Many online forums have become fierce battlefields between conservatives, liberals, economists, ecologists, fundamentalists, atheists, globalists and nationalists, just to mention a few.
Those heated arguments have weaponized the web, further polarizing our societies.
Viewpoints, strongly held and diametrically opposed, create verbal violence and virtual warfare. While we need civil discourse on such issues, civility often becomes the first casualty in these virtual wars.
How do we break the habitual pattern of taking sides and fighting about issues, whether they’re political, philosophical or scientific? In the acid environment of a conversation that frequently degenerates into a call to arms, no one listens, let alone gets convinced. So why all the vitriol? Who does it benefit?
Various explanations have been proffered. Electronic forums have led to increasingly inflammatory dialogue, as has the challenge of sensationalism feeding media sales. But something more fundamental lies at the root of the problem.
Underlying the outrageous discourse, you can usually spot a “good guys versus bad guys” philosophy, which seems to be our cultural default. Unfortunately, that worldview lends itself perfectly to “othering,” the tendency to see our side as innocent and the other side as dumber, less informed and possibly malicious. As a technique, it’s great for justifying bullying or other abuse. (They deserve it!)
We all occasionally engage in othering, and yet there is real danger in carrying it too far. According to psychologist and Stanford professor Phillip Zimbardo, one of the most important social processes that “grease the slippery slope of evil” is the dehumanization of others.
In reality, we all have the capability to inflict much harm, and conversely, we’re all capable of enlightened transformation, given the right circumstances and motivation. Obviously then, accusations, insults and the aim to verbally conquer may be satisfying as ego candy – but they’re counterproductive to communication. We need ways to mutually educate, nurture understanding and restore dignity.
The Baha’i teachings say that evil, as horrific as it can be, ultimately results from ignorance and the absence of admirable qualities:
If we wish to illumine this dark plane of human existence, we must bring man forth from the hopeless captivity of nature, educate him and show him the pathway of light and knowledge, until, uplifted from his condition of ignorance, he becomes wise and knowing; no longer savage and revengeful, he becomes civilized and kind; once evil and sinister, he is endowed with the attributes of heaven. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 306.
It almost goes without saying that this education of the heart, based on empathy and compassion, provides the only lasting remedy in the long term, and every generation requires a renewed effort.
Although the clash of ideas and vying with one another can lead to excellence, Baha’is see unity as the highest goal. Truth is sought in that spirit, with the recognition that no person or group has a copyright on it and varying perspectives are needed for its discovery.
With that perspective, we can see the ingredients for a shift to a more nuanced view of human nature and healthier norms of social interaction. Science has enriched our knowledge of human behavior, and best practices have taught us the value of prevention through dialogue, inclusion and education.
The Baha’i writings, like other spiritual scriptures, encourage us to remember our higher natures, our true identities, and to honor these qualities in others:
O Son of Spirit! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? … Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, pp. 6-7.
Polarization results from a worldview based on domination and force, one that badly needs revision. A philosophy that recognizes our essential unity and nobility is the only one worthy of a global civilization – and the only one that can quell the world’s wars, whether actual or virtual.