Online forums can be fierce battlefields between those aligning themselves with various groups: conservatives, liberals, economists, ecologists, fundamentalists, atheists, globalists and nationalists, just to mention a few. Viewpoints can be strongly held and diametrically opposed. While civil discourse on such issues is necessary, civility is often the first casualty in these virtual wars.
How do we break the habitual pattern of taking sides and fighting about issues, whether they’re political, philosophical or scientific? In the acid environment of a conversation that’s a call to arms, no one is listening, let alone being convinced! So why all the vitriol?
Various explanations have been proffered. Electronic forums have led to increasingly inflammatory dialogue, as has the challenge of sensationalism feeding media sales. But there’s something more fundamental at the root of the problem.
Underlying the outrageous discourse, you can usually spot a “good guys versus bad guys” philosophy, which seems to be our cultural default. Unfortunately, that worldview lends itself perfectly to “othering”, the tendency to see our side as innocent and the other side as dumber, less informed and possibly malicious. As a technique, it’s great for justifying bullying or other abuse. (They deserve it!)
We all occasionally engage in othering and yet there is real danger in carrying it too far. According to psychologist and Stanford professor Phillip Zimbardo, one of the most important social processes that “grease the slippery slope of evil” is the dehumanization of others.
In reality, we are all capable of much harm, and conversely, we’re all capable of transformation given the right circumstances and motivation. Obviously then, accusations, insults and the aim to verbally conquer may be satisfying as ego candy but they’re counterproductive to communication. What is needed are ways to mutually educate, nurture understanding and restore dignity.
There is a Bahá’í belief that evil, as horrific as it can be, is the result of ignorance and the absence of admirable qualities. It almost goes without saying that education of the heart, based on empathy and compassion, is the only remedy in the long term, and every generation requires a renewed effort.
Although the clash of ideas and vying with one another can lead to excellence, unity is seen as the highest goal. Truth is sought in that spirit, with the recognition that no person or group has a copyright on it and varying perspectives are needed for its discovery.
The ingredients are not lacking for a shift to a more nuanced view of human nature and healthier norms of social interaction. Science has enriched our knowledge of human behaviour and best practices have taught us the value of prevention through dialogue, inclusion and education.
The Bahá’í writings, like other spiritual scriptures, encourage us to remember our higher natures, our true identities, and to honour this in others.
“O son of Spirit! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? … Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.”
Polarization is the result of a worldview based on domination and force, one that badly needs updating. A philosophy recognizing our essential unity and nobility is the only one worthy of a global civilization.
Sheila Flood is a member of the Bahá’í community of Saanich and Chair of the Victoria Multifaith Society.
You can read more articles on our interdaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE
* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, August 10th 2019