By Bernadette Healy
I have recently been reading some interesting pieces around the themes of tribalism[i] and social cohesion,[ii] and reflecting on the worrying trend to focus myopically on the sound-bite individual level (demonizing or worshiping), at the expense of tackling long-term, humanity-wide issues. Of course as a psychologist, and particularly one delivering mental-health-related services, I am daily contributing to the individual-centric paradigm – just as our communication systems increasingly do. Particularly as the entry point for audience engagement. One argument used to justify this approach is that, once hooked in to the story of one of our tribe or one of our enemies, broader themes can be addressed. I wonder if this is happening less and less often, and that instead, the piece begins and ends at the individual level – with the reader happily left to sigh in contentment or wonder or exclaim in relief that they don’t know anyone or live near anyone like ‘that’.
There is no denying that it is very difficult for many of us to stay with the bigger issues long enough to find a way to contribute positively without becoming overwhelmed. A combination of: enormity of the issues; relentless streaming; reductionism of content; and sensationalising of information all contribute to this group helplessness. This is particularly the case when our work and personal lives are stretched to capacity, and aggravated further by competitive and combative work domains. The seemingly ever-increasing levels of anxiety prohibit many from staying with their own discomfort – leading to the pursuit of a myriad of avoidance behaviours including withdrawal, anger, fleeing the scene, routine and or excessive drinking, over-eating, addiction to screens / internet porn etc – and little capacity is felt to be left to think about humanity. However, contributing towards a greater good (even when limited to your ‘tribe’) can provide healing opportunities and a natural antidote to Myopia.
Please note the ‘a’ before ‘greater good’! This is where paradoxically, the individual level must be honoured in order for each of us to sustain any contribution to others. In other words your values and interests will largely determine what ‘greater good’ means for you. You will need to reflect a while and perhaps try a few alternatives before you find a domain that sustains you. What is possible and sustaining will of course shift as your life structure shifts. The reflecting and choosing and even a tiny action[iii] can create huge shifts and extinguish that awful feeling of helplessness that can grip us in despair and inaction such that a myopic view is all that is doable.
This state of myopia is of course damaging in terms of societal-level tolerance and cohesion.
Getting back to the personal challenge of working within a profession where change is commonly focused at the individual level, I found it very gratifying to read about a recent Australian Psychological Society Social Cohesion Round table[iv] at which participants developed a list of psychological insights to promote social cohesion. Their list included the following:
- Diversity and radicalism are natural and healthy aspects of any society as they allow complexity and creativity in problem-solving. Problems occur when violence is used and as such there is a need to target promoters of hate and violence, who in turn are often a product of disengagement.
- Challenge the assumption that it is the responsibility of minorities to integrate into the mainstream and promote self-reflection and cultural competence / responsiveness. Focus on community strengths, not individual threats and punitive measures.
- Focus on changing social norms not individuals, individuals will follow
- Acknowledge the influence of media and hence the potential to work collaboratively with media practitioners (journalists and broadcasters) and media researchers to change social attitudes and public discourses.
Good luck finding the little thing that you can do if you happen to find yourself visiting Myopia land.
[i] Hope for a mad world Sarah Gill The Age September 1, 2016
[ii] Psychologists convene to discuss ways to promote social cohesion in a multicultural society InPsych. The bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society. August 2016 Vol 38 Issue 4 pp 22-25.
[iv] A snapshot of this work can be seen at http://www.psychology.org.au/public_interest/social-cohesion/aps-resources/