We need to stop polarising

Our perception of the world around us is, for the most part, incredibly limited. Although we can be aware of the fact that other people’s lives are very different from our own, particularly in other countries, we are often incapable of actually grasping and understanding what that means.

When we are facing things connecting us to issues in other countries, we witness them through fogged-up glasses – our opinions on the people affected are shaped by the media or rumours, but rarely by those actually experiencing it.

And while those bringing the news are often on the ground, we only see what their networks – or the governments – allow us to see.

A sort of blended glimpse, skewing reality in favour of one side or the other.

Because we don’t understand, it can become easy to fear. It becomes easy to divide ourselves from people in specific countries because if terrorists are born there, everyone is a potential terrorist. We choose sides in wars that have existed for thousands of years between countries based on limited facts, or religious ideals, or because it sounds right.

And most often, we’re satisfied with that limited knowledge.

There was a time that this was me.

I consumed news like I consumed coffee, frequently and in abundance, drinking it all in as quickly as possible so I could move on to the next one.

I was knowledgeable about politics and foreign policy, in world events, terrorism, and political leaders. I believed my opinions were wholly informed because they were shaped by media outlets on both sides of the political spectrum, providing what I thought was balanced coverage.

In my final year of college, I met a woman who challenged me. She began to introduce me to alternative news outlets, ones where the publications were small enough that they weren’t controlled by a government party, and I slowly began to see the world change.

A few years later, I met a former U.S. soldier, Kat Argo, who had decided to pursue freelance journalism for a while. During her time with the military, she had been deployed to Afghanistan, which I believe fueled her passion for doing this.

As the war in Ukraine began to rage forward, she plunged into the middle of it, traveling with both pro-Soviet/Russian Ukrainians as well as anti-Russian Ukrainians.

While she was there, she blogged about much of what she saw and learned. When the news was breaking about conflicts in Maidan, Kyiv, and Donetsk, I was already reading about it from Kat, as she would post about situations as they were happening. Perhaps the most striking thing I discovered during this time was just how much media outlets on all sides would skew the facts – not necessarily because of malicious intent, but because of either political pull or simply not digging deep enough.

So many people were making calls on which side of the forces was in the right or should be supported when in truth, the issue was far more complex and deep.

Later, she wrote a book about her experience (The Shadow of the Bear), which went even more in depth, focusing on many of the people on either side of the war. I had the opportunity to review the book and fell in love with a whole new type of reading.

I developed a thirst for reading things outside my normal scope of influence, picking up books whenever I could to gain a different perspective.

What I’ve learned through this is something I’ve commented on frequently over the last couple of years – our perceived reality, without the influence of people from the other side, allows us to easily diminish the humanity of the people we are passing judgements about. It feeds into the kind of atmosphere that allows for polarisation because our opinions are shaped by limited knowledge and no actual experiences from those in a different circle than ours.

One of my college professors used to say that to formulate an opinion without rooting it in facts is to automatically remove credibility for yourself.

If one can educate themselves on a topic and still hold the same opinion, then at that point, the opinion has come after understanding and learning different viewpoints. It’s the results of scrutiny and open-thinking.

Lately, I’ve found myself digging deeper into books regarding conflicts in the Middle East, and learning more about them. After finishing Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot (which is far better than the movie that was made based off it, and definitely more informative), I’ve moved on to I Am Malala. Malala is an advocate for the education of girls in Pakistan who was shot in the face by Taliban supporters at the age of 15.

While the focus on Malala’s story is surrounding how she became an advocate for education against the Taliban, and what led to the attempt on her life, the content also provides a much deeper look into the radicalization of Muslims.

It’s easy to want to paint all Muslims, the Quran, and the refugees as on the cusp of becoming terrorists at any moment.

But the situation, much like any conflict, is so much more complex.

The book, although I don’t believe it was fully intentional, gives an eye-opening look into how so many are radicalised, and how much of what we do and say here (particularly coming from our military and government) contribute to it.

I suppose, what I’m trying to say through this column (which, I recognize is more of a tangent than a focused piece), is much as I’ve said we need to stop polarizing each other, we also need to start allowing ourselves to become more aware of what is happening outside of our own perceived realities.

Pick up a book, find an alternative news source, and find out more before deciding where you stand on these issues – you just might surprise yourself as to what you learn.

This column appeared in the February 16, 2017 edition of the Orangeville Citizen.

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