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We can accept our differences – it’s better than killing each other

  • Human beings are psychologically hardwired to fear differences
  • Several recent studies show evidence that digital spaces exacerbate the psychology which contributes to tribalism
  • Shared experiences of awe, such as space travel, or even simple shared meals, have surprising effectives for uniting opposing groups

The year was fraught to say the least.

Riots in the streets, engagement abroad in a long-fought war, and an encroaching sense that the fabric that knits us together is pulling at the seams.

Still a single sentence from it all speaks to our ability to come together: "Thank you for saving 1968."

Those words of gratitude—standing out against the backdrop of a tumultuous year—arrived via telegram at NASA half a century ago following Apollo 8's successful trip around the moon. But their lesson applies today.

Emerging research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience demonstrates that we often need a shared experience of awe, humor, or physical exertion to help transcend our differences. (Think team-building trust falls and rope courses in the woods). Fortunately, it doesn't take a trip around the moon to bridge the deepest divides—even conversation over a cup of coffee or a meal can remind us of each other's humanity.

What does this mean for free speech? Everything, it turns out.

We are hardwired to censor what's unfamiliar. 

Our brains' first response to difference is not curiosity but fear or scorn. In a mid-20th century experiment called "Robber's Cave," researchers brought together two demographically identical groups of boys, randomly sorted them into two groups, gave them each a few days to form bonds within their "tribes," and then kicked off a baseball competition. The boys quickly started generalizing about the other team and drawing distinctions that didn't exist.

Even absent any particular reason to be in disagreement, the experiment reveals that people are primed to sort into 'in' groups and 'out' groups. In the spectacle that politics can be at times, we can see how easy it is for Americans to fall into this trap. The tendency is not unique to any one political tribe. Recent research by the Cato Institute found at least one thing the left and the right agree on. They both want to silence someone, they just disagree on who.

In light of all this, what we've witnessed in recent months may not feel surprising but is troubling nonetheless. Other examples are readily available from both sides of the aisle: elected and appointed leaders shouted out of restaurants, journalists receiving death threats, and bombs sent in the mail to public figures villainized by radical activists. Relying on intimidation to silence people goes beyond censorship. It's abhorrent.

Now take that tendency and add in the emerging digital landscape. 

The same technology that has made it possible to connect people instantly across great distances can also compound our divisional instincts. A recent study found that when individuals confront different perspectives online, the new information further entrenches their existing beliefs and increases skepticism of the opposing view. It's also now easier than ever to opt into what MoveOn.org board president and digital guru Eli Pariser calls "filter bubbles"—choosing to surround ourselves with homogenous communities and replacing diverse, in-person interaction with digital engagement.

So what do we do about it?

The increasing division and polarization our country's experiencing is the result of many factors—many likely not fully understood or even still unknown. The long-term solutions will be as complex as the humans at the root of it.

But we can make progress in the meantime in surprisingly simple ways. People are full of potential. Individuals can play an essential role in helping fractured communities heal and turning fear to curiosity when encountering other ideas, cultures, and perspectives. We have the opportunity to learn from each other's differences.

A decade ago on another space flight the crew of the International Space Station gathered for a meal. The astronauts came from different backgrounds: Iranian, Russian, American, and others—individuals who have shared that they may have otherwise struggled to find common ground on Earth. But when they broke (freeze-dried) bread together as they watched the Earth passing by, they experienced a "profound emotional experience of interconnection."

It doesn't take zero gravity. Just start a conversation rooted in deep respect for each other's inherent dignity. Be the change you want to see in this tiny, blue dot.


Sarah Ruger directs the Charles Koch Foundation's free expression work
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Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
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"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

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  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
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  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

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