The Brexit referendum has confirmed beyond doubt that we are now a nation divided; but is it still possible to reconcile our differences?
The reasons this divide arose are numerous and complicated and are not the subject of this article. We do need to acknowledge however that this division is not limited to our views on the EU nor to the UK population alone. Public opinion has become polarised on a multitude of subjects across the western world, which in turn has given rise to polarised political figures such as Corbyn and Farage in the UK, Trump and Sanders in the US and Marine le Penn and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France. The one thing that unites these personalities is that they’re all anti-establishment options, which obviously reflect people’s disillusionment with the status quo and an overarching dissatisfaction with a system that works for the few and leaves the many behind. Beyond this there is little common ground.
In order to bring the two sides together and begin the healing, we need to engage in an open, constructive conversation which promotes the sharing of ideas. The problem is that the arena needed for this to take place is quickly disappearing.
Until recently, the majority of people’s interactions were bound by geography – by this I mean the people you communicated with on a day to day basis were physically close at hand. If Joe Bloggs wanted to air a political grievance, he would simply step out into the local community and voice it. If you didn’t agree with his view you could engage with him, discuss your different perspectives and contribute to the cross pollination of ideas. Of course, you may not choose to challenge him, but you would still be exposed to his opinions. With the rise of online communication this is no longer the case.
On the rare occasion that an opinion contrary to your own makes it into your ‘feed’ you have the ability to block its author - removing their voice from the conversation forever.
Social media has made our communities truly global - this means we have the potential to share knowledge and ideas on a scale never seen before. However it’s becoming increasingly obvious that this potential is not being realised and instead we’re witnessing the ghettoisation of ideas. No matter what your political view, it’s all too easy to create a siloed community of like-minded bloggers and Tweeters with whom to discuss your thoughts. This forum, starved of diverse opinions, becomes an echo-chamber for your own world views. On the rare occasion that an opinion contrary to your own makes it into your ‘feed’ you have the ability to block its author - removing their voice from the conversation forever. And that’s a very scary concept.
I experienced this first hand recently when an old family friend I haven’t seen since I was a kid added me on Facebook last year. He quickly began filling my Facebook newsfeed with xenophobic comments which culminated with a link to an article about a fire in a mosque with the associated comment: “shame it wasn’t full”. I contemplated engaging with him and having a very public debate, but I was busy and too angry so I opted to block him. He’s gone from my world now. I haven’t changed his opinion and I have no doubt he’ll still be transmitting his views, but I’ll never hear a word from him again.
The situation is exacerbated by the way in which we now access and consume media. People used to stumble-upon programmes they wouldn’t normally watch by simply keeping the same channel on after one show had ended. We now use on-demand services to select ahead of time the ideas we want to be exposed to; watching only the documentaries that back up our existing views.
As people increasingly turn to the internet to share their views, they are becoming less engaged with their local communities. For all you know your next door neighbour who passes you in the street, headphones in and staring at his smart-phone, could be a powerful political voice in the online world; organising demonstrations and rallying huge support for his ideas. But he doesn’t share his ideas with you in the street so you’ll never be given an opportunity to challenge them. The opportunity to galvanise support for our opinions online is undoubtedly leading to an increase in public demonstrations and petitions, however we must acknowledge that the aim of these is to ‘demonstrate’ support for a particular opinion, not to engage with and influence non-believers.
The recent ‘no-platforming’ of controversial speakers and petition to ban Donald Trump from entering the UK may be symptomatic of a society which is getting increasingly comfortable with being able to block out opposing voices, without feeling the need to engage with them. We just need to be aware that ignoring an idea does not make it go away. Without a place to hold an open and honest debate, we could end up stranded on different wavelengths forever.