Diaphobia: The Fear of Dialogue

In Grayson Perry’s new exhibition The MOST Specialest Relationship, we were drawn to the word ‘Diaphobia’ in his painting The American Dream, 2020.

A term not yet in many dictionaries, in its simplest definition, Diaphobia is the fear of dialogue, of being affected, or directly influenced by, the “other”.

Inspired by his three-part documentary Grayson Perry’s Big American Roadtrip, broadcast on Channel 4 in September, in which the artist travels across the US on a custom-built motorbike he designed especially for the journey, Perry’s new works explore some of the biggest cultural and political fault-lines in the country.

Works respond to the programme’s themes and conversations as Perry spent time with different communities, from Black business people in Atlanta to White farmers in Wisconsin, to understand how Americans today view issues of identity, race, money and class – and what might be done to overcome the divisions in their country (and in our own).

This idea of growing division is something that we have been thinking about a lot in the Lab. The need for collective action (against a global pandemic, climate crisis, gaping wealth discrepancies and systemic racism) is greater than it’s ever been, and yet we seem more divided than ever before.

The American Dream map by Grayson Perry

So What’s Going On?

A Need to Believe In Something

Many of us read with horror the latest antics of POTUS, unable to fathom why a man accused of multiple sexual assaults, a bigot, racist, proven liar and tax avoider can command such loyalty from a devoted group of Americans.

The reasons are complex but one of the biggest factors in that when people feel threatened or uncertain we look to someone who legitimises our fears (be they of immigration, secularism, or de-industrialisation) we look for a leader (however flawed) in troubled times.

Social Media

Grayson Perry himself comments on “the algorithms that make this (diaphobia) happen by encouraging conflict and outrage”. Social media is built for polarization and extremes.  The basic engagement mechanisms of the platforms drive people to think and communicate in ever more extreme ways.

Pew Research, as far back as 2017, revealed American beliefs have become more partisan and more extreme. Religious beliefs are increasingly fundamentalist. Political figures around the world are more polarized. Language is more crude. And this is happening globally as social media feeds strong partisan talk with attention. Extreme opinions garner more shares/retweets.

At the beginning of the year in Huck we explored how in Europe, far-right extremism has become the new normal validated by an unfiltered online world and an unmoderated media.

“Terrorism inspired by far-right, racist, anti-immigrant ideology does not occur or exist within a vacuum. It is entrenched and validated by a system that allows radicalisation to take place in the comfort of our own homes through an unfiltered online world. It is spurred on by a society that legitimises, platforms and lends power to voices that seek to divide us based on our skin colour and religion. Our unwillingness to admit things have gone wrong will only make things worse. Unaccountable individuals, through their words and actions, normalise hatred and division using the internet and mainstream media.” Hasan Patel for Huck

Moderation and a balanced approach to ideas and discourse seem to be fading away.

SMH (So Much Hate) And Cancel Culture

This amount of hate perpetuated on our social platforms, at a time when many of us are suffering a collective sense of anxiety and impending doom, makes the need for tolerance desperately urgent.

In Phoebe Lovatt’s latest newsletter she talks about the Fear of Public Opinion:

“We will remember 2020 for many reasons. The mainstreaming of cancel culture will be one of them. Once a niche form of denunciation, reserved for the most public perpetrators of abuse, cancelling has now become the de facto method for reshaping power dynamics within workplaces and even friendship groups. And who among us is exempt? As we slump our way through the final months of a truly exhausting year, few will reach its end without having been cancelled, partaking in the cancellation of someone else, or at the very least having seriously ruminated on which past actions might warrant cancellation in the future,”

We have reached such a peak of cancel culture that by publicly expressing views that others disagree with can end in threats of unspeakable violence from anonymous online assailants.  

Fake News

Many of us in the Liberal arts or creative sectors like to think we would never fall prey to the sharing of fake news. Yet most of our Instagram feeds were filled recently with the image of Fatima in her ballet shoes being encouraged to consider a career in Cyber as part of Rishi Sunak’s ill-thought out retraining plan.

However, the ad was at least a year old and part of a previous 2019 government campaign, which targeted those in other industries, not just the arts.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has been forced to distance himself from the campaign, which he says is “crass” and was not created by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. In a statement, he continued: “This was a partner campaign encouraging people from all walks of life to think about a career in cyber security. I want to save jobs in the arts, which is why we are investing £1.57 billion.

Memes mocking the ad quickly spread across social media, suggesting what careers government figures should consider instead of ruining the country.

This highlights how people on both sides of the political fence are as likely to accept something at face value if it offends them, and not do the necessary research to be sure what they are retweeting or sharing has a solid foundation in truth.

This is not very surprising when many governments seem to have adopted the Firehose of Falsehood approach popularised by Putin in Russia.

The firehose of falsehood, or firehosing, is a propaganda technique in which a large number of messages are broadcast rapidly, repetitively, and continuously over multiple channels (such as news and social media) without regard for truth or consistency. Since 2014, when it was successfully used by Russia during its annexation of Crimea, this model has been adopted by other governments and political movements around the world.

So What Can We Do?

The process of “othering” those that disagree with us or that we consider “different”, of taking a firm side, is dominating much of our cultural and political landscape with damaging consequences. The inability to even entertain another’s point of view is counterproductive to our need to come together to tackle some of the biggest crises in 2020 and beyond. This increasing polarisation has devastating effects on our capacity to show compassion, and on our emotional health.

Get Our Information Straight

Case Study: The New Paper

The New Paper is a text-based news service that curates concise storytelling into a single daily message format.

By taking an SMS approach, it aims to help users cut through the noise of the global news cycle, while keeping them informed about important news updates. Prioritising technology, business, politics and world affairs, the service states information factually, without secondary opinion, and in as few words as possible. The text message format also helps it to feel less intrusive than other news providers.

Engage In Positive Debate

Case Study: Braver Angels

Braver Angels is an organisation which encourages people to befriend and understand people who have differing political opinion.

Find common human needs

Case Study: Make America Dinner Again

Make America Dinner Again (MADA) is an organisation that started out by asking people to have polite disagreements over dinner in people’s homes, and has moved online since the pandemic.

What does this mean for brands?

As brands you must be keenly aware of the issues that divide your audiences and find ways not to circumvent them but either to facilitate safe, positive debate or to focus on the shared common ground and human universals that transcend political allegiances.

Helen Job, Head of Insight at TCO.

Most Americans today choose to spend their time with people who vote the same way as them. People increasingly look badly upon – even loathe – people with differing views: a 2016 Pew poll found that 47% of Republicans judged Democrats to be more immoral than other Americans; 35% of Democrats said the same about Republicans. And this year, a Gallup poll recorded the most divided results it had ever seen on Republican (89%) versus Democratic (7%) approval of the president: an 82-point gap.

Poppy Noor
The Guardian
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