Growing Asymmetry in the Rhetoric of Polarization

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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:

  1. SEDUCES with loaded, heated language and childish name-calling that appeals more to emotion that reason.
  2. BLINKERS by using cherry-picked facts, and ignoring or mocking opposing arguments and evidence rather than actually addressing them.
  3. TRIVIALIZES by focusing on “straw-man” issues whose value in re-enforcing biases is clearly greater than their substance.
  4. BULLIES by making you feel like a dupe or a traitor if you even listen to the other side.
  5. 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.
  6. FRIGHTENS by portraying the other side as not just wrong, but a dangerous, evil enemy, replete with wicked hidden agendas.
  7. “CLANS,” that is, plays the “us vs. them” identity politics game of associating the other view with groups or people (implicitly) “inferior” to “us.”
  8. “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 weekas a reader pointed out last week, there seems to be a growing asymmetry in the rhetoric of polarization: While the right is brimming with accusations of “the left,” the left tends to point more and more not to ”the right,” but to specific individuals on the right. Mostly, of course, President Trump. And for good reason. The ideologically idiosyncratic Donald Trump clearly has thrown a wrench in the neat category of “right.” So the left is not sure where or what, exactly, the best target is. Which serves as a reminder that the danger of polarization is not a matter of right vs left – though that is how it typically manifests. The danger of polarization is that it is the lingua franca of authoritarianism – of declamation over discourse, division over resolution, emotion over thought, tribalism over reason, power over persuasion.

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?

Here are just a few of the blue and red polarizing headlines from the past week.

More to explore

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Ciaran O’Connor and John Wood, Jr. recap their recent journeys across the country discussing depolarization and reconciliation, Ciaran’s interview with Ezra Klein, the values that bind Americans and John’s feelings on Memorial Day.

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