Society is becoming deeply polarized because we no longer have shared ways of listening to each other. Group cohesion requires every person to have a basic respect of each other at all levels, including families, sports teams, businesses and the whole country.
The best way to build cohesion is through shared experiences. Covid-19 is perhaps the largest experience we are all sharing right now, but we seem to have lost the ability to find any consensus about the facts, let alone solutions.
With the explosion of technology, entertainment, social media and customizable news feeds, the critical task of finding common ground is enormously difficult today. We all carry thousands of possible news sources in our pockets available at the click of a button, each one presenting different preferences, biases, sources and ideologies. This is a radically new world.
Before the smartphone, we were stuck with reading whatever magazines were available in the doctors’ office. But it was also true that millions of other patients were reading similar magazines across the country. Now, we can just pick up a smartphone, check email, browse social media and read whatever we want. Ten people in a waiting room could be reading ten different things. Gone are the days of talking to another person on the park bench. Even bartenders are feeling a bit lonely since fewer folk are talking to them.
The internet offers us a great deal of content – some good, some not so good, and some that is tearing at the fabric of society. Even when a piece of information is excellent, it is unlikely more than 30% of the people around us will see or hear the same things. This means we aren’t connecting or debating with others like we did in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s when Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather gave everyone the same news at the same time.
Not even scale can help with this dilemma. It doesn’t seem to matter if a person has a million followers, sells 100,000 books or notches fifty million podcast downloads. Those who consume this information will have very few people with whom they can discuss the content.
Back when I was growing up, most people knew the names of the biggest movie, sports and music stars. Names like De Niro, Hanks, the Beatles, Guns N’ Roses, Jackson, Crawford, Houston and Oprah. We could all hum the theme song to Gilligan’s Island even if we never watched the show. People had what academics call “social capital,” a mental repository of pop-culture references, ideas and narratives.
This sense of shared kinship has been mostly lost in the modern world. Perhaps it is possible to create a new kinship. But if that proves impossible, the least we could do is be nicer to each other. Kindness is the beginning of finding common ground.