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Friday, November 8, 2013

A Community Conversation - Part 8

A Community Conversation About Health and Responsibility: Vaccines and Beyond

Part 8:  Finding the 3rd Option

There’s something about two clear options that humans find appealing.  We write stories about good and evil with heroes to cheer for and villains to boo!  We go to sports events where one side must win.  Even in a debate, where the participants are bringing up really good points, we declare a winner and a loser.  Our legal system.  Enough said.  

It goes on.  Right and wrong.  Black and white.  Left and right.  Liberal and conservative.  Pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine.  Rich and poor.  All or nothing.  Us and them.  

These are examples of polarization.  And, a polarized world view is like looking at our planet and only seeing the north and south poles, while ignoring everything from Greenland to New Zealand.  With this approach, we are left with two options which both seem cold, hard, and lacking in diversity.

Fortunately, there are choices beyond penguins versus polar bears!  There is always a 3rd option to every situation, and many times a 4th, 5th and 99th...if we are willing to look for it.  

So, what gets in the way?  How do we find ourselves so split?  There are many forces which push us towards polarization.  

First let’s talk about the types of polarization that are deliberate manipulation.  There’s the Straw Man fallacy, in which someone exaggerates or misrepresents someone else’s argument in order to make it easier to defeat them.  We see this all the time in politics.  There’s also the philosophy of “just pick the lesser of two evils,” also frequently seen in politics.  There’s also the use of trigger words such as “conspiracy theorist,” as a way to discount and shut down an opponent.  None of these manipulative tactics have anything to do with finding the best solution, respecting the other person, or even having a real conversation.  They’re all about winning.

Such manipulation is designed to prevent you from questioning why you can’t have a third option.  The polar bears and the penguins like feeling important.  But what about bananas?  And kangaroos?  And all the other interesting stuff in the middle? 

Of course, not all polarization is deliberate.  Sometimes we spend so much time talking to polar bears and penguins that we genuinely forget about the tropics.  For example, when March Twisdale was interviewed for a Beachcomber article about her participation in the film, Everybody’s Business, the reporter assumed that anyone involved in the film must hold a polarized view.  Without asking, it was reported that March Twisdale & her husband had not vaccinated their children.  Apparently, anyone involved in medical choice advocacy must be “anti-vaccine.”  In fact, March has high regard for the role of vaccines in healthcare and her children are vaccinated against tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and diphtheria.  

Polarization is also incredibly contagious.  As we become more polarized, we perceive more polarization in others.  With each issue that we see in a polarized way, it increases the chances we will approach the next issue in a polarized way as well.  Polarization breeds polarization, as we feel the need to defend ourselves from “the other side.”  Parent-child transmission of polarization is also quite common.  Perhaps we need a vaccine against polarization? 

It’s time to back up and see the bigger picture.

First, let’s acknowledge why polarization is so seductive.  Our emotional state can impact how we approach a problem.  For example, when we are under stress, we seek the comfort of joining the “winning side.”  When we are frightened, we want the safety of a “right answer.”  When we are tired, we want the simplicity of a “quick and easy answer.”  When we are insecure, we want to know that we are part of a group of “like-minded people.”
It takes time to deeply explore and evaluate an issue.  It takes even more time to explore possible solutions.  And sometimes it can feel like this effort is a luxury we cannot afford.

But finding the third option is worth the effort.  Non-polarized attitudes allow us to see all the options and come up with creative solutions that better meet everyone’s highest needs.  Polarized “solutions” may be quick and easy, but they tend to be inherently destructive.  In the long run, it is worth investing the time to find true solutions.
But how can we find it, if no one is talking about it?  What are the habits that help us find non-polarized solutions?

Let’s start with humility.  I don’t know everything and neither do you.  So let’s share our knowledge and work together.

Self-knowledge matters.  Why do you believe what you believe?  What’s behind that?  And what’s behind that?  Check your assumptions.

Ask genuine questions.  Encourage others to share their core assumptions and world view.  They might surprise you.

Seek the future.  We can’t progress without constantly challenging ourselves to learn something better.  Progress takes time, effort, imagination, and a few mistakes.  But there is nothing more depressing than deciding that we are at the pinnacle of human evolution and it’s all downhill from here.  There is still much to learn.

Long story short - if you’re looking at any issue in a polarized way, consider inviting your fellow penguins or polar bears to go on a trip to the equatorial regions of the world and learn something new while you’re there!

“A Community Conversation About Health and Responsibility: Vaccines and Beyond” is an ongoing series written by two close friends with a passion for improving community cohesion and building respectful relationships in a diverse world.  This article was co-created by Karen Crisalli Winter and March Twisdale.  BLOG:   Email:  

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Welcome to the conversation. Knowledge changes. People respond best when this truism is kept in mind. In community, March & Karen