Casting off our cognitive binaries will create a better society

“Understanding languages and other cultures builds bridges. It is the fastest way to bring the world closer together and to Truth. Through understanding, people will be able to see their similarities before differences.”
– Suzy Kassem

Twenty-four years after the Good Friday Agreement, much of our society remains deeply divided along sectarian lines. These overlapping societal dichotomies are reinforced by the dualism between the two largest parties, both intoxicated by their supposed ideological infallibility. Increasingly, more of us are rejecting those divides. Yet, many of us still perceive our society via a cognitive binary that distinguishes between “them” and “us”.

Trite as it is to say, the prevalence of that binary is perhaps the biggest factor that perpetuates the various sectarian dichotomies, and thus may the biggest impediment to creating a shared society. Too many of us see this place exclusively through a lens we’ve learned to look through, and are unwilling to understand the experience of the “other”. That serves the DUP and Sinn Féin well. Without such widespread binary thinking, both parties would have little relevance. But that binary thinking does not serve us well.

By reinforcing our differences, that binary keeps us apart, and thus prevents us from appreciating the many similarities between us and the other side of the divide. That in turn prevents us from realising whatever advantages could come out of establishing common ground across the divide.

The truth is that both sides of the community are blighted by similar problems: poverty, unemployment, educational disadvantage, addiction, underinvestment and paramilitary intimidation. Furthermore, these problems might often be tackled via similar measures across the board.

While some realise this and have transcended the divide accordingly, many of us are reluctant to discard our cognitive binary in order to understand the other side better, and to thereby allow ourselves to transcend the divide. This may be out of fear that doing so would weaken our own identities.

But, it won’t make you a bad loyalist/unionist/republican/nationalist to acknowledge that certain groups from your side of the ideological fence have visited great suffering upon those from the other side.

It won’t undermine your unionism to accept that a language spoken here for almost two millennia is worthy of legal protections. It won’t undermine your nationalism to accept that unionist identity has been woven into Ulster’s cultural fabric for 400 years and thus belongs here too.

Cherishing your identity and your aspiration for the future of Northern Ireland doesn’t demand clinging on to a primitive caricature of “the other”. You can drop that baggage without diluting your identity or your aspiration. You might then come to see “the other” as your neighbour, as somebody you could work towards common objectives with.

While there has been a growth of the moderate middle in recent years, the DUP-Sinn Féin dichotomy may dominate for some time yet. But such dichotomies needn’t dominate at community level. If more of us can remove our learned lenses and try to transcend the divides, we may encounter opportunities to improve our community and our lives. Many have done so.

Think of the improvements Baroness May Blood and other women have made to their communities by coming together across the divide. Think of how Linda Ervine’s Turas project has enriched Belfast’s culture by bringing people from both camps together to learn and to love Gaeilge. And think of the thousands of cross-community bonds that have developed through integrated education, shared workplaces and various other endeavours.

My argument may seem idealistic. It won’t persuade everybody. Moreover, the divides in our society may never be completely eradicated. But, shedding the baggage of our cognitive binaries may soften those divides. It would also allow us to accept inescapable truths: that the experiences and identity of republicans/nationalists will remain embedded in the life of Northern Ireland, no matter how long it remains in the UK; and that the experiences and identity of unionists/loyalists will remain extant in any united Ireland. We’re all here to stay, so we may as well throw off those cognitive binaries.

It’s totally legitimate to embrace our own identities and aspirations. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t acknowledge the experiences and identity of the “other side” as being valid. By taking that intellectual leap, we might just be able to take a further leap towards working with the perceived “other” to create a better community and a brighter future for everybody.


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