After the 2016 election, I drove twelve hours to learn more about America’s invisible political majority. In order to get there, I had to pass through hundreds of miles of forgotten stories, buried memories, unrecognized sacrifices, and rusted machinery, digging deep into the troughs of lost prosperity. This was rural Middle America, and I was desperate to understand why so many in this heartland had harvested their hopes and cast their ballots for a presidential candidate who spoke against everything that I believed, who stood unwaveringly against who I was. I needed to confront my fears and see for myself why some of these folks appeared to want me dead.
I was deeply afraid of what I would find. I was afraid of what my dark beard, hazel eyes, and Middle Eastern brow would evoke. I had no road map, no contacts, no place to stay. I had two weeks and one goal—to seek understanding in the belly of the beast.
Historian and social psychologist Reza Aslan states that the best way to counter Islamophobia is to know just one person who is Muslim. And yet, despite living in a country that claims to be a melting pot, one in four people in the United States don’t know a single person who is Muslim.1)Mona Chalabi, “Americans Are More Likely to Like Muslims If They Know One,” FiveThirtyEight (February 13, 2015), available online at https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/americans-are-more-likely-to-like-muslims-if-they-know-one/. Aslan’s hypothesis is consistent with intergroup contact theory, which proposes that the best way to counter prejudice, discrimination, and fear of the “other” is through intimate exposure and contact to difference.
The truth of the matter is that, as a son of immigrant parents, born and raised in a cosmopolitan city, I had never really met these “monsters” who were using their voting power to undermine my existence. And as I mustered my courage and drove out to Middle America, I never expected to find what I found: incredible hospitality, kindness, and warmth.
No shotguns were brandished. Instead, perceptions changed on both sides. I befriended a different manifestation of conservatism than what I had been exposed to. And they met a different manifestation of liberal/cosmopolitan/Middle East than they might have expected.
I recognized then the true monster: isolation. This monster has the power to make people afraid of others who may carry different identities or hold different ideologies or occupy different lands. This was the monster I needed to fight.
By November 2016, it had become evident that America was deeply polarized and becoming more radicalized and divided than ever before. The election catalyzed empirical research and evidence showing how bifurcated and isolated we had become across political, racial, religious, and socioeconomic lines. It also became evident that media and technology—tools of incredible power and scale—were reinforcing our isolating echo chambers and facilitating antagonism among those who had divergent political views.
As a technologist and a millennial, I have spent the last couple of years taking a deeper look at how technology has widened gaps in compassion and understanding, and how, if done right, technology can do the opposite: foster empathy across lines of difference. I created Pathos as a nonprofit laboratory to explore this hypothesis. I have used virtual reality as the mechanism to immerse audiences in the lives and realities of others, those who they may not understand, to show that despite the differences people are more alike than they may imagine.
“Strangers” is a virtual reality, 360-degree experience featuring three mothers who exist at opposite ends of the political, religious, cultural, geographic, social spectrums from one another. But their stories converge as they all feel invisible to, and forgotten by, the country they call home. These three mothers—a farmer in rural Oklahoma; an Iraqi refugee in Denver, Colorado; and a Black Lives Matter activist in St. Louis, Missouri—shared their homes and their stories with me. While they seemingly have little in common, their lives converge on the shared feeling of living in the country’s shadows.
In August, Pathos will embark on a trip across the country to interview two thousand individuals from forty communities, who represent the country’s incredibly diverse political, racial, religious, gender, and socioeconomic identities. We will take virtual and augmented reality technologies to underserved and isolated communities, thus beginning to address the pervasive technology gap and, ultimately, bring the resulting content to university campuses. There, Pathos will work with students to discuss diversity in America, reach understanding across lines of difference, and think about the biases that may exist within each of us.
|Mona Chalabi, “Americans Are More Likely to Like Muslims If They Know One,” FiveThirtyEight (February 13, 2015), available online at https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/americans-are-more-likely-to-like-muslims-if-they-know-one/.