Why We Need Many Narratives To Fight Polarization

The ongoing Israel-Gaza war demonstrates more starkly than ever how competing narratives polarize society. We publish many perspectives from around the world precisely because we believe that all of us have blindsides and we must see light through different prisms.

October 18, 2023 06:37 EDT
Dear FO° Reader,

This month, another Israel-Gaza war erupted. Hamas fighters launched the biggest terrorist attack on Israeli soil. In response, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched airstrikes. Israel also cut off water, electricity and other supplies. It has now become a game of competitive suffering and competing narratives.

I was in Boston and Harvard last week. Nowhere is this division more visible than on American campuses. 

Narratives and Polarization

One side blames Israel for everything. This group of students argue that Israel is an apartheid state and Palestinians have no option but to respond violently. In the words of a professor who wants to stay anonymous, “these attacks needed to happen.”

The other side blames Hamas. This group argues that political Islam has been influenced by Nazism. Hamas is similar to the Islamic State. Its charter is fanatical and its goals are genocidal. Israel has no choice but to respond to Hamas for its self-preservation.

Atrocity propaganda, Norman Lindsay; Commonwealth Government of Australia; W E Smith Ltd Wikipedia Commons

In times of war, rival narratives appear and rational discussion almost disappears. In World War I, each side painted the other as the devil. Even in times of peace, narratives can be divisive. Communist countries have long been fixated with propaganda as Chinese President Xi Jinping demonstrates. In the US, Murdoch’s Fox News has been relentless in peddling a red meat narrative for Republicans while MSNBC spews out nonstop outrage for Democrats. Such is the polarization in American society that the House of Representatives has been unable to elect a new speaker.

During the Cold War, there were two main competing narratives. The Soviet Union blamed capitalist dogs for running racist, exploitative empires. They pointed to the CIA-MI6 1953 coup in Iran, the Vietnam War and support for apartheid South Africa as examples of Western hypocrisy. The US came to view the Soviet Union as an evil empire. After all, Soviet troops had raped German women in 1945, crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and snuffed out the Prague Spring in 1968. The Berlin Wall was an eyesore and many US presidents gave rousing speeches in front of that wall.

In current times, we do not just have two main narratives. Social media has created filter bubbles and echo chambers. The goal of social media companies is to grab the attention of their users and then monetize their information. The more time we spend on Facebook or Twitter gives these companies more data, which they can use to sell advertisements or anything else. So, algorithms give us more of what we see. I love football, the game Americans call soccer, so YouTube sends all sorts of clips my way from Pelé’s spectacular goals to Johan Cruyff’s silky turns. That seems lovely and it can be. However, there is a dark side to the story. When I watch videos on Israel-Palestine issues using different accounts, I start getting very different narratives based on my viewing history. 

1958 World Cup in Sweden – Pelé

What is the answer to polarized narratives?

Polarization is a dangerous problem for our times. It is leading to internal tensions within societies and conflict between societies. In our own way, we are trying to make a difference. We believe in seeing light through many prisms. We firmly believe that we are shaped, if not defined, by our backgrounds and beliefs. So, it is important to be open to perspectives that differ from ours.

Over the years, we have published diverse perspectives of people from widely different backgrounds and beliefs. Today, we have nearly 3,000 authors from over 90 countries. We fact-check everything we publish. We train volunteer editors from around the world. We produce multimedia content like timelines, podcasts, videos and more. We host offline and online events to build communities.

We provide a global public good. Anyone can visit our website in any part of the world. Kenyan students in Moi University use our e-publications and so do young diplomats from India, Armenia, Rwanda and elsewhere. Note that we do not have paywalls unlike The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, or The Wall Street Journal, which is owned by the legendary media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

To continue our work at this fraught time, we need support. As you can see here on the ProPublica database, we function parsimoniously. In 2021, we raised a mere $159,000. Imagine what we could do with double that budget.

As ever, we rely on your support. Here’s what you can do:
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