By Sasha Ongtengco
Some cultural values from our current landscape can hinder our capacity for dialogue and relationship building: efficiency, success, perfection, certainty. These values create the propensity for competition, for “cancel culture” and for seeing the world as a threat, while also contributing to a surge in loneliness.
Adding to that loneliness is our exposure to floods of information, which reduces our ability to focus, take in and absorb what’s right in front of us, or what’s happening right inside of us—it’s always on to the next, making it challenging to hold space for others.
Understanding our current conditions and how they affect my foundational core, my spiritual condition and my worldview are critical to me in determining what helps or hinders my capacity to build healthy relationships of dialogue toward unity.
We really need to take time to examine our current cultural landscape and the elements, patterns and structures that have emerged in recent history. This is not an exhaustive list but is meant to be a starting point for reflective discussions.
1. In our political and cultural climate, fear is intensifying
Fueled by the media, we are constantly bombarded with news coverage of mass shootings, natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, continuous war and other sensationalized tragedies—all constantly stretched out across news media cycles for as long as possible—that contribute to a climate and politics of fear.
As a result, it’s not surprising that many might see so much of the world, including their neighbor, as a threat. This leads to distrust in institutions and among people, while also creating the conditions for a more desensitized society, when we really need more capacity for empathy and connection with each other.
2. Affiliation and trust in institutions is decreasing
Interpersonally, we each experience a break in trust and in a relationship when we experience another person not living up to any one of these elements of trust: boundaries, reliability, accountability, confidentiality, integrity, nonjudgement, generosity (Brené Brown).
Collectively, society continues to experience an erosion of trust because of individuals and powerful institutions perceivably and actually not living up to those same trust elements and other principles they espouse.
This affects our social networks and social capital in the form of moving away or decreasing our affiliation with certain institutions, and searching in other spaces and places for meaning, support and connection (community-based organizations, smaller faith-based communities and neighborhood churches, etc.).
We risk our bridging social capital when we’re not aware of our own biases and gravitate to only what is familiar, avoiding what is unfamiliar.
3. Communication technology is distracting
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Snapchat and other social platforms, and the internet in general, have contributed to a culture of convenience, efficiency and “saving time,” to obtain information when in reality, we actually lose and waste more time with all the distraction that the inundation of information creates.
This may lead to “general mental health symptoms, suicidal ideation, loneliness and isolation, social anxiety, depression, and decreased empathy,” according to a 2018 study by Berryman, Ferguson and Negy.
In addition, especially for younger generations, screen culture inhibits our natural ability and confidence to connect meaningfully and authentically with others, and in general presents obstacles to dialogue.
4. Polarization is spinning out of control
Bitter partisan divides have resulted in protests, riots, and other forms of unrest across the country leading to less support for compromise and increases to a disproportionate impact on electoral politics. Moving towards unity and healing expects people to instantly look beyond months, even years, of deeply adversarial discourse which frames the “other” as fundamentally different.
In his book Antisocial, Andrew Marantz explores how the boundaries between technology, media and politics have been erased, resulting in a deeply broken informational landscape, the landscape in which we all now live.
Marantz shows how alienated young people are led down the rabbit hole of online radicalization, and how fringe ideas spread from anonymous corners of social media to mainstream media outlets.
5. The global pandemic affected us all
COVID-19 has had a drastic effect, causing many to live in practical isolation for much of the pandemic. Many families lost loved ones. Workplaces went online if possible. Jobs were lost. Schools converted to distance learning. Parents struggled to juggle childcare and work. First responders and medical care providers worked overtime in the most challenging circumstances.
As a result, many experienced a loss of control over their lives, a new awareness of their fragility and the need for system safety nets.
6. Systemic racism is having a reckoning
In the U.S., the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 put a spotlight on the historical, cultural and collective trauma of the Black community. In Canada, the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC in May 2021, refocused attention on the systemic mistreatment of indigenous people by successive Canadian and church institutions.
These events sparked broad calls to action. There is a groundswell of individuals with a desire for dialogue who have sought to educate themselves and build up their capacity for empathy, compassion and self-awareness.
7. Forms of identity are expanding
Culture and identity go hand in hand: culture informs identities, and how we live out our identities shapes culture. The post-modern cultural outlook has expanded the many ways individuals and groups connect to identity.
This creates a new challenge, especially for those coming from a generation of simpler times and terms. Some of the more challenging areas of identity that society has struggled to accept include gender and race/ethnicity, as evidenced by the rise in hate crimes, overt aggression, microaggressions, general discrimination and social exclusion.
And while we might not understand or agree with these various forms of identity, to recognize, acknowledge and accept how someone self-identifies is a critical starting point for dialogue.
What has been the impact on us individually and as a society?
- The speed and pace of life makes all relationships difficult and hard to prioritize.
- Difficulty in drawing boundaries, making decisions—e.g., FOMO (fear of missing out)—leads to burnout.
- Breakdown in critical thinking leads to a binary mindset: true/false, right/wrong, black/white.
- Blockages to self-awareness mean we can’t connect with self, and instead can lead to external sources for validation or belonging which can result in echo chambers.
- We end up with our “curated self” or our “identity” on the internet.
- We look on without engaging.
- We, as humans, still inherently desire to be in relationship, in community, to make sense of the senseless and find meaning in the suffering we are living individually and collectively.
- In our current social media and technology-driven age, there’s a palpable tension between wanting to know our neighbors on the one hand and, on the other, not having enough time, or having a limited emotional capacity, or wanting to be “right,” or avoiding pain, shame and embarrassment.
- That tension makes it challenging to establish healthy communication practices and patterns that are the conditions for effective, authentic dialogue.