The Upside to the Tower of Babel
Photo by US Army
Forces that Bind
Jonathan Hait recently published an article in the Atlantic. “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” He likens America’s fragmentation with the Tower of Babel as a metaphor for Social Media’s impact. People, groups, and institutions no longer link for a “successful democracy”. Today we prefer “Hidden Tribes” of opposite elites.
What piqued my interest for this read is human connection. Sadly, I can enumerate the lack of it more than I can share how having an affinity for one another is beneficial. Back in 2012, I surmised platforms to give me the latest up to date truth when I hit a like or share button. It felt as though I had a one-on-one civil conversation with another human being. Oh boy! Topsy-Turvy me. As the years passed, so did the annals of on-line vitriol.
“Social scientists have identif[ied at least three major forces” that are intended “to bind us for successful democracies. They shouldn’t contribute to a lopsidedness: 1) Social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust, 2) strong institutions, and 3) shared stories.”
Hait’s article details social media’s weakening of the three. I’ll begin with social networks.
Platforms remind me of fissures on the ground. They appear like fragmented parts. Quakes are bound to occur in California sliding the fissures open. I’m a native of CA, not afraid of quakes but aware. Now while sitting here, I get a glimpse of the ground rolling on a playground like the up and down force of a roller coaster, feel a tussle while watching TV, and my car shaking on an overpass during the Loma Prieta quake 100 miles from the epicenter. Awareness. Fissures meander on the golden mountains here bubbling for the next tectonic shift.
Today I measure how fragmented humanity has become. We get triggered daily. From business to entertainment to social concerns, our emotions, and intellect. Not all is good! We mute our thoughts about a collective responsibility to track information. And when clicks land within a single angry hidden tribe, a revolt is on the horizon.
Did you know that the engineer “who worked on the ‘Retweet’ button…regretted his contribution? He thought, ‘We might have…handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon’.”
Murder in the first degree is the charge for a platform’s permission to defy human dignity.
We learned in school that we need institutions for thriving democracies. That’s funny. Look at us! Institutions are harbingers of who holds the power and control. Take a gander at who or what is whom!
Institutions develop policies further fragmenting systems away from a successful democracy. That happens when they function as hidden tribes. Institutions aren’t fixed, though. One tribe likes to tell another that it is! That’s a lie. When we push our way in and use our voices, we reposition power.
I have a copy of Timothy Snyder’s, On Tyranny on my desk. It’s a framework to remind me about how democracies thrive or fall. (Get one!) A chapter titled Defend Institutions explains the effects of deteriorating institutions.
They need our help as well. Do not speak of ‘our institutions
unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf
Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after
the other unless each is defended from the beginning
So, choose an institution you care about – a court, a news-paper,
a law, a labor union – and take its side (p.13)
Don’t believe a lie that everything is set in stone.
I relish the power of story! But who tells the stories? Are they true? Who says so? How do I know when I hear/ read lies? Should I listen to others’ stories? Do I have to see to believe?
Someone once told me I shared too much about myself to others. That wasn’t true. I get why. Most of us prefer to detach from storytelling. It’s better for work. My personality. My boundaries. Stories about someone, something else removes us from wanting to uncover a line from a personal world. Avoidance to make connection with people is simpler.
We are conditioned to center the bad in people and ignore our own skewed world views.
Stories create patterns overtime, though. We can’t look away. And they require a description of events: Who? What? Where? Why? Conditions? When? To what extent or condition? We’ve become lazy to answer all the questions.
It’s wise to listen to reverberating messages among a Tower of Babeling foolishness. Hait has a suggestion about disconfirming confirming information among hidden tribes. “Interact with people who don’t share your beliefs.” I know it’s not easy.
” Stuart Mill is quoted saying, He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that, urging us to seek out conflicting views from those who believe them.” I’ll leave that one right there!
Fragmented crevices open opportunities to reshape systems in the nation, state, and community. Leaders want an upside to the Tower of Babel.
Pay attention to the system and notice reoccurring loops that benefit a hidden tribe. Consider a loop as a story on a Platform, from a person, or from institutions. Learning to see problems and their patterns is systems thinking.
When tribes speak out to rattle a system, an upside follows. Even when we don’t like the outcome, movement happens. I see loops / patterns overtime. Just look at January 6. Loop. The shake-up began long before 45’s election. Remember the Tea Party? Loop. Mass shootings from gun proliferation? 220 Loops. Here count them.
Another social movement reemerged with force spotlighting Black/Brown racially motivated murders. The movement never died; it became global after George Floyd’s murder. Loops. The rate of fatal police shootings among Black Americans was much higher than that for any other ethnicity, standing at 38 fatal shootings per million of the population as of May 2022. Add em up.
Balancing for equity is intentional. Check with the current reality. Tribes who gather to empower change shouldn’t shy away from the work it takes to shift the balance of control. Hindsight offers an advantage. A willingness to follow its trends propels change forward.
Finding the Upside is in Front of Us Daily
Yesterday in the late morning, someone absconded with the mailman’s mail –-from his truck. People were outside walking dogs and frocking about involved with out-of-door chores. But no one paid attention to the frantic running down the street–right in front of everyone. The mail man chased a hooded individual who hopped in his car for a get-away.
The upside was that many houses were “secured” with Rings and similar video devices. Oh, don’t we trust technology designs in time of personal need! My neighbor, who works from home, caught a glimpse of the malaise in real time on her Ring. She too ran outside.
A collection of video snippets from neighbors’ techy devices became shared visual stories.
“What I saw was, Oh and then he, I can describe the car.” All communicated and watched reels. The same patterns of movement played out from a stupid thief. Meanwhile a collective supported the community.
Loop a-day, a-week, a-month, and years
Linda Booth Sweeney is a systems educator, and author. She offers practice to become “systems thinkers” about “news stories.” A collective can rattle to rebalance a system by attending to stories. Just “ask new questions. Learn to experience time differently and notice the systems around [you].” “Practice diagraming [your] understanding of those systems [especially with the stories you hear].” With knowledge and leadership capacity people can act upon reoccurring stories. Social action has the potential to prevent the cascading demise of our democracy.
Watch events and engage with people to surface their mental models.
Listening or reading others’ words, I layer questions to process information. The theft was a simple illustration of community collaboration. Sadly, we prefer to link up only with hidden tribes. We ignore unlike stories, particularly overtime. Why ignore shared stories that play out in front of us? We recently witnessed a political tribe step over children’s dead bodies from a mass shooting like it didn’t happen.
When panic rears from a shake-up, the collective of shared stories has an advantage. We want people to respond with human dignity. Many do. But many of us ignore the obvious rifts. We prefer recalcitrance over involvement.
What’s a Leader to do with Recurring Loops?
Leaders speak up & out. They dismantle systems to recreate other ways to function. Fierce action can realign the Tower of Babel. I might be Polly-anna, but I believe leaders who want a successful democracy are responsible for its restoration.
Don’t get too comfortable though. Balancing loops may be for a period. They restabilize like ground fissures. Quakes shake-rattle-and-roll homes, destroy communities, and even take human life. An eerie calm follows a massive quake. It’s always a false sense of confidence. Those who know, know that another quake is on the way.
Trust reinforcing loops too. Don’t dismiss voices from the marginalized or allies. Platforms do not welcome them. Hait tells us that “women and Black people are harassed disproportionately” online. It’s no wonder the digital public dismisses stories from lived experiences. Can you monitor loops of stories? From your organization? From current events?
The symbol that the engineer designed about putting a gun in the hand of a 4-year-old is powerful. Re-share information responsibly. Loops of disinformation skew the balance for control and contribute to a lop-sidedness.
Don’t kill the messengers who duly dole out truthful narratives. Emily O. Weltman is a writer. Her stories may trigger emotions. Her motivation to write is in service of a higher purpose.
Once you find a mission and vision to equalize our system, share it. If you get shot down, get up. Reinforce information forcefully and shout the next round.
I remember when I read “Shouting into the Void is Tiring, but Working for ‘The Man’ is Exhausting.” Emily’s “heart and words are worthy; [her ideas] are innovative; [her] art beautiful.”
Her mission is strong. She purposes to end patriarchy as an inequitable, archaic system in institutions and society. Emily’s ability to remain on message is a spiritual work that benefits all humanity.
The Point for Leaders
Listen. Follow both sides for information. Identify Hidden Tribes. Be an interconnected force!
Don’t assume that democracy will be safe. Don’t hide your words. Don’t be idle to start a cause to protect institutions. Don’t assume someone else will do the work.
You are the Upside to the Tower of Babel.
Discovery with ST Consulting compiles systems thinking strategies for facilitators to deliver in organizations, groups, and communities.