I do not think of myself as a political person. I like to follow the news but honestly I wouldn’t know how to answer if someone were to ask me whether I was conservative or liberal. But I do know one thing – I find myself increasingly worried about the state of our societal conversations these days, especially on controversial or emotive topics such as gender, race and identity. It seems to me that we are slowly and surely driving ourselves mad over a whole host of political, social and cultural issues with no obvious or productive end in sight. Some have referred to this as kind of a modern “moral panic” and undoubtedly social media has been a major contributor. Frankly I think anti-social media or social mania would be more apt descriptors.
Instead of creating a robust “anti-fragile” society where differing opinions can be freely discussed it appears that we are building exactly the opposite: a hypersensitive, polarized, fragile environment where people are afraid to voice their true thoughts about controversial topics. To borrow an analogy from physiology, in a robust immune system sensitivity to antigens is adaptive/desired but hypersensitivity is ultimately maladaptive/harmful to the organism. As I discussed in a recent Confluence piece, an inability to have productive debate and discussion on difficult or sensitive issues seems to me to be incompatible with a healthy functioning educational environment and ultimately incompatible with democracy itself.
In particular the current tendency to focus on societal issues through the lens of group identity concerns me. When one stops to think about it, acronyms and phrases such as LGBTQ2S+, BIPOC, “toxic masculinity” and “white fragility” (amongst many others) are terms that are explicitly designed to categorize and divide us up based on some sort of group identity. In his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt highlights research that consistently shows the more you emphasize differences between individuals the MORE you amplify intolerance and racism in society! He points out that highly functioning teams are those where similarities are emphasized, synchrony is exploited and healthy competition is encouraged. I liked this quote in particular: “you can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals and mutual interdependencies”.
I am an immigrant to Canada and am absolutely sensitive to the important issues raised around race and reconciliation in this country. There is clearly much work to do to learn and move on from the historic injustices that have been committed to Indigenous peoples and certain minority groups. Call me naïve but I believe this important project can be done effectively while simultaneously emphasizing our similarities, shared goals and interdependencies. I worry that if we continue to focus on differences, group identity and shaming or blaming of others then we will fail to make meaningful progress. Let’s face it, at the end of the day we are all Canadian – we should be rowing this boat together.
Given these concerns it came as a relief last summer when I stumbled upon a new organization in the US that seems to be talking sense on all this: FAIR – the Foundation against Intolerance and Racism (https://www.fairforall.org). The board of advisors of FAIR are a powerhouse group of diverse and highly influential academics, writers and thinkers in the US who agree that the way we talk about difficult societal issues needs to improve. Take this quote right from their mission statement:
“Increasingly, American institutions — colleges and universities, businesses, government, the media and even our children’s schools — are enforcing a cynical and intolerant orthodoxy. This orthodoxy requires us to identify ourselves and each other based on immutable characteristics like skin color, gender and sexual orientation. It pits us against one another, and diminishes what it means to be human”.
The FAIR pledge calls on individuals to commit to fairness, understanding and humanity based upon principles espoused by Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The FAIR Principles of Peaceful Change are based upon MLK’s principles of non-violence and are as follows:
- Exercise Moral Courage. Telling the truth is a way of life for courageous people. Peaceful change cannot happen without a commitment to the truth.
- Build Bridges. We seek to win friendship and gain understanding. The result of our movement is redemption and reconciliation.
- Defeat Injustice, Not People. We recognize that those who are intolerant and seek to oppress others are also human, and are not evil people. We seek to defeat evil, not people.
- Don’t Take the Bait. Suffering can educate and transform. We will not retaliate when attacked, physically or otherwise. We will meet hate and anger with compassion and kindness.
- Choose Love, Not Hate. We seek to resist violence of the spirit as well as the body. We believe in the power of love.
- Trust in Justice. We trust that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win.
In addition to Jonathan Haidt’s book mentioned above I have found Douglas Murray’s book “The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity” and Professor Gad Saad’s “The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas are Killing Common Sense” to be helpful in illustrating how we have veered into these troubled waters and, importantly, how we might begin to navigate back out of them. Also Bari Weiss, former journalist with the New York Times, has an excellent podcast (simply called “Honestly”) and a Substack (“Common Sense with Bari Weiss”) that covers these sensitive issues thoughtfully, honestly and in great depth.
Tony Webster, Centre for Sport and Exercise Education.