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In Need of Shared Beliefs

Written By Jon Budington

August 20, 2021

As I drove to the office this morning, I heeded a newly installed stop sign placed at an intersection that I’ve been speeding through for years. I assumed that data had demonstrated a need for this brief pause in my drive, so I accepted the slight inconvenience as a necessary compromise between my time and public safety. And then I began to wonder, how did we come to universally agree on all of the rules that make our commutes safe and feasible? Where did these foundational shared beliefs come from, and are they still possible today?

The ubiquitous stop sign – an assault on our freedom, or a necessary pause?

Historically, we have credited shared experiences for our communal beliefs. Events like the Great Depression and World War II were filled with stories of collective sacrifice, the “Greatest Generation” selflessly coming together to defeat a common enemy. More recently, after the September 11 attacks, we witnessed a global effort to fight terrorism. We adjusted to new security measures for travel and launched a bipartisan effort to understand the failings of our intelligence agencies. It appeared that all Americans, along with the entire world, were invested in our fight. I would argue today that COVID has been the largest global shared experience of the past century, but for some reason, it’s not following the historic creation of shared beliefs and behaviors. Is it possible that shared experiences aren’t enough? I almost forgot, shared narratives are also required.

I grew up in a CBS family and, like 30 million other Americans, my parents tuned in to Walter Cronkite every night. He signed off his newscast with the words “and that’s the way it is.” He was a sage who spoke for the country. Today, less than 30 million Americans tune in to the collective nightly network news, and many have lost their local newspapers.

Social media has wreaked havoc on those legacy voices of authority. Yes, likes and retweets drive opinion today, and it’s easy to find a narrative that aligns to your personal ideas and experiences. So while we all live under the same flag, and share similar expectations of what it represents, we lack the common narratives that once bound us together.

And that’s the way it was, until Facebook came along.

Social media content is designed to attract attention. This often leads to messaging aligned towards the extreme poles of our national politics. These micro-narratives create clusters of belief; and most fit an addictive pattern.

The most prevalent patterns

There is the “us versus them” narrative—words that use a scorecard approach. Some are winning while others are losing. In the case of COVID, both the pro-science and the personal freedom camps implore us to choose a side. But in the end, there are no sides to this health crisis; we all win, or we all lose.

Then there’s the “oversimplification of the problem” narrative—these “most easy to digest” stories break complex ideas into small, digestible soundbites. Again, this format works on both sides of the current COVID debate. Getting vaccinated isn’t a slam dunk pass to our old lives; banning mask mandates won’t guarantee freedom from a hospital ventilator. COVID is complicated, and so must be our talking points.

But it’s the “personification narratives” that are the most dangerous. Those destructive phrases that humanize an ambiguous group—the media, a basket of deplorables, big government—that build distrust and hatred towards an intangible and indefensible entity. Yes, COVID stinks, and we want someone to blame for this misery, but Walt Kelly’s quote, “we have met the enemy, and it is us,” couldn’t be more appropriate for our time.

The historic, and now quaint, Uncle Sam was pointing at all of us.

Disparate narratives are taking a toll on us. COVID cases are soaring in the US, driven largely by the Delta variant. This mutation is more virulent and also more contagious than its predecessors. Data show that growth in new cases is focusing on unvaccinated populations, and largely in states with incoherent rules on mask wearing and vaccination programs. It won’t be long before a new variant develops—one that negates the effectiveness of our vaccinations. If we are to collectively get past this crisis, we are going to need a shared narrative that universally drives our actions.

Business leaders have a role in this process. By listening to opinions that we don’t share and understanding fears that we don’t have, we can improve upon the chaotic messages that are driving us apart. We must build narratives that provide perspective over a common set of facts; that recognize the pandemic as an endemic health challenge that will be with us for some time; that outline our responsibilities to our families, coworkers and community members; that reinforce behaviors which uniformly fight the spread of COVID. We need to do this like our lives and our livelihoods depend on it, because they do.

So please, choose your words carefully and more importantly, put them into action. If the enemy is us, then we are also our only hope.