C Burns

This is Your Brain on Consensus

C Burns
This is Your Brain on Consensus

Our future, our best future, depends on diversity.

by Charles Barouch

I’m watching an interview and the subject essentially says, “I’m a Democrat because my parents went to a certain grocery store, a certain gas station, a certain ice cream parlor. The Republicans went to a different one.” He wasn’t part of his party based on ideology or track record or self-interest. He was there because he had been cut off from contact with dissenting opinions.

We’ve been building communities based on teams for a long, long time. Look at immigrant neighborhoods. The fact that there are such things speaks to the concept of isolation based on identification. And the reason for each of these groups gathering together seems eerily the same: I’m originally from <fill in the blank>, so I need a place to live where I can [A] speak my native language, [B] smell the cooking I’m familiar with coming from the other homes,[C] raise my children near the elders of my original community, [D] tell jokes that my people would find funny, [E] and so on.

In my own neighborhood, I watched the horror, and that is the correct word, in some of my immigrant neighbor’s faces when they realized their children were Americans. All that work isolating them and they grew up willing to fit in and adapt. Of course, I live in a cosmopolitan part of a deeply blended city. I’m sure that enclaves in other places are more effective at keeping their children firmly inside the transplanted group.

Isn’t that an overstatement?

All this seems counterintuitive sitting here in New York City. This is a major metropolitan center. The phrase “melting pot”– that we all blend together-- isn’t perfectly true but it does represent a valid core idea. Yes, there are small-minded people here, but I know a lot of couples who don’t share a country of origin, a religion, or a party affiliation. What I see here is less likely to be represented in other places. As a high school teacher of mine once said, “Paris, London, Moscow, Los Angeles, and New York are in the same country.”

I was fortunate enough to grow up bidixal -- having spent time in my youth both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. I know my beloved city, New York,  is not like other places. Please understand that I meet nice people everywhere. I’ve probably been to over a third of the U.S. in my lifetime and I find good conversations at every destination. The same is true of my time outside the U.S. in Australia, Hong Kong, and England.

Part of my ability to do that comes from my pale skin and vaguely european looks. More than that, my accent blends into the regional one when I speak to locals. I’m not one of them but I’m close enough. I pass. I’m acceptable.

Is this the two Americas comment that crops up periodically? No. There’s more.

There aren’t two Americas. I’ve seen articles that put the number as high as nine. The more we divide, however, the bigger that number will grow. There are places all over the world where the church, or mosque, or temple, or what-have-you that you attend pre-defines your pool of potential friends. It can affect your ability to keep or lose a job. I have a friend who once told me, “Determining a person’s religion in my country is easy. The poor ones are the Christians, the middle-class ones are the Buddhists, and the rich ones are the Muslims.” We have, as a species, proven exceeding adept at defining an “us” and excluding the “them.”


It also creates a perception of “they don’t get us.” There are some people, for example, who support Trump or Sanders primarily because the outsider label is something that  resonates. If you look at a population map of any country, you will see that the concentration of people in cities nearly always outweighs the rural concentration. It is easy for a person who lives two miles from their nearest neighbor to feel unrepresented by people used to living in apartment buildings. Remember that rural and poor aren’t synonyms. This is not a class issue, it is something much deeper.

It turns out that consensus can be bad for us.

I was in a conversation with someone who said, “Gay rights is a distraction, not an issue.” Immediately, I knew that he didn’t have a lot of gay friends. By being contact-free, those people who would be affected became those people. The more we build our walls, the worse it gets.

Meet three of the most dangerous words in social media: “I’m blocking you.” Trolls, and genuinely dangerous people, have made the concept of ignore or block necessary. The problem, and it is a huge problem, comes when someone blocks you for saying things which are true but uncomfortable. Blocking based on your team defeats the open dialogues which can help connect us.  My Facebook and G+ feeds are full of people who disagree with each other. I’ve established a reputation for having -- strongly worded -- opinions but still being open to conversation. This is not because I am a superior human being.

It is all due to one simple trick: I am Everybody.

We aren’t going to change the hard-wiring that makes us join a herd, pick a side for emotional reasons, resist the inconvenient truths, or avoid facts which affect our ability to justify our choices. We can, however, change the one thing which acts as a foundation for all of that. We can change our definition of “us.” That’s my trick. And, it works exceedingly well.

If my daughters go back four generations, they are Greek, Turkish, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Russian, Austrian, and Hungarian. As you might guess, my family has a history of being very loose with the definition of “us.” We are made up of cultures who have traditionally clashed. If we went further back, I suspect we’d find even more of these wild left turns in our genealogy. When you see yourself broadly, you are inclusive. So, yes, I’m as narrow-minded and pro-team as the worst of us, but my team just happens to include everyone.

When I was a kid, being nominally Jewish, I was asked, “How many Jewish friends do you have?” It confused and insulted the boy who asked me when I had to stop and think. He was even more upset when I finally concluded that I didn’t know. He asked me, “How can you be friends and not know?”  For the first time, I realized that seeing everyone as part of my tribe was unusual. It was something I learned because my friends are different than me. They see things in other ways. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but constantly different. This is our brain on discord. We need the contrarians, the other views, to make us better.

My favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was called Darmok.

The Tarmoran Language

The Tarmoran Language

In it, the universal translator is working perfectly, but communication is effectively impossible because the two species lack a common frame of reference.

That's our future if we isolate ourselves based on how we self-identify. Slang is a perfect example of this. Hot and cool are -- generationally separated -- synonyms. Imagine an enclave where fifties lingo lives on trying to talk to someone who speaks a much more modern slang. It works today because we have TV, movies, books, and newspapers, which reference back and forth between these different forms.



As we pull apart, we won't have these things in common. Each group will want it's own, non-confrontational, media. We see this now in the Fox News vs. CNN vs. MSNBC mindset of many around us. The more we split, the less we will be willing to have the oppositional stations available. Our children will be robbed of the choice to know that there are other groups. This is the worst part of tribalism because it has, inherently, an element of brainwashing.

While I believe, strongly, that my worldview is a good one, I know that my family doesn't share all of it. Being okay with that is impossible if your neighborhood was designed to reinforce conformity. In the tribal world of confirmation bias, my kids would be told that what they think is wrong. We've all had some of that growing up but it can be counterbalanced by variations and differences in media and in our community. Once those things also conform, diversity in our future is lost.

Consider the ebb and flow of population.

A mostly upper class neighborhood starts to lose population and we see it become open to the upper middle class. A poor neighborhood loses population and we see gentrification creating an influx of the affluent. Once communities become insular, that cycle becomes harder to maintain. Where does the immigrant go when they aren't already indoctrinated into an existing group? If territory is held to preserve uniformity, then lessening demand doesn't create the chance for new people to move in and grow.

Our future, our best future, depends on diversity.

Not racial diversity, because we are really just one race. We need diversity of thought and of perspective. I want to live in a world where normal is less important than good. A world where good is an ideal, not a pre-packaged absolute. And that world only exists if you join me.


Author Bio:

Charles Barouch

Charles Barouch is the CTO of HDWP consulting, a co-creator of the BeBackBy app , a fiction author, editor, and publisher, and is prepping a new game for an upcoming Kickstarter. He's been writing professionally since his days a Gateways and currently contributes to International Spectrum and Pax Solaria. Read his short story, Tangle of Brilliance here.