As we begin to move on after the most bruising political campaign recent memory, it is a good time for a hard look at how our democratic process turned so ugly and disenfranchising to so many Americans. How did we get to a place where the polarization and acid-like negativity actually became news in its own right? As someone who studies human and workplace behavior and focuses on how to drive organizational change, it is interesting to note that this political season has been fueled, in part, by a number of phenomena that I see regularly in the workplace—every workplace, not just in the halls of Congress or in campaign headquarters.
The first phenomenon is digital blindness. As we rely more and more on electronic communications and move away from face-to-face interactions, one consequence is that we tend to care less about injurious remarks or how people will react to what we are saying. In face-to-face situations, we receive feedback in the form of non-verbal cues from those with whom we engage, which then shape the way we continue our interactions. For most people, this has the effect of softening our viewpoints, adding nuance to our positions and can even cause us to rethink previously intractable opinions. Absent this visual and audible feedback from others, we send of our positions blindly, never having to deal with the discomfort of watching how our comments can cause injury.
Our electronic and social media-fueled conversations move us away from what makes our exchanges “human,” and allow us to avoid experiencing the emotional impact of our words. This same phenomenon took place on the campaign trail. Fueled by a an almost non-stop barrage of negativity and nastiness, people felt emboldened to lash out in ways they would never think of doing if there were real, visible and immediate repercussions. It is easy to tweet hatred or invective, or to jump onto the latest hurtful or defamatory hashtag.
This decline in empathy was bolstered by a significantly diminished breadth of perspectives which the digital age has paradoxically wrought. Because of a phenomenon known as worldview matching, rather than seeking out new ideas or thinking critically about the merits of our own beliefs, we are now most likely to match our information sources to comport with our already predominant worldview. This form of confirmation bias simply hardens our attitudes and allows us to cultivate the false sense that our viewpoints are “correct” and unassailable. Most damaging, worldview matching lures us into rationalizing that those who do not share our viewpoints have opinions that are not valid—and not worthy of consideration or respect. The byproduct of both is a marked decline in civility at a time when, as a nation, we most need it.
So does the Digital Age signal an end to civil discourse? Not necessarily. Just as I have seen workplace cultures turn around once leaders and associates become committed to developing a culture of respect, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we, as a people, can move past the vitriol and divisiveness of the recent campaign season as well. What will be required is simply the desire to return to civility and the steadfast resolve of a few good leaders on both sides of the aisle to role-model the way for the rest of us. We need just a handful of elected officials who recognize that having different ideas, goals and values from one another can actually be a catalyst for progress and strength…as long as those differences are shared in an atmosphere of civility, dignity and respect. The late American anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Now, more than ever, it’s time for the brave few to step forward and insist that we pull ourselves up from the mud bath we’ve all been taking.