Getting rid of our cognitive binaries will create a better society – Slugger O’Toole
“Understanding languages and other cultures builds bridges. This is the fastest way to bring the world closer together and closer to the Truth. Through understanding, people will be able to see their similarities before the differences. »
– Suzy Kassem
Twenty-four years after the Good Friday Agreement, much of our society remains deeply divided along sectarian lines. These interlocking societal dichotomies are reinforced by the dualism between the two largest parties, both grayed out by their supposed ideological infallibility. More and more of us are rejecting these divisions. Yet many of us still perceive our society through a cognitive binary that distinguishes “them” and “us”.
As trite as it may sound, the prevalence of this binary is perhaps the greatest factor that perpetuates the various sectarian dichotomies, and therefore perhaps the greatest impediment to the creation of a shared society. Too many of us see this place exclusively through a lens we’ve learned to look through, and don’t want to understand the experience of the “other.” This serves the DUP and Sinn Féin well. Without such widespread binary thinking, both sides would have little relevance. But this binary thinking does not serve us well.
By reinforcing our differences, this binary separates us, and thus prevents us from appreciating the many similarities between us and the other side of the divide. This in turn prevents us from realizing all the benefits that could come from establishing common ground beyond the divide.
The truth is that both sides of the community are plagued by similar issues: poverty, unemployment, educational disadvantage, drug abuse, underinvestment, and paramilitary intimidation. Moreover, these problems can often be solved by similar measures in all areas.
While some realize this and have transcended divide as a result, many of us are hesitant to throw away our cognitive binary in order to better understand the other side, and thereby allow ourselves to transcend divide. This may be due to the fear that it will weaken our own identities.
But, it won’t make you a bad Loyalist/Unionist/Republican/Nationalist to acknowledge that some groups on your side of the ideological fence have inflicted great suffering on those on the other side.
It won’t undermine your unionism to accept that a language spoken here for nearly two millennia deserves legal protections. It will not undermine your nationalism to accept that Unionist identity has been woven into the cultural fabric of Ulster for 400 years and therefore belongs here too.
Cherishing your identity and your aspiration for the future of Northern Ireland does not require clinging to a primitive caricature of ‘the other’. You can drop off this baggage without diluting your identity or your aspirations. You may then come to see the “other” as your neighbor, as someone with whom you can work toward common goals.
While there has been moderate average growth in recent years, the DUP-Sinn Féin dichotomy may dominate for some time to come. But such dichotomies should not dominate at the community level. If more of us can remove our learned lenses and try to transcend divides, we may encounter opportunities to improve our community and our lives. Many have.
Think of the improvements Baroness May Blood and other women have made in their communities by coming together across the divide. Think of how Linda Ervine’s Turas Project has enriched the culture of Belfast by bringing people from both sides together to learn and love Gaeilge. And think of the thousands of cross-community bonds that have developed through integrated education, shared workplaces and various other initiatives.
My argument may sound idealistic. This will not convince everyone. Moreover, the divisions in our society may never be completely eradicated. But getting rid of the baggage of our cognitive binaries can lessen these divisions. It would also allow us to accept some inescapable truths: that Republican/Nationalist experiences and identities will remain embedded in Northern Irish life, however long they stay in the UK; and that Unionist/Loyalist experiences and identity will remain present throughout United Ireland. We’re all here to stay, so might as well get rid of those cognitive binaries.
It is entirely legitimate to embrace our own identities and aspirations. But that doesn’t mean we can’t recognize experiences and identity on the “other side” as valid. By taking this intellectual leap, perhaps we could take a step closer to working with the perceived “other” to create a better community and a brighter future for everyone.
Bearded man from Donegal in Belfast. I graduated with an LLB (Hons) from Queen’s University Belfast and am currently studying the MSc International Public Policy at Queen’s. I like politics, law, cats, Gaeilge, singing in the shower and the Oxford comma. I am interested in transcending ideological binaries to bring balance to political discourse in both parts of Ireland. I can be reached on LinkedIn.