As the famous Canadian media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, suggests "the medium is the message". While we most often apply this quote to communications or technology, I like to think of its application to the design of everything from city streets to textiles. I often wonder about the assumptions buried within various systems we have designed to develop, educate, work and live.
I wonder whether these systems send a "message" and result in a societal outcome that keeps people apart -- by class, culture, worldview, political persuasion, or profession. Could we be inadvertently sending a message that some don't belong or that it is better and more comfortable to stay divided than to come together?
As an example, universities are wonderful learning platforms for society and yet, we still have separate faculties and buildings that keep our talented young people sequestered with others with similar or identical skills, interests and perspectives.
I wonder if this is the best way to educate our next leaders. Wouldn't it be fascinating to see what would come if music students mingled with medical students, or hopeful engineers with psychology majors?
Historically many of our cities have developed with separate Chinatowns, Little Italys or Koreas, etc. Fortunately, we have adapted away from some of those cultural divisions, but we still have various cultures or groups who seem isolated or separate.
Now you might ask if that is that a choice of familiarity, cultural preservation or comfort by those particular groups, but I do wonder what personal accountability and responsibility we might have to reach out to extend ourselves to experience other cultures and try to understand other belief systems? It seems most cultures are taught to respect and care for the "other." Do we live up to that expectation? What might we be avoiding, neglecting or completely missing, and how might that limit us?
Most cities are divided in to business, entertainment, recreation, fashion, social housing, medical/medical research zones or districts. Might it be damaging to one's own growth and development to stay locked into these professional and somewhat arbitrarily designated districts?
In business schools, students are taught about the perils of group think, of limiting the development and diversification of knowledge and wisdom by only surrounding oneself with people of similar mindsets and perspectives. Have we built our cities and societies in such a way that we reinforce not only our insights, but also our prejudices and blind spots?
Politically, we are living through a dark, divisive and disturbing period not necessarily due to who is in power, but by how each of us is either fully immersed in one viewpoint or concluding that the other side is fake, naïve, racist, misogynistic, inferior, elite, unsophisticated, etc. How many of our Facebook "friends" have political perspectives that differ from our own?
Have you blocked opposing voices or have you stepped up and arranged a visit or call to discuss more fully and learn from a person with an opposing view? As a professional who has worked with politicians of all stripes, I have found most of them to be wonderful, committed, passionate people. Successfully building forward and tackling complex challenges requires the widest possible variety of perspectives. Are we seeking this sort of enrichment ourselves or are we more comfortable closing ourselves to new opportunity and challenge?
In the end though, I think it is the responsibility of each of us to continuously stretch ourselves outside of our comfort zones to welcome or learn from those we might see as the "other" or the "outsider". Cognitive research suggests that tackling new challenges is how we keep our brains healthy and engaged through adulthood. Challenging ourselves within our communities to become uncomfortable, to learn from our differences or to explore the unknown may very well be the way forward not only for our societies and communities, but also for our hearts and souls.
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