Medium 9781523095056

Our Search for Belonging

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We are living in a time of mounting political segregation that threatens to tear us apart as a unified society. The result is that we are becoming increasingly tribal, and the narratives of life that we get exposed to on a daily basis have become echo chambers in which we hear our beliefs reinforced and others' beliefs demonized.

At the core of tribalism exists a paradox: as humans, we are hardwired with the need to belong, which ends up making us deeply connected with some yet deeply divided from others. When these tribes are formed out of fear of the “other,” on topics such as race, immigration status, religion, or partisan politics, we resort to an “us versus them” attitude. Especially in the digital age, when we are all interconnected in one way or another, these tensions seep into our daily lives and we become secluded with our self-identified tribes. Global diversity and inclusion expert Howard J. Ross, with JonRobert Tartaglione, explores how our human need to belong is the driving force behind the increasing division of our world.

Drawing upon decades of leadership experience, Ross probes the depth of tribalism, examines the role of social media in exacerbating it, and offers tactics for how to combat it. Filled with tested practices for opening safe and honest dialogue in the workplace and challenges to confront our own tendencies to bond with those who are like us, Our Search for Belonging is a powerful statement of hope in a disquieting time.

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11 Chapters

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1 Wired for Belonging: The Innate Desire to Belong

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The essential dilemma of my life is between my deep desire to belong and my suspicion of belonging.

— JHUMPA LAHIRI

The annual holiday party at Munchester Industries is a raucous event. The company has about seven hundred employees, and for the holiday gala they all gather with their families in tow. The party has a huge buffet, an open bar, people dancing to the sounds of a DJ’s music, and a clown making balloon animals for the children. People are gathered in small clusters, either at tables or standing around chatting. On the surface this looks like any number of company parties we have all seen before. However, this year the party has a different tone, coming just six weeks after the 2016 presidential election. The room is abuzz with conversations about politics, mostly people celebrating or commiserating with their friends. Waiting for drinks, three employees stand together in awkward silence, their countenance seemingly different from most of the people around them, suggesting politeness but not much more. A tall, blond-haired white woman, with two children at her side, shifts from foot to foot, her eyes looking around the room, almost as if she wants to escape. A shorter, darker-skinned woman stands quietly by the side. The third person, a tall white man, appears friendly, even gregarious, alternating between trying to make conversation with the two women and making side comments to a shorter, brown-skinned man who stands behind him. Who are these people? What’s going on?

 

2 The Politics of Being Right

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I think people involved in politics make good actors. Acting and politics both involve fooling people. People like being fooled by actors. When you get right down to it, they probably like being fooled by politicians even more. A skillful actor will make you think, but a skillful politician will make you never have to think.

— DONNA BRAZILE

In September 1894, a French housekeeper who was working in the German embassy found an unsigned and undated letter, torn into six pieces, that was addressed to the German attaché. The letter seemed to indicate that confidential French military documents were about to be sent to a foreign country. The housekeeper took the pieces of the letter and gave them to the French counterintelligence agency. The letter found its way to the French minister of war, General Auguste Mercier, who had been roundly criticized by the media for being incompetent. General Mercier immediately initiated two separate investigations of the matter.

 

3 Why Do We See the World the Way We Do?

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If you’re treated a certain way you become a certain kind of person. If certain things are described to you as being real they’re real for you whether they’re real or not.

— JAMES BALDWIN

I have established how important belonging is to human beings. One of the most important ways that we form these connections is through a common morality, a common set of values. How we see ourselves and determine what is important to us and the groups to which we belong is a fundamental part of our orientation to life. Questions of moral choice, such as how we decide between right and wrong and how we make some of life’s hardest decisions, are undoubtedly some of the most intricate, multifaceted problems we are likely to come across, and they are deeply rooted in our relationships to the groups to which we belong. Our morality plays such an important role in connecting us to others that it is important for us to look at how our morality shapes the world we see.

Let’s consider one of the most famous thought experiments in human ethics, the Trolley Dilemma.1 You see a trolley car coming down the track at a high rate of speed. When you look down the track in the direction the trolley is heading, you see five workers whom you have no way of warning about the oncoming trolley. Assume that they will be killed if the trolley is not diverted. However, you are standing in front of a lever that you can pull to turn the trolley onto a different set of tracks on which there is only one worker. Is it acceptable for you to pull the lever and redirect the trolley onto the track where the one worker is standing, knowing that this worker will consequently be killed?

 

4 Power, Privilege, Race, and Belonging

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I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

— JAMES BALDWIN

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

— WILLIAM FAULKNER

Our Munchester Industries trio, Joan, Barry, and Fatima, represent the intersectionality of our identities in a powerful way. Joan is white, and also a woman and Christian; any one of these identities might predominate, depending upon the circumstances she finds herself in. The same holds for Barry’s white, Jewish, gay, and male identities, and for Fatima’s Muslim and female identities, as well as her status as a woman of color. All of them are significant, but none more so than race.

Much has been and will be written about why Donald Trump was able to pull off one of the greatest electoral upsets in history, but underneath all the very complex narratives that one can tell about the election, there is a very simple one that is inescapable: this election was a testament to how race is an aspect of our lives that simultaneously generates a profound experience of belonging and is the essence of “us versus them.” It also is a reflection on the dynamics of power and privilege that exist within our historical racial hierarchy. What do the voting patterns that we saw in the 2016 election, patterns that have been relatively consistent for almost forty years, tell us about belonging in America by race? Are we even one country when it comes to racial attitudes? It’s fair to say that race in America has historically been a domain where our sense of bonding and bridging has been more unhealthy than healthy.

 

5 The Social Brain

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Much of the same machinery, the same brain regions and computational processing that are used in a social context to attribute awareness to someone else, are also used on a continuous basis to construct your own awareness and attribute it to yourself.

— MICHAEL S. A. GRAZIANO

Have you ever found yourself talking to an inanimate object? Perhaps getting angry at your car, or encouraging it through snow, almost like the Little Engine that Could? Anybody who has children has likely seen them treat their stuffed animals as if they were alive, or, even more dramatically, create an imaginary friend out of thin air. Why would we talk to inanimate objects or imaginary ones as if they were alive?

In the 2000 movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a FedEx employee who ends up stranded on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific after a plane crash. The film gained widespread critical acclaim and was heralded as a gripping survival story, a tribute to the resourcefulness and resilience of the human spirit. Perhaps most important, however, was that it also provided a poignant glimpse into the depths of our desire to connect.

 

6 Divinity, Division, and Belonging

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Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!

Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

 

7 When Worlds Collide

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People inside of belonging systems are very threatened by those who are not within that group. They are threatened by anyone who has found their citizenship in places they cannot control.

— RICHARD ROHR

Let’s return for a moment to the opening scenario in Chapter 1. Joan, Barry, and Fatima each had their “home” community in which they felt very comfortable: Joan, among other political conservatives as well as her religious community, Barry among other folks who were either gay or felt completely comfortable with his sexual orientation, and Fatima, her religious community. Within each of those communities there is a certain sense of normative values and behavior, “rules” if you will, that all make sense, within the construct of that community. There is a sense of belonging. And yet, when the individuals from these different communities come together, something else happens. All of a sudden, their “otherness” seems to predominate. We live in a world of “us versus them.”

 

8 The Media Is the Message

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The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.

— MARSHALL MCLUHAN

The media’s the most powerful entity on Earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they can control the minds of the masses.

— EL-HAJJ MALIK EL-SHABAZZ (MALCOLM X)

In our opening scenario, Barry watches MSNBC to start his day, Joan watches Fox News, and Fatima watches the BBC. How are their attitudes and opinions being shaped by what they see every morning? How does that difference impact the “us versus them” dynamic among them?

How do you get your news?

On June 8, 2017, former FBI director James Comey testified before the United States Senate. Comey had been fired by President Donald Trump a month earlier. The firing created a media firestorm that, under examination, reveals a lot about our culture today. Over the course of the testimony, cable news programs not only covered Comey’s testimony but also added to the viewer’s experience by providing captions, usually in all capital letters, at the bottom of the screen (often called chyrons or lower-thirds). These chyrons are significant because they guide viewers’ understanding of what key points are being made during the broadcast and how a viewer should perceive and react to such points, thus guiding them toward particular conclusions. A look at some of the differences in how three major news outlets, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, chose to highlight what was being said is an illustrative example of one of the major reasons we exist in a world of separation.1

 

9 Bridges to Bonding: Eight Pathways for Building Belonging

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Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do. It always seems impossible until it’s done.

— NELSON MANDELA

It is easy to feel resigned about the separation that we are experiencing. It seems like it continues to worsen every day. The reality is, as we discovered in looking at the neuroscience and social science behind our behavior, that we will always separate people into “us” and “them.” But that doesn’t mean we are doomed to have those differences cripple our ability to function as a collective. In fact, when we realize that it is our natural state to figure out who we are by realizing that we are not somebody else, it can liberate us from the folly of trying to have everybody act and feel the same. It can allow us to shift our focus from trying to convince or “fix” each other to trying to understand each other and find ways to coexist.

It begins with our own personal work. We each have something to say about our own attitudes and behaviors. However, we also have a remarkable ability to work together in our institutions: workplaces, schools, places of worship, and other places where we come together. Belonging is, by its very nature, more than just an individual process. The institutions we are a part of give us an opportunity to create healthy bridging that can build and sustain a sense of connection.

 

10 Institutions Can Build Bridges to Belonging

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There is immense power when a group of people with similar interests gets together to work toward the same goals.

— IDOWU KOYENIKAN

A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.

— WENDELL BERRY

I started this book with the story of three people, Joan Smith, Barry Jones, and Fatima Mohammed, and their meeting at the Munchester Industries holiday party. The coincidental meeting of these characters at the party points to the reality and the promise of organizations as a source of belonging in our world today. At that moment, the three are confronted with their differences. Yet at the same time they are confronted with the reality that despite those dissimilarities, they have to come together on a daily basis and work together toward the common goals of their company.

 

11 “Belonging Creates and Undoes Us Both”

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Belonging creates and undoes us both. Agreement has rarely been the mandate for people who love each other. Maybe on some things, but actually, when you look at some people who are lovers and friends, actually they might disagree really deeply on things, but they’re somehow—I like the phrase “the argument of being alive.” Or in Irish, when you talk about trust, there’s a beautiful phrase from West Kerry where you say, “Mo sheasamh ort lá na choise tinne,” “You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” And that is soft and kind language, but it is so robust. That is what we can have with each other.

— PÁDRAIG Ó TUAMA

Corrymeela is the oldest peace and reconciliation organization in Northern Ireland. Located in the Northern Ireland village of Ballycastle, Corrymeela began before “the troubles” and continued on in Northern Ireland’s changing postconflict society after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. The organization has grown and now has almost forty full-time staff and dozens of volunteers who work with the 11,000 people who attend programs at the center every year.

 

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