus affecting everyone at all levels of civic engagement – federal, state and local. “Us and them,” is a progress inhibitor. More people would have more of what they want, faster, if they took a breath first before yelling at their neighbors.

With almost a decade of service to my neighborhood (previously President of the Ocean Park Neighborhood Association), and Founder of both the 501(c)3 Beautify Earth and Transportation Demand Management software platform Ride Amigos, I’m inspired to share a few takeaways I learned along the way on how we can progress as a community. As a local entrepreneur, building organizations to solve the worlds traffic issues, urban-decay issues, and resident advocacy initiatives are no easy task - and clear, respectful communication is a common thread in always moving the needle forward.

Communities are often comprised of individuals that passionately work to change the system (small %), those that participate in the system more subtly (small %), and those that stay on the sidelines (large %) and may or may not even get out to vote. The passionate folks are often able to move the needle through persistence, and garner the right amount of support needed to push through a ballot item, local measure, ordinance, policy, or process change. Is this fair or democratic? Yes and no. No, because not enough people partake in the public process to know if what is passed is what people really want. Yes, because these same processes are used for everything you agree with or don’t. It’s the same set of rules, and folks don’t complain about the rules or the decision when it works in their favor… But that’s the way the cookie crumbles, and whether we agree with an outcome or not, civility must prevail.

So, how do we get out of our own way and create a path toward civility? Civility doesn’t just mean being polite. It means obtaining reliable, factual information from a spectrum of intelligent points of view to participate as an informed citizen. The following rules could be adopted to move us in the right direction:

Agree on the definitions of “fact” and “opinion” – Agreeing on objective truth can be nearly impossible in this day and age. Most news is an interpretation of a representation of an event or happening, where the individuals involved may have ulterior motives not shared with the public. So how do we find the objective truths to act on as citizens from an actual event, conversation, or situation? Get ten scientists to evaluate and record it independently and average their results. Kidding. Point is, it’s virtually impossible. For example, the objective truth in witnessing something is the act of witnessing itself and the event’s physical outcome (e.g. there was a fire). Our perception of the event is not objective, and any vocal interpretation of it gets skewed by the word choices used to explain it and how the recipients perceive our word choices, tone, etc. The signal attenuates immediately once vocalized.

The childhood game of Telephone is real, and too few people recognize that they are often playing it when consuming news and information. Even more confusing is that much (not all) scientific research often changes its claims over time. I call it the “egg wave.” – Today eggs are good for us, 10 years ago, they would kill us (for the record, I love eggs) – Even scientific research can be catered to its context, intention and what it’s seeking to prove. It’s easy to leave out the statistics that don’t prove our hypothesis or make all our hard work meaningful. Even more challenging, is that we tend to make intuitive judgments by biasing information received more recently, frequently, and poignantly (Tversky and Kahneman’s Availability Heuristic). The list goes on.

Bottom line – the chances of anyone having a “right” answer are slim to none. Issues that create large divides are usually way more complicated than originally thought. So, let’s just respect that, and think it through more to accommodate more perspectives. Someone who thinks differently isn’t automatically evil. We can all embrace a little humility given the imperfect nature of simply being human.

Relinquish the need to be right – Humans get attached to almost anything they invest time or ego into. The longer we take a position, the harder it is to change our minds – this concept is called escalated commitment. People need to be right so they know all the effort they put into a belief was meaningful and worthwhile. Otherwise, it could make us feel pretty awful if we argued with someone over something and were wrong… Or invested all that time without a “win.” Well, what if we weren’t wrong? What if we just had a shift in perspective, or an updated belief to accommodate more circumstances from a vantage point we hadn’t seen before?

It’s ok to adjust our beliefs over time. It shows maturity in decision making, and the ability to admit that we’re human. No one’s perfect, and we shouldn’t expect anyone to be. It’s how we gain wisdom over time and lead by example that matters. Try taking the other side of an issue just for fun, and for the purpose of seeing how an event or issue can be viewed through another’s eyes. Suddenly, the issue is not quite as black or white.

At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong, only perspective. The closest thing to right or wrong that I’ve found is Emanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperatives, or the Golden Rule: “Treat others how you wish to be treated.” Still, this is philosophy, and some can/will argue this semantically and contextually.

Be willing to listen – Have you ever caught yourself thinking of your response, or your next point, or why you’re right and they’re wrong while someone else is speaking? We all have at some point! Forget active listening, this is simply called not listening. How can we possibly learn someone’s views if we’re not listening to them?

Let’s commit to truly listening, especially when we disagree. Isn’t that what you’d want when you’re speaking? So, let’s treat others how we wish to be treated. As Steven Covey says, “Seek to understand, then to be understood.”  Few people would argue that one gets wiser and more knowledgeable as they age. How do you feel when you reflect on your perception of the world a decade ago compared to now? I hope the answer is “wiser.” Otherwise, that’s called “stagnation.”

Additionally, let’s update our beliefs over time as we have more information. If being “right” means that we’re 100% accurate in our claim (i.e. objective truth), listening to other’s perspectives can help reshape our beliefs to increase that accuracy. Bayesian Inference is a concept that formalizes this idea and is used professionally in statistical evaluation across many fields of study - this is just another application. Listening gives us perspective, updates our beliefs, and enables us to speak more accurately given the larger dataset we’ve amassed.   “Listen twice, speak once,” said my wise father.

Stop finger-pointing – Nothing defends the ego better than blaming someone/something else for their own personal problems; Because of Dave, I have worse Healthcare; Because of Robert, I lost my job; Because of Steve on City Council, I’m no longer on rent control; Because of the president, my taxes increased. You get the idea.

Yet, without participating in the system it’s just complaining into empty air. Pointing fingers at people is disempowering, and it wastes time by focusing on blaming instead of seeking common ground and solutions. Raising oneself high by chopping others down is a zero-sum game. The opportunity cost here is that time could be better spent raising oneself higher by elevating someone else (win/win). Time is fixed and precious, so is it being spent chopping down the forest or cultivating its growth?  While the world surely does not need more axmen, finger pointing and blaming, folks often exhibit the same qualities as those they’re pointing their fingers at (where the anger really comes from), and is embodied in Freud’s basic concept of projection. I suppose I would call that… interesting.

We can’t help others if we can’t first help ourselves, and blaming helps no one. Surprisingly, this lesson we learn as children often gets forgotten in adulthood. Accountability and responsibility go much farther, faster.

As the President of my neighborhood, my goal was to forge a new paradigm and change the tone of what it means to be a neighborhood association. There were several immediate, actionable ways of doing this, but the two most relevant ones here are:

  • Communicate civilly at all times, in and between meetings (nastiness is not just discouraged, it’s NOT allowed)

  • Embrace and encourage differing perspectives through dialogue

We live in one of the best places in the world. If diverse perspectives are not a valued part of our culture here, think of how bad this is elsewhere. Most people are good people who want to help the homeless, create world peace, provide their children a good education, smile more often, and build a comfortable life for themselves and their families. It’s our approach that’s hurting us. If we’re yelling at others and chopping people down to get our way, we’re no better than those we call villains in the news. If we’re chastising and finger pointing, then we’ll create more chastising and finger-pointing and will attract others who do that too. Hate breeds hate, anger breeds anger, and civility creates more civility. Like seeks like, period. If we want kindness and respect, let’s lead with kindness and respect. “Us and them” is a biological habit, but it doesn’t have to be. As Santa Monicans, let’s lead by example and be the example, for the world to follow.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”  – Albert Einstein

Love, Evan


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