Howard Ross is a lifelong social justice advocate and the founding partner of Cook Ross, a leading Diversity and Inclusion consultancy. He’s considered one of the world’s seminal thought leaders on identifying and addressing Unconscious Bias. His new book, Our Search for Belonging: How the Need for Connection Is Tearing Our Culture Apart, describes how to bridge the divide in our increasingly polarized society. Today we ask him a few questions on his work and the political climate in general.
In your own words, what is social justice?
In my mind, social justice is a societal structure in which justice is consistently applied to all, regardless of racial, cultural or gender differences, socio-economic status or other identities.
What does a social justice advocate do?
In my role as a social justice advocate, I endeavor to act and speak in a way that addresses removing any barriers to justice for all, or that establishes policies and practices that achieve justice for all. This also includes being an active ally toward people outside of their own group who are being treated unjustly.
Why did you choose this line of work?
I became an activist as a teenager, inspired by being in a family that had a significant loss during the Holocaust, and also had activist roots. After studying organizational development work, the two merged in the 1980s when the diversity movement began.
What has been the most challenging professional role you held? Why?
Probably my most challenging role has been owning and leading a company in which I’ve had to balance the needs of staff, clients and the bottom line.
Disagreements are omnipresent in politics and daily life. Lately, it seems to have taken on a more malicious face. Or has it always been this way? What are the reasons for so much vitriol in political discourses these days?
I think it’s reasonable to suggest that the polarization we’re experiencing is more intense than the past, though it’s always challenging to compare different eras. As with any complex system, there are a number of contributing reasons. The pattern of political consolidation in both parties has moved us from a historical dynamic in which people were issue-oriented – as in, I might agree with you about gun rights and foreign policy, but I disagree with you about civil rights and domestic policy — to one in which we’re now identity oriented — “You’re one of them!”
The polarization is exacerbated by international conflicts between nationalist and globalist perspectives, and the bifurcation of media sources that create distinct streams of information and blur the line of what’s considered “true.” Of course, politicians who take advantage of these differences and feed the fear by demonizing people on the other side throw fuel on the fire. Finally, underlying racial tension has contributed to the dynamic, especially since the parties have become increasingly racially defined.
Tell us about your book.
The book is an attempt to help readers understand how human beings are drawn to be part of groups, and why we’re so impacted by the groups that we’re a part of. We look at how these dynamics impact race, religion and politics, and how it shows up in organizations. Finally, we investigate ways that these dynamics can be addressed.
In the preface of your book, you posed a paradox: “…our compulsion to connect with other human beings often creates greater polarity, leaving us deeply connected with some, yet deeply divided as a society.” Can you illustrate this with an example?
If we look at the current political situation, we see many examples. Given that both the left and the right have moved towards more doctrinaire positions, it’s almost become necessary to reject one group in order to fit into the other group.
Do you think that the media, online and offline, is only adding fuel to this fire?
No question that this is the case. We used to get virtually the same information from three basic media sources: ABC, NBC, and CBS. Now, between cable news, social media and online news sources we get completely different streams of information. In addition, the news is now dominated by punditry. Sources don’t share information as much as they share opinions about the information. We might say we’re not watching the news anymore as much as we’re watching people who are watching the news and analyzing it for us.
From religious to workplace communities, politics has seeped into every sense of community that humans have built. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?
There aren’t many advantages. The major disadvantage is that it’s made it more difficult for a broad range of people with different ideas to work or pray together.
Multinational companies and several universities have come under attack by trolls as a result of their efforts to ramp up diversity and inclusion. What causes people to attack such initiatives?
Often a lack of understanding, but it’s fair to say that failed diversity approaches have contributed, as well. The propagation of a “Us vs. Them” mindset seems aimed at certain people and an attempt to “fix” them. This has caused a backlash effect. In addition, many people in dominant groups have a false sense of how fast these changes are happening and feel threatened.
In your opinion, what is the most important factor that influences the way we see the world the way we do?
We see the world through the lens of our experience. The mind then interprets what’s happening through that lens. We might say that we see the world not as it is, but as we are.
Echo chambers have existed since long before Facebook became what it is today. How has social media made the situation worse?
Its omnipresence in our lives only exacerbates the echo chamber in which we often choose to live. It follows us throughout the day and we can pick and choose who we interact with so that most people only end up interacting with people who agree with them.
What are the signs that you are living in an echo chamber?
When everything and everyone around you seems to have the same point of view that you do. Although our natural pattern is to live inside relatively homogeneous communities, we will have to be willing to consciously reach out to others outside our inner circle and invite them in. That means people of different races, cultures, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, ages, abilities, and disabilities — and, yes, even different political orientations.