They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. – Benjamin Franklin
In my last post I was wondering about what drives people to gang up against others. What makes one group dislike or fear another, to the point where they take action and attack the other. And what can you do about this?
What’s happening right now?
The most powerful culture shaper we have is the power of story. And stories, these days, are told through media, film and TV and streaming. We hear about diversity in media, people bemoaning the lack of representation in what we see on our screens. Increasingly, however, what you do see is diversity. In fact, it probably makes you stop and think, perhaps even comment.
For some of us it’s a little strange seeing people like us on the screen. It’s odd seeing them in public life outside the confines of our own cultures. People making a difference, barriers breaking down, to the point where we notice and feel the need to comment.
And comment people do. There is a backlash from people who are threatened by this, by others daring to find a space, a place, to seek to be represented and shown to others for who they are and what they stand for and how they live – which, for the most part, is like most other people.
And so you have this phenomenon, something like two streams of hot and cold water mixing. But what’s happening is that the mixing happens where the two streams meet. And that’s a good thing – but then you also have this strange phenomenon of the hot water and the cold water further away rushing backwards, rushing to get away and seek its own kind.
Segregation happens all by itself too
This is not the best analogy, and a much better one is the Shelling Model Of Segregation that suggests that people naturally move to places where there are others like them. Over time this results in segregated societies. This has been demonstrated with taxi movement studies where taxis that serve one kind of population in a city rarely cross into another population’s territory. You often think of segregation as something that was imposed on another group by a dominant group – but it’s something that’s happened over time because of the way people are as well.
So that leads to an interesting thought. When media is diverse and you have a choice, then will people opt for diverse media or will they flip channels or streams to segregated ones? Will their implicit preferences come out in their choices of where to spend their attention?
Now, this will come out in the data, of course, because everything is logged. We know what shows are watched in what proportion. We know what books are read and so we also know what genres and profiles will make the most money and that will drive commissions and advances and the economy of the market for media and content.
People will complain about the differences, about how it’s not fair and that everyone should get a chance. And while you might think that they’re whinging and they should be grateful to be given a chance, these complainers, these people that ask for fairness are doing something very brave and something very important. They are standing up and asking for equality, something many of us will never have to do or have the guts to do. Their complaining, their noise is what makes others pay attention and then, often reluctantly, make changes that make life easier for the rest of us.
And that’s because it’s not really about good or bad, better or worse, one or the other.
It’s about familiarity
What people mean when they say something is intuitive is usually that it’s familiar – it’s something they’ve seen before and are comfortable with it. Your house seems intuitive to you because you know it inside out, you know where everything is and where to find what you want. To someone entering your house for the first time nothing is familiar, they don’t know where the bathroom is, where you keep the tea or how to turn on the heating.
It’s the same with culture. If you want to get comfortable with someone else’s culture then you have to learn about it. Immigrants know this, and that’s why they learn about football in the UK and baseball in the US – even if they think these are crashingly boring activities. And because you aren’t going to go out and find people who are different from you (remember that segregation is happening all the time) the media has to bring the culture to you. And eventually you will be comfortable and, if you’re not, your children will. And so will their children. And everyone will get on.
And that’s a scary thought
We have a long history of thoughts that tell us that if you want to get on with me you need to be like me. Historically it’s been about religion, more recently it’s been about race and even more recently it’s been about nationality – and religion again. Populist movements prey on people who still hold these ideas – they stoke up fear about how one group is losing its culture, how what they have is being watered down or lost to a new group who are taking over.
Because there is a very real challenge here. Most of us want to be left alone to do our own thing. We want to live our lives, free of strife, doing whatever we think is best for us – as Professor Higgins points out. If we could do that all would be well. And then here come these pesky thought police telling us what to think and how to live and how dare they.
And there is no answer really to this problem, for one simple reason. Society – this group of humans do not hold absolute values. There is no good or evil or true or false when it comes to people – there are always shades of gray and complexity and difficulty and what one government choose to do to keep its citizens safe is the opposite of what another would do and hopefully the better idea wins but sometimes it doesn’t.
Pirsig in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance points out that the values you hold often come down to what is convenient to hold. And that’s just life.
After all, even Google seem to have forgotten their injunction, Don’t be evil.
But that’s still a good mantra to have.
p.s. This project is heavy going, far too much stuff that requires thinking. I’m going to keep wading through it anyway, because I said I would but I’m not enjoying it that much so far. In the next post, we’ll look at how rules emerge.