Republicans versus Democrats. Pro-choice versus pro-life. Anti-vaxxer nut jobs versus pro-vaxx sheeple.
Reading the media on each of these topics, it would be easy to assume that most people fall neatly into one or the other category -- and detest the folks in the other category.
If you dig in, though, you’ll find a few who have staked out a position of open-mindedness and inclusivity. “We just need to talk to each other,” these folks say. “We need to understand the other side.”
I’ve believed that myself, smugly so. Which is why I was so surprised by author and Wharton professor Adam Grant’s comments on Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead™ podcast: “I came in assuming that with all of the difficult issues of our time -- whether it’s climate change or systemic racism, or who actually won an election, or is it safe to get a vaccine ever -- I assumed that what was missing was that people didn’t see the other side of the issue. And we just needed to burst filter bubbles and break people free of echo chambers, and if they only could see the other side, they would be much more open-minded. And I came away thinking that not only is seeing the other side not the solution, but also, it’s part of the polarization problem.”
Wait, what? How can seeing the other side be part of the problem? Is he saying that trying to understand the opposing view can make things worse?
Turns out that is exactly what he’s saying. Apparently the problem starts long before we even enter the room. The problem starts with the framing.
Here’s the deal: as soon as we frame an issue as having two sides, we’ve lost. If there are only two sides, I need to pick one, and part of picking one is rejecting the other. Once I’ve picked one and rejected the other, I’m part of a tribe. And once I’m part of a tribe, switching sides becomes a Very Big Deal -- such a big deal that even learning about the Other Side has the effect of driving us further toward our own.
“But Kaila,” I hear you implore, “sometimes we are on opposite sides. Am I supposed to just pretend we aren’t?”
No, of course you’re not. But what you are supposed to do is realize that most issues are far more complex than red or blue, pro- or anti-, control or safety.
Grant suggests something like, “You know what, actually this is a really complex issue with a lot of points of agreement and disagreement between people with all kinds of political stances,” going on to point out that the “[v]ast majority of Americans agree on universal background checks, for example, conservatives and liberals, and I think just seeing the other side prevents us from seeing all the gray in the middle, and that’s the vast majority of people. Almost everybody is somewhere in the gray, the media and social media both amplify the extremes, and then we just end up more polarized.”
As marketers, as journalists, as opinion columnists, as human beings… we have a choice in how we frame our conversations. We can choose to buy into a caricature and perpetuate the polarization of our society, or we can choose to, as Grant says, complexify it and, in doing so, find opportunities for connection.
I choose complexifying, even at the risk of getting rejected from those tribes that want me to be unambiguously committed to them and opposed to the Other Side. The world is full of gray. Let’s embrace it.