Silos January 25, 2015

[Third post in a series on communication. Start at the top.]


There’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 Fox News and Nancy Grace on the air. 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.

Our 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 to silo yourself off. 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, novelty songs. Once in a while I’d find something new that I liked. Now radio carves out narrow, carefully defined demographic slices. Pandora takes the carving to a whole new level. You like moody, atmospheric, bass-driven electronica? Great, I have the station for you. I promise you’ll never have to hear anything else. No risk of tripping over anything truly new.

Same with politics, religion, social opinion. Entire TV networks, magazines, talk radio programs, podcasts, websites, and blogs exist to reinforce my opinions and protect me from developing new ones. And all the while, the new science of behavioral marketing sniffs behind me, studying what I do so they can profitably feed me 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. We feel it in every national 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 arises. Then we all walk into the same polls, pretending we aren’t de facto citizens of two different nations.

I’m well aware that this isn’t a new observation. But I want to bring it into this series on communication across worldview lines because siloing is 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 equality. 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 finding each other and forming communities—with the same good and bad results. Sometimes we devote ourselves to good things like service and social equality, and sometimes we focus and facilitate a level of hatred and division that wouldn’t 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 15 years ago, I became so tired of that self-righteous dynamic among the religious that I stopped attending church with my wife. A few years later, I became so tired of that same self-righteousness among the nonreligious that I stopped attending most freethought meetings and conventions. I just can’t stand the smugness of the silos—especially when I feel it starting to percolate into my own head.

Our siloing has a double effect: Each silo loses the ability to speak and to hear.

I’ve spent a lot 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, spent 15 years teaching at a Catholic college, and married a Baptist, an atheist all the while. Sometimes I communicated stupidly and ineffectively. Sometimes I did much better. I began to take notes, to work on my approach and to improve my effectiveness at hearing and being heard. This series comes mostly from those cross-silo experiences.

On to Part 4

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