Communication

How the Media Divides Us and What to Do About It

February 4, 2017
Media

If you’ve been anywhere near the media or social media this past month, you’ll know that January has been characterized by extremes. You’re thinking Trump, of course – we all are – but locally for my city there was also a ruling made by Pride Toronto in regards to Black Lives Matter that pushed everyone to one side of two coins (for or against?). Then this past week in Quebec terrible news of the shooting has affected all of us deeply. And now our prime minister has just backed down on one of his primary platform promises: electoral reform.

Are we in the middle of a meltdown (along with the polar ice caps)? It sure feels like it sometimes. I’ll admit that my mind began to wander on the subway last night as I was crammed into a tin can with a bunch of people (How will I get out of here if the shit hits the fan?) – and I can only make a vain attempt at imagining what the person sitting beside might have been feeling, a young Muslim girl.

It’s difficult to gain a clear understanding of just what the hell is happening. Media outlets and their leanings to either the left or the right are hell-bent on polarizing the issues. Social media is flooded with rigid opinions because we want the world to see our confidence, not that vulnerable self who lays awake at night and worries about the uncertainty of tomorrow.

Silent Observer

We all respond differently to events in the media, and as per usual I have remained relatively quiet when it comes to voicing my opinion publicly or in group situations about the issues of the moment. You could minimize my quietude to conflict-aversion, disinterest, apathy. But like everything in life, there’s more to the story. I’m not conflict-averse, disinterested, or apathetic in my head; on the contrary, I’ve got a close eye on what’s happening around me.

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My silence is a reflection of my belief in the importance of words and word choices. Words hold immense power for me and I believe in their power to shape not only meaning, but my reality. I accept responsibility for the words I choose to communicate my thoughts (either to you or to myself). My silence doesn’t mean I haven’t noticed or been affected by something, it just means I’m trying to make sense of it before I speak.

As a caveat to that, I’ve always had great admiration for those who can respond quickly in a thoughtful way. The world needs both.

As a silent observer, this past month’s events have reminded me how easily humans are pulled into extremes of black and white thinking, also called polarized or either/or thinking. Black and white thinking works by dividing our understanding of the world into polar opposites of right vs. wrong, rational vs. sane, man vs. woman, right-wing vs. left-wing, religion vs. science, liberal vs. conservative, us vs. them – to name a few. The effect of black and white thinking for the individual and society at large is powerful: What may otherwise seem like chaotic madness – this past January, for example – can suddenly seem to make sense.

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I’ve spent many years working on black and white thinking in myself, not so much as a matter of principle, but more out of necessity. I’ve learned through first hand experience that polarized thinking is a very human response to fear and uncertainty. During uncertain times (like these) I can feel my thoughts naturally wanting to divide the world into polar opposites – to find a comfortable spot on one side of the coin where I can “rationally” ignore the other side of it.

But I know how damaging it is, too. This is true for society at large, but on an individual level black and white thinking narrows your experience of the world and the people in it. The reality is that the world cannot be defined by polarities – nothing is just this or just that. No one thing is all good or all evil, all right or all wrong.

Everything is somewhere in between.

The media feeds our need to see the world in black and white. They know we’re looking for answers, to make sense of what’s going on, to find a pattern in the madness. The easiest way to ensure your reader leaves your piece of writing with a question answered is to polarize the topic. Divide it into right vs. wrong, rational vs. insane, right-wing vs. left-wing, liberal vs. conservative, us vs. them – doing so answers a question the reader had entering into the piece of writing. It provides them with relief because a complex issue has been simplified. And it keeps them coming back for more.

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The problem of black and white thinking in society is vast, one that I don’t have answers for. I do, however, have my own way of steering myself away from the polar opposites of thinking. One way I do that is through the practice of pragmatic thinking, which seeks to understand a thing by way of its practical use to my day-to-day existence, rather than its adherence to right vs. wrong and other polarities. In effect what a pragmatic perspective gives me is the strength and ability to live more freely in the uncertainty of the middle ground – the grey area between polar opposites. I write more about pragmatism here.

How to Read Media Mindfully

Could I offer a suggestion during these uncertain times? Read/Watch all media with extreme bias. Broaden your media sources. Invite yourself into the middle ground. Read both left- and right-wing newspapers. Read articles from two different news outlets reporting the same story. I was reading an article in The Toronto Star the other day about the public responses of Canada’s political party leaders to the shooting in Quebec, but the Conservative party leader’s response was not included. This is a subtle omission, but one that sways the bias of the article every so slightly. Another article I read a while back in the National Post repeatedly used the word “devastated” to describe the effect windmills were having on the beauty of rural Ontario. The author’s use of the dramatic word “devastated” provides me with insight into his bias.

Reading articles from different perspectives doesn’t mean I agree with them. Sharing alternative perspectives on Facebook doesn’t mean I agree with them. I’m not betraying my beliefs or values by being open to learning about beliefs or values that differ from mine.

When you do read/watch media – either from your favourite publication or one with different beliefs (or biases?) than your own – watch for the subtle cues that indicate bias. It can be fun, actually, and empowering when you aren’t a passive recipient of information.

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Remember that those who report the news are, like me, writers and storytellers: They know language and they know its power to shape meaning and tell the story they want you to hear. When you are knee-deep in media, be mindful by asking questions of what you’re reading:

  • What does the writer want me to believe?
  • What conclusions does the writer/media outlet want me to draw, and how do they benefit from me drawing these conclusions?
  • How is the writer shaping or portraying “reality” to support their point-of-view?
  • What language is being used to shape the “world” the story takes place in?
  • What’s being omitted from the story?
  • How is information being arranged to invite me to draw conclusions or polarize my thinking?

With all that said, I’d like to also invite you to give yourself breaks from the media. Do so as an act of self-kindness. You can look away from all the shit that’s going down for a moment or two. That doesn’t mean you’re insensitive to tragedy, or apathetic about the state of the world. It just means you need to rest – if for no other reason than because a tired mind (and soul) is far more susceptible to being pulled into the trap of polarized thinking*.

*See what I did there? I wrote “pulled into the trap” to create an image to convince you that polarized thinking is detrimental. 😉 Read mindfully, my friends!

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4 Comments

  • Reply Anonymous February 4, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    I first realized how the media can sway public opinion during the Vietnam Nam War. For me it was the first experience of seeing actual footage and reading about the horrors of war. It’s been said without the media involvement the outcome may have been completely different. So true we must look at both sides and keep an open mind and trust in our own values.

    • Reply Mike February 4, 2017 at 3:25 pm

      Great points. Thanks for your perspective.

  • Reply William February 6, 2017 at 4:52 pm

    Great article to describe the polarization of our population through the multitude of sources that want gain our support. A quote by Danzel Washington comes to mind: “If you don’t read the news, you’re uninformed. If you do read the news, you’re misinformed”. Every media source wants to catch your eye and will use any means to do that, including shock effect through colourful language or exaggeration, for instance and even blatant lies.

    • Reply Mike February 6, 2017 at 5:58 pm

      Thanks, William – That’s a great quote.

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