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silos320991There’s a natural and adaptive human tendency to cling to the familiar, to distrust difference. That worked well for millennia to keep us safe, but now it’s an unhelpful relic that fuels groundless fears and keeps [insert favorite fearmongering media villain here] afloat.  Most of us are surrounded by friends who think like us, who reinforce our choices and our sense of self, who nod and smile and laugh with us, who put us at ease.  Most of us read magazines and watch news channels and listen to talk radio that reinforces our worldview rather than challenging it.

(Those of you busily protesting Not me, not me, I surround myself with ever-so-divergent people and opinions— congratulations on that.  It’s very good news, and you can tell us about it at the end.)

Contemporary culture is increasingly willing and able to bend over backwards to assist us in walling ourselves off from difference. 

It used to take a bit more effort.  Simple example:  As a teenager, I listened to radio stations with broad pop formats and would stumble across unfamiliar things all the time—ska, reggae, punk, funk, new wave, R&B, alternative rock, even novelty songs.  Once in a while I’d find something new that I liked.  Now radio seems to carve out narrow, carefully defined demographic slices.  You like alternative rock? Great, I have the station for you. I promise you’ll never have to hear anything else.  As a bonus gift,  you’ll dodge the risk of encountering anything truly new.

Same with politics, religion, social opinion.  You can now find entire TV networks, magazines, talk radio programs, websites, and blogs devoted to reinforcing your opinions and protecting you from any serious risk of developing new ones.  And all the while, the science of “behavioral marketing” sniffs behind you, studying what you do so they can profitably feed you more of the same.

As a result, we’re dividing ourselves up into smug, self-satisfied silos, each with everything it needs, including pundits devoted to telling us how very smart we are to be in the silo we’ve chosen.

It’s not good.

This cultural siloing not only shuts us off from our own growth but erodes our ability to communicate with or understand those outside of our own silos.  Most of us felt it in the 2008 election—two utterly separate subcultures, one Red, one Blue, each with its own set of “facts,” each with a well-oiled machine of expert opinion and slick presentation designed to reinforce and cherry-pick and coddle and stroke and castigate and denounce as the need arose.  Then we all marched into the polls, pretending we were not de facto citizens of two different nations.

This is not a new observation.  I know that. But I want to bring it into this series on communication across worldview lines because this cultural siloing is right there at the heart of the problem.

Churches are among the most efficient cultural silos.  They tend to bring together likeminded people and reinforce their likemindedness.  Sometimes the result is an empowered community that devotes itself to good things like service and social justice.  Sometimes it can focus and facilitate hatred and division that would not be possible without the reinforcement of that likeminded community.

Now, thanks in large part to the Internet, the nonreligious are finally finding each other and forming communities—with the same good and bad results.  Sometimes we devote ourselves to good things like service and social justice, and sometimes we focus and facilitate a level of hatred and division that would not be possible without the reinforcement of that likeminded community.

So it’s not just a religious thing.  It’s a human thing.  And the difference between the good and bad result goes right back to comfort and contact with difference.

The more a group shuts off contact with unlike minds, the sloppier it gets.  A little less care and thought goes into each statement.  You know the room is with you, so you just say it.  They’ll laugh at the cheap joke about the other group, they’ll nod at less and less grounded generalizations.  Eventually we’re all a self-satisfied mutual admiration society with no remaining ability to communicate outside of our silo.

About ten years ago I became so desperately tired of that self-righteous dynamic among the religious that I stopped attending church.  Last year, I became so desperately tired of that same self-righteousness among the nonreligious that I stopped attending humanist/atheist/agnostic meetings and conventions.  I simply can’t stand the smugness of the silos—especially when I feel it starting to percolate in myself.

Our siloing has a double effect:  One silo loses the ability to speak AND the other loses the ability to hear.

I’ve realized recently that I have a bit of an advantage in all this, which is why I’m writing this series.  I’ve spent an unusual amount of time surrounded by and talking to people whose worldview is very different from mine.  In addition to 25 years of churchgoing, I worked for a while as assistant music minister at a Methodist church and spent 15 years teaching at a Catholic college.  Sometimes I communicated stupidly and ineffectively.  Sometimes I did much better.  I began to take notes, to work on my approach, to improve my effectiveness at hearing and being heard.
I get comments about this all the time.  The most recent was an exchange on Facebook, which is where I’ll go next time.

But first, tell me this, regardless of your perspective: How “siloed” do you feel you are, and how do you think that affects your ability to communicate across lines of difference?

[Complete series]

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...