A friend recently raised concerns about the increase in messages when discussing the COVID-19 pandemic using an “us-vs-them” frame. His point was that in this day and age, public health emergencies should not be cast as fights between tribes. Yet, that type of framing began almost immediately after the outbreak, when some labeled COVID-19 as the Chinese virus. The attempt to separate us into groups as we consider and respond to the coronavirus has since increased in countless ways, against multiple targets.
Us-vs-them framing is dangerous. It is tribal in nature and uses fear to inﬂame prejudices, driving hostility and hate. Such reactionary framing, legal- and social-policy writer Stephen L. Carter noted in another context, is “designed to bypass the rational faculties of its targets.” Framing conversations and thinking as us-vs-them reduces the number of people we feel responsible for or connected to. It contracts the circle of “we,” usually by highlighting how others are different from our “tribe” and therefore not worthy of our support or concern.
I sometimes write about topics that I need to hear. This is definitely one of those times. My concern over our country’s shift into an authoritarian attitude and disregard for the rule of law drives my thinking and leads me into my own us-vs-them way of speaking. I have no doubt that others who have a different perspective feel just as passionately.
I’m not suggesting that we dismiss real conversations around policies and accountability. But at this particular moment in time, we may have the opportunity to break out of the worst habits driven by this tribal mindset. Surprising as it seems, as we shelter-in-place our circle of contacts may, in fact, be increasing.
Many of us are now talking with individuals we haven’t engaged with in recent months or even years; people outside our tribe. In the past two months, I have either been involved with — or have heard of — online Zoom conversations among families, siblings, cousins, neighborhoods, high school and college classes, fraternities and sororities, and old business teams. People are sending notes via snail mail to friends and those they have known in the past. I’ve certainly had more telephone calls of the “how are you doing” variety in recent weeks. My younger brother has taken to showcasing his grilling skills with a daily Facebook Live post. We’re all trying new ways to connect to those outside our four walls, and we’re only limited by our imaginations.
The pandemic is leading many of us to move beyond our normal circle of friends and colleagues. Pressures and calls on our time no longer seem as pertinent or simply no longer exist. As a result, many of us are at a point where we begin to think about those in our lives who were once close but who have drifted away; who perhaps helped love us into being but who we’ve lost contact with over time. As a result, in this era of polarized politics we’re talking with people outside our political tribes, people who have different perspectives about a wide variety of things that matter.
Significant majorities of Americans across the political spectrum support continued sheltering and distancing policies. What they mean by that no doubt differs, but often at the core of those feelings is the love they have for their parents and grandparents, who are most at risk. Our particular “circle of we” really matters to each of us, especially when it includes those who gave us life. In this particular crisis, we have the opportunity to use language in our conversations with friends, families, co-workers, and neighbors that takes those personal feelings and connects individual action to the common good. We can begin by using a broad “us,” and look for opportunities to talk about the positive aspects of interconnection. Rather than contracting our circles, we can talk about how this affects us all and widen our circles of “we.”
Conversations of this type can help us explore and shape meaning for ourselves and others.* Good stories can “challenge our acceptance of the world as immutable and provide both critique and optimism,” Susan Nall Bales has written in Nonprofit Quarterly. She adds that for our stories to work in moving others, they need to reveal “how they impede the outcomes we value (my emphasis). These ‘how the world works stories’ fill in missing pieces in people’s everyday repertoire. They invite what Daniel Kahneman calls ‘slow thinking,'” Bales continues, “overcoming the tendency to instantly evaluate all social issues through one’s partisan lens.”
There’s a great deal of commentary these days about how the “new normal” will need to differ from the old way of doing things; how we need to get to work “building the America we need.” One simple way is by recognizing that we have taken this significant break from our normal ways of communicating, and are having conversations with individuals outside our tribes. With some effort we can work to keep them engaged. We can widen our circle of “we.”
Have a good week.
More to come.
*While there are a number of online resources for ways to rethink our conversations in a time of crisis, one of the most effective I’ve used comes from The FrameWorks Institute. The institute is a nonprofit think tank that works with groups to frame communications in order to build public will and further public understanding…Their work is designed for organizations, but in a series of nine (to date) short papers on topics that connect people to the bigger picture around the pandemic, their advice is equally as helpful for individuals.