I often ask myself how my UU values show up in everyday life. A few weeks ago, soon after the election, I saw a video clip of a man in his 30s or 40s outside the Arizona state capitol at a televised “stop the steal” rally. Among other things, that man asked the crowd around him, “What are you willing to do to keep your children from growing up in a communist country?” “What is he talking about?!” I thought.
I’m going to assume that this man’s fears of his children growing up in the U.S. as a “communist country” are real to him. And other than that statement and others he made during his rant, he did not appear to have lost touch with reality. And yet he said that Republicans and Democrats were both out to take our freedom as Americans away from us. And that Donald Trump was the only person who could stop this country’s slide into communism. The man said he “was willing to do anything” to prevent that from happening. I could not believe what I was hearing; that this person’s reality was so divorced from mine, which I truly believe is more widely shared and thus more likely to be true in the sense of being “objective”. I was aghast to hear him say that there is nothing he is not prepared to do to hold onto what seems to me to be his utter delusion.
Tom Vander Ark wrote for Forbes: “The Internet was supposed to create a shared reality[. B]ut social media reinforced information gullies that have widened into canyons of difference with competing facts interpreted through tribal logic models and resulting in distinctly different realities. . . . [I]t’s clear that rather than serving as a unifying force, social media has become a wedge that divides. . . .
“The fundamental problem is one of communication, “The problem of persuasion, the problem of getting people to agree on a shared consensus view of reality, and to acknowledge basic facts and to have their probability assessments of various outcomes to converge through honest conversation,” explained neuroscientist and author Sam Harris. [Harris continued:] “[O]ur [attempt] to fuse cognitive horizons through conversation is reliably derailed by politics.” He adds religion as a second ideology that shapes individual views of reality.”
Vander Ark noted the obvious but essential point that “it’s hard to make progress without starting with a common fact base and a shared sense of reality. . . . Humans interrupt facts through complicated values-based filters which are shaped by groups we associate with. This tribal psychology motivates how we behave to fit in with our peers. “At times, since belonging goals are so vital to our survival, we value signaling that we are good members of our tribes much more than we value being correct, and in those circumstances we will choose to be wrong — if signaling we believe wrong things seems like it will keep us in good standing with our peers,” said David McRaney about why some people don’t wear masks in a pandemic.
As a result of these thick and influential group memberships, just laying out the facts isn’t enough to create a shared reality. It requires involvement and enrollment in shared values. Journalist Jad Abumrad realized that “hammering at a scientific truth when someone has suffered, that wasn’t going to heal anything.” [Tom Vander Ark, “Moving Forward Requires A Shared Reality: It’s Invention Opportunity #1”, 9/20/2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomvanderark/2020/09/20/moving-forward-requires-a-shared-reality-its-invention-opportunity-1/?sh=2c17df52437e.]
I do believe that, to an extent, each of us lives within our “individual realities”, as a commentator said the other day. My experiences, history, understandings, circumstances are all different than yours. On the other hand, I am not ready to abandon a commitment to the possibility of a widely shared reality. Without a shared reality, where is the hope for us? And what is the alternative? The UU 7th Principle states the reality that we are all part of the interdependent web of all existence, not isolated individuals. So what do we do as UU’s trying to help the world?
I think the reality we want to share with others needs to start with values rather than facts. Surely there are some values most of us can find in common – like not kicking puppies, the biblical commandment not to murder, or not making the Earth uninhabitable. That’s really the hope of the UU Principles – they state values, not facts, that I think most reasonable people can agree on. The inherent worth and dignity of every person, for example. Or commitment to a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. I hope we continue to offer a values-based reality rather than a demand for agreement on facts. Maybe that will give us all a decent chance to live together in peace, liberty, and justice, another UU Principle and what seems should be a widely shared value.