A Letter From the President

Joseph B. Smith, President & CEO

I have written in the past about my deep concern over the polarization in our society today. The intense and dug in, no compromise type, “pick a side or else” tone and trend in our society is daunting and dangerous. Our whole democracy – as flawed and as hard as it is – is about respecting rights, equality, and speech. And in its inherent process, it is about debate and compromise. It is not about dig in, disparage anyone who disagrees and win at all costs. Our democratic principles, process, and norms, as well as laws, need to be the compass and the common ground for democracy and the sustainability of our Republic as we know it.

I am on a mission to find out what happened in our society, in our collective minds, that would take us to this point and what we can do about it. In my reading on this, I came across something I had not truly realized prior and is at the core of a lot of what is the “attack” on our minds. We all have tendencies to either believe what we read or hear or discount everything we read or hear. Neither is healthy. The social media world, often blamed for “dig in at all costs” mindset, was originally intended to be a place to share our lives (think Facebook/META) and share information and connections (Twitter) yet has taken quite a different turn.

Something else I learned in my reading, when the “like” button was enabled on Facebook in 2009, it triggered a collection of data in what followers “liked”. What the data showed over time is the most popularly read data pieces were ones that triggered fear and anger of users. Subsequently, advertisers paid more money for topics that had more likes and activity- the topics that got into our heads in such a way that sparked fear and anger. Messages coming at us are from social media, for profit only business models, learned they can make more money by saying anything that sparks fear and anger. These can be true or false and, something to note, social media platforms have certain immunities from civil suits under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Whether you believe in zero filtering of what is shared or selected data retraction, the reality is we as readers/listeners have to take the mindset of “reader be aware”. We should also be aware that foreign adversaries add to the confusion and anger and fear. All of this has started to shape our collective minds against each other from within. What started off as an amazing form of connectivity and sharing has become a weapon of false and targeted information that is tearing us a part – literally.

Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, an avid student of the history of societies and their downfall, states that when societies become polarized with “win at all costs” sides digging in on their populist beliefs, it is one of the clear signs democracy is falling apart – and it will be followed by autocracy – and who knows what after. History isn’t on our side here in the United States if we allow this polarization to continue.

What does one do? I am trying to coach myself to be more aware of the hygiene of what we allow to stay in our minds as external messages and stories come at us. I am trying to pause between the trigger of data that hits me – use the pause to not have an emotional, anger, or fear reaction or allow it to be the only part that stays in my mind. We need to be aware of our need to pause and filter. Realize you need to filter the toxic conspiracies, false assumptions, and accusations. Instead, rely on multiple diverse resources before we digest and form reactions or opinions. Keep an open mind to all data and opinions and be flexible to shift, not dig in, as you see more credible data. No data is pure and clean. Yet, if you use multiple resources on all sides of an issue, you can see patterns or credibility affirmations that lead you closer to the “truth”.

A newsletter I occasionally read by Mark Manson, posted 3 Principles for a Better Life (June 2022). A pretty good read in and of itself, yet the 3rd principal has some good advice on what skill sets are now more important than ever in a polarized society.

Principle #3 is – “A little bit of truth exists in everything; but the whole truth in nothing.”

Manson states in his article, “the ability to reserve moral judgement and be slow to draw conclusions may become the next critical new skill necessary to survive in the Twitter-driven world.” He goes on to advise, “this ability to seek pieces of truth in a larger, erroneous whole is an important skill to develop. For one it makes you learn much faster. But it also makes you more sympathetic to people who believe differently than you. Most importantly, it will help you develop the ability to change your mind, when warranted – a skill that is horribly underrated these days”.

I would add, I like using empathy versus sympathy when talking about polarizing viewpoints, yet I get his point. Being open and respectful of other viewpoints and trying to understand their thoughts and where they come from is critical so you do not “dig in” and fight with a no compromise, win at all costs mentality. You do not have to be on the same side of issues or paths to solve problems, yet we better all be on the same side of our democratic process and ideals.

I not only hope this will help you with a “better life”, but also give you some thoughts on what you can do in your mind and for those you interact with daily to hold ourselves accountable on how to not allow the further division in our society. We need to take charge and get back to debate and compromise, get back to finding common ground and thinking common good. Debate for what you believe in and work to make it happen within our system of democracy. If we keep allowing it to go beyond this – history shows the consequence is something 95% in this country do not want for our kids and grandkids.

Be Sure.