RoosRead Discussion #1 Sorting, Othering, Siloing

I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, by Mónica Guzmán

Welcome to UMKC Libraries’ RoosRead discussions for Academic Year 2023-2024! Over the next ten months, we will post monthly articles about sections of the book, along with some activities recommended by author Mónica Guzmán. To get us started on the right foot, and to “set the table” for the rest of our posts, here in September we’re going to examine the problem of our polarized communities.

Why are people so divided? Patterns of Division

In Part I of the book Guzmán analyzes why we often can’t talk with each other constructively and gain insight. Not only can’t we make ourselves understood by others with opposing viewpoints on critical societal issues, we also ourselves have trouble understanding why others believe what they say about these issues. Guzmán finds three patterns of human behavior that we all share, and how being able to identify these patterns in ourselves and others can help us understand why our conversations become so confounding. She calls these patterns sorting, othering, and siloing, and the first letters of these patterns collectively spell SOS – the international signal of distress!

Sorting

Cropped from open-access wallpaper image located via Wallpaper Flare

Guzmán mentions an Ubuntu proverb, “I am because we are,” and that strong relationships between people are healthier. We are more likely to have healthy behaviors like daily exercise or a certain diet because of the people we hang around – so people often sort themselves into groups based on positive behaviors and mindsets. Social media can serve to encourage this kind of sorting, allowing isolated individuals to enjoy some community of common interests and thinking with other individuals far removed from them geographically.

However, sorting has a dark side. If the groups people sort themselves into are based on negative behaviors or mindsets, like a penchant for theft or their distrust of people who look or act differently from them, it can be very divisive for society. In the case of negative behaviors or mindsets, social media can encourage this kind of sorting and amplify the magnitude of the negative behaviors and mindsets.

Othering

Public Domain Image, “Pointing Finger Hand-Banner” by George Hodan

“Othering,” the “O” in “SOS,” occurs “When we push off from people who are not like us in some way that matters, disparaging them as a result…” according to Guzmán (p 17). Think of the classic “us vs. them,” in that it seems you can’t have an “us” (a group where you feel affinities, kinship, “real” belonging) and a “them” (these other folks with whom you lack the same affinities, kinship, and “real” belonging). Othering is in some ways wired in to our makeup as humans. No one can escape from othering thoughts, the dark side of othering comes when we think of “them” as “less than” ourselves and our in-group.

If we go toward excesses of “less than” when thinking and talking about “them,” we start to put distance and space between our in-group “us” and our othered group “them.” We can start to see our group as “right-thinking” about whatever bonds we share, and their group as “wrong-thinking” about those bonds. All kinds of problems can result: “When we focus so much on the righteousness of our side, we stop thinking straight, we stop seeing straight, and we lose the ability to truly consider what’s different,” says Guzmán (p 30).

Siloing

We are all probably familiar with siloing – at least, we can pick it out in a picture and know what a silo does.

Public Domain Image by Firkin from OpenClipArt / WikiCommons

Silos keep things like harvested grain safe from the weather and pests like rodents. They isolate something from its environment. Inside a silo, if you yell, your voice will reverberate and echo around.

Siloing is just that – we not only stay safe with our in-group folks, but we only hear the echoes of our in-group’s thoughts and actions. We never see, hear, or talk with others outside our in-group on the issues and activities that really matter to our in-group. Social media creates better affinity communities, but social media can also make better communications silos. The way algorithms work, we don’t have to talk with, or even look at or read, posts from “other” groups if we don’t want to…and our in-group can amplify their point of view without any check on how it squares with reality.

Silos are everywhere in our society – in our news consumption, in those most active in politics or religious activities,…and in academia (university students, faculty, and staff) as well.

When sorting, othering, and siloing come together in ways facilitated by social media and other easy means of creating in-groups, a lot of extreme behavior and thought can result.

SOS is how to name the patterns that Guzmán identifies as the core behaviors that can lead to the divided society we currently have and our difficulty at communicating about what really matters.

“Understanding people who hold opposing political beliefs is hard enough when you rarely meet anyone like that (sorting), harder when they are a them to your us (othering), and harder still when the stories that surround you give you little if any reason to take even small, slow steps in their direction (siloing)” (p 43).

Clearly, dealing with the SOS mode of thinking is a big problem. Fortunately, the rest of the book works on how we can counter SOS patterns in our own thinking and behavior.

Let’s discuss!

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What patterns of division do you experience in your life? Is there a particular team, group, or organization of which you are a member that’s having a rocky time? What kinds of sorting, othering, and siloing can you identify in your personal experiences? Comment below.

Getting a jump start on next month?

We’re going to start looking into curiosity and the role it plays in getting out of SOS mode. We’ll be discussing Chapters 4 & 5. See you then!

Register for the Author Event! Mónica Guzmán will be speaking at 5:30 pm on Thursday, October 12 at UMKC’s Pierson Auditorium. Doors open at 5:00 pm, registration is required! Visit the RoosRead page to register.

By: Scott Curtis, Teaching & Learning Librarian

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