Are we really aware of what is going on around us?

This is a post that I started writing last year, then I got frustrated with it and shelved it to come back to it later. It touches on politics, though isn’t a political post. It’s still somehow as true as when I started writing it last autumn…

We live in our little bubbles and are then surprised when we come across people whose experiences are so different from our own.

I didn’t think this applied to me. I have a group of friends which is really diverse in terms of people from different cultures and backgrounds, many of whom face different day-to-day challenges from my own. Nowadays my friends are more my own age, but I also spend time with people who are older or younger than I am. Previously they were always older, but that was when I thought people my own age weren’t very interesting.

I would say my friends are also pretty diverse in terms of what they do for a living. IT professionals and teachers are perhaps over-represented, and I know a lot of people working in the legal field from my past job. But other than that, my friends and the people I talk with do a wide range of jobs.

I can’t really share why I even began thinking about this post, but I was taking part in some research. Apart from the thing that we were actually talking about in the focus group, my biggest take-away was the amount of negativity some people have towards social media. And that’s fine – I wasn’t trying to convert anyone. I see problems with it too, both in terms of the way individual platforms are managed and the way in which people use them. But most of my friends are on at least one social media platform – often more. Apart from a couple of people that I know, I genuinely don’t come across that many people who aren’t present on at least one social media site.

It’s the same when you look at internet access. According to some research that I was using in one of my classes, 95% of the people in the UK have access to the internet. But what about those other 5%? Who are they? What’s life like for them without something that I struggle to go even a few hours without? (I munched through all my data the other day and had to top it up because I couldn’t go just a couple of weeks without mobile data). But there are people who don’t have an internet connection at home. There are even people that don’t have mobile phones. What’s life like for them? In Germany the figure goes down to 85%. What about the other 15%? I have no idea.

Before the 2016 referendum, I thought it would be a done deal. We would vote to stay in the EU and then we would carry on as normal. That’s what all of my friends were saying. And then I was so shocked at the Brexit referendum result. I’m not here to make this into a political post, but I genuinely thought that it would be a clear-cut win for remain. Why? Because most of the people I spoke to on a day-to-day basis agreed with me and thought that the alternative would be a disaster. So I somehow had the impression that was representative. That turned out not to be true. Maybe some leave voters were shocked in the same way that the margin was so narrow – if all of their friends felt the same, the number of people wanting to stay may have also been a surprise to them.

We’re trained to think of diversity as covering things such as race, gender, disability, sexual orientation etc. That’s true, and for me at least, I don’t find that difficult.

But a key part of diversity in the wider sense that I think we often overlook is difference. People who are just different from ourselves. People who think differently or see the world differently – not because of something like another culture, but another political view or another view on what role technology should be playing in our lives, including the role of social media.

I don’t read the newspapers that those people read. Maybe I should once in a while. Not because I want to change my mind, because in many cases what these particular people believe is so different from what I believe, but at least knowing what they think and why might help me to understand them better. Or at least to be aware of their reasons. But that brings me onto the other thing that I find hard. So much now is based on emotional decision-making rather than actual facs. Article headlines and advertising are written to appeal to our emotional responses and not to our brains. I really struggle with this kind of discussion and I don’t have an answer to that!

I don’t have the energy for pointless arguments. Discussions, maybe. But they have to be built on measurable facts and logical conclusions – otherwise I get bored!

The discussion about social media and use of technology to communicate really opened my eyes. In a broader sense, the discussion was about how best to communicate information. And as is almost always the case, I think the right answer is somewhere in the middle of the scale between social media is evil and it’s the answer to everything. Use it to communicate your information to the vast number of people who will see it that way (including many people like me, who won’t see a big sign or a leaflet through my door). Don’t expect it to solve all your problems, but don’t see it as the enemy either. Take what’s good about social media, and work with that. Any kind of extreme views are usually unhelpful, whichever end of the scale they veer towards. And we as a society are becoming so divided with our us-and-them mentalities. The problem is, “they” are people too. We might not agree with them, but if we stop even listening to or acknowledging them, there are no communication channels open for dialogue. And that’s not a good position to be in. Seeing people as the enemy quickly dehumanises them.

Going back to the point about social media, or even discussions in general, we seem to be living in such a polarised society. I believe we should stand up for what we think is right, rather than trying to dilute it to make it acceptable to everyone. And there will be things that I will not agree with others on – particularly in the politically-charged post-referendum climate in the UK. There are people with whom I won’t discuss politics now because I know it won’t lead anywhere good. I’m much more likely to respond to a logical reason why my argument might be flawed than a “you’re an idiot because you think that and you must have been listening to fake news”. It’s ok to be passionate, but I find it hard when discussions become emotional rather than objective.

We had debating club in years 12 and 13 at school. I really enjoyed it, but I can’t remember whether I chose to join or whether it was mandatory. I don’t remember doing anything like that in years 7 to 11, and I think these are such useful skills. I didn’t always agree with the motions I was given to argue, but I enjoyed the challenge of looking for arguments to support or contradict them. I learned a lot from that.

Sometimes the only smart thing to do is to walk away – from the discussion, if you see it’s not going anywhere, or even from a friendship if the values that the other person is promoting are so far removed from your own.

But where did all the hate come from? Someone disagreed with us on Twitter, so we decide to make a big drama out of it. Someone has a different opinion, so that’s all the justification we need to start attacking them verbally? There are world leaders who lead by their bad example in this, but surely we can do better than that? We might still agree to disagree at the end, but there must be a way to do it that’s more classy than the mud-slinging that I see all the time on social media, and even the bad attitudes I sometimes witness in real life.

I think we all need to be aware of the echo chambers. We surround ourselves with people who think like us. Social media algorithms see what kind of content we respond well to and fill our feeds with more of that content. It feels good when we post things and others agree with us. None of these things are bad in themselves, but there is another part to our society – maybe people we go to work with or see every day at the school gates. We don’t have to agree with them, but we can’t just deny their existence or dismiss them because they don’t fit with our view of the world.

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