We, as Americans, cherish the freedom and right to disagree—which we do, often deeply about important issues that need resolution. But polarization undermines that freedom by tightening prejudices rather than opening thought, thus diminishing the chances for finding resolutions and moving forward. So while polarization may feel like a righteous champion of freedom and right, it is in fact just the opposite—a stick jammed in the spokes of the democratic discourse of freedom. Here are some of the common ways it does it:
- SEDUCES with loaded, heated language and childish name-calling that appeals more to emotion that reason.
- BLINKERS by using cherry-picked facts, and ignoring or mocking opposing arguments and evidence rather than actually addressing them.
- TRIVIALIZES by focusing on “straw-man” issues whose value in re-enforcing biases is clearly greater than their substance.
- BULLIES by making you feel like a dupe or a traitor if you even listen to the other side.
- FLATTERS with language and a tone that makes you feel like an insider, who, of course, agrees with them because you “get it” … just like they do.
- FRIGHTENS by portraying the other side as not just wrong, but a dangerous, evil enemy, replete with wicked hidden agendas.
- “CLANS,” that is, plays the “us vs. them” identity politics game of associating the other view with groups or people (implicitly) “inferior” to “us.”
- “TRIBES” by using the knowing winks and nods of sarcasm, coded language, words in quotes (suggesting they’re misleading) and innuendo which you, as a member of the tribe, of course, will understand without explanation or justification.
This week… the challenge of depolarization came into sharp focus. More and more politicians are being accused of not being liberal/conservative enough. And the strategy of “motivating the base” rather than “persuading the undecideds” (digging in vs. reaching out) is being urged. It’s understandable. Depolarization isn’t easy. It means a willingness to be civil not just to those whose views you disagree with, but whose views are abhorrent to you. Views, for example about race. Or abortion. Or sexual orientation. Or religion. Or immigration. The “other side” on these kinds of issues can be repugnant, even inhuman to you. And it’s literally demeaning to say that ”both sides” are legitimate. So what if you “know” the other side is dead wrong, how can you—why should you—justify civility? Two reasons: First, civility fosters long-term success by winning agreement rather than overwhelming disagreement. Civility, in short, is a tool for changing minds. And second, civility fosters the freedom to be different—to disagree—by winning in the marketplace of ideas rather than the head-count of majority. Too often, what is right does not mean who as the biggest “base.” Hitler, after all, won election by very big margins. Civility, in short, is a powerful lever for the minority vs. the majority, for right vs. power. Discarding civility may feel good in the moment. But the long term risks are great.
When reading these examples, check the above list and ask yourself: regardless of whether you agree or disagree, is this really advancing an intelligent resolution through the persuasive, rational arguments of advocacy…or simply fueling the fire of conflict through the divisive, emotional manipulations of polarization?
Rather than the usual red vs blue examples of polarization, this week’s headlines show the increasing, frightening drumbeat, from the right and left, pushing polarization.