You are messaging with a friend when you see a series of posts start to flow in about a tragedy that just happened. Before you have time to process what is going on, you see a slew of reactions ranging the spectrum from: “They were asking for it,” to “This happens all the time; what’s the big deal?”
On and on, we see reactions snap back and forth at each other about who’s to blame and who’s ignorant, escalating quickly into name-calling and derogatory comments. Why would any potential tragedy turn from ‘that sucks – a bad thing just happened to someone’ to blame and belittling remarks?
The Art of Controversy
When misfortune befalls someone, we can always divide it into whether there was foul play or if there was an ability to influence what happened. The more indiscriminate the tragedy, the more we tend to come together. There usually isn’t much ability to blame anyone; it just happens. During a natural disaster like a tsunami or an earthquake, we all quickly stand together and help each other out.
Similarly, if someone dies of cancer, most people would be relatively united because it is a hardship for that person and those close to them. Without any other information, there isn’t much we can discriminate.
Yet, what if we add the fact that this was an eight-year-old child who wasn’t diagnosed until a couple of days before their death? Now, there could be outcries; some might automatically assume that the parents must have been negligent. Others might think that the doctors should have found it earlier. All we have to do to incite unrest is continue to add factors to the potential disagreements.
What if it happens to be a child of a minority race, and there is speculation that the child had fewer options than another child of a different race? What if we have the government and other organizations put in their two cents? One political group is calling for healthcare reform as a result. Another political group is claiming that the proposed healthcare reform will be detrimental to the economy. As things get more heated, a large group of people begin to protest that there needs to be better healthcare for minorities. An opposing group also forms, who are predominantly of the majority race, believe that the media is skewing reality for political agendas.
To create controversy, we have to identify the most emotional topics that gain large-scale attention and then find the facts on opposite ends of the attention. With social media and technology, it’s easy to do. Anyone with a few thousand dollars can push a marketing campaign to reach a million people. It doesn’t take a conspiracy anymore; anyone can use real-world events and create a nationwide controversy.
By definition, controversy is ‘heated’ or an emotionally charged, prolonged disagreement between public groups. From the start, once we noted the child was diagnosed only days before their death, our emotions were engaged. Many of us will naturally empathize with the child and the parents. We will wonder “how the heck could cancer go that long undetected?” We’d hate for that to happen to us or anyone in our family. What was or wasn’t done? If foul play could have been involved, that same empathy is going to have us feeling angry or passionate about the outcome.
If these feelings were pointed in the same direction as everyone else, then all would be fine. Yet, once we point passionate feelings against each other, fights and controversy ensue. Once it starts, how often will a passionate person change their mind to agree with the opposition? Just about never.
In any good controversy, there are plenty of facts on both sides of opposing views. Imagine that, in our scenario, there was a higher instance of deaths due to cancer misdiagnosis for the child’s race. That would support the need for reform. However, what if other statistics show that the cancer is harder to detect in that race? Just as we have conflicting beliefs, we almost always have conflicting facts. How are we going to convince anyone that our facts are better than their facts?
With “fake news,” propaganda, political agendas, contradicting facts, and biased statistics, the result is that we keep believing whatever supports our initial thoughts and feelings. Facebook started putting ‘false information’ tags on posts, yet they have already been shown to be wrong at times. Opposing groups believe Facebook as a whole is biased and only supports certain political agendas. Even if Facebook was trying to do the right thing, half the population wouldn’t believe it. Facts are just about useless when used in a sea of controversy.
Tragedy of Controversy
The worst controversies have some form of injustices riddled within. As we have seen time and again, when injustices occur amidst controversy, it’s very difficult to properly address them. If a terrorist or another country wanted to destroy the US, all they’d have to do is incite more racial injustices. The ‘straw’ that breaks the camel’s back, only takes one more incident, by one more person.
Now that all of these passionate disagreements are spinning around, guess who is practically left alone in the eye of the storm? The memory of the eight-year-old who passed away is practically trampled on. While everyone is focused on the agendas of others, the opposition, and the differences between what did or didn’t happen, and the injustices, those who are the closest end up swept away in controversy.
What truly matters? How do we cut through all the noise of controversy? When we can’t agree on what the injustice is, at least on a fundamental level, there will always be controversy.
Even though there are lots of useless facts circling, there will always be a root level concern that the vast majority would agree with. This is the only hope we have for a united front. Without the ability to lean on facts or the open-mindedness of people, we are left with very few options. We have to go back to the essence of what happened. In our case, an eight-year-old died of cancer. That is the tragedy that everyone can agree on. That is our baseline agreement.
From there, we can expand the agreement by just a little more: None of us wants that to happen to other children. And a little more: We want doctors to be able to diagnose things well in advance whenever possible. Once we establish that very first baseline agreement, other small areas will start to be identified creating more understanding.
Going to the baseline can help identify the deeper problems as well. For example, although it is obvious today, in the matter of slavery, a baseline agreement could be: Innocent people shouldn’t be owned by others like property and forced to obey. That baseline agreement would underscore the problem: Slaves weren’t considered innocent people. However, the moment that is proven to be possible, the controversy starts to fall apart.
The problem is that once we go too far or make decisions based on those agreements, we quickly enter back into the controversial realm. Everyone has different opinions about how to make things happen. If it’s a big enough topic, there won’t be one good answer.
No matter what passionate beliefs we have about what did or didn’t happen, what should have happened, or who is to blame, we must find and hold very firmly in our minds as many baseline agreements as we can.
United We Stand
We will never fully agree on any major topic, and that’s completely ok; everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and really, that’s a good thing. We just need to be reminded that the more we get caught up blaming others or casting aspersions, we become the reason for controversies and large-scale disagreements. When we individually divide ourselves from each other, our societies start to do the same, resulting in major conflicts and disputes that end in more tragedy.
The essence of standing together means we tolerate the differences. Our differences can be very easy to tolerate if we find the baseline agreements. If we do this well, we can learn to disagree with class and respect. We can have engaging conversation and discourse even when we disagree.
Intolerance and a divided front are the essences of every fight, every war, and every fallen nation. Let’s remind anyone who is getting caught up in passionate debates over tragedies that there is just about always a baseline we all can agree on. Let’s focus on that and treat one another the way we would treat our loved ones.
I wrote this because of various posts I’ve seen regarding George Floyd (rest in peace). Race and police brutality have been long-time controversies in many countries. No matter what you believe about George, about the police involved, about race issues, about political agendas or any conflicting facts, remember to find the baseline agreements. Most would agree that someone who isn’t resisting arrest and isn’t armed or violent shouldn’t die or have to worry about dying in the process. Let’s stop there, be tolerant, and remember to stand together despite our disagreements and differences.