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…it’s fascism to the right of me…fascism to the left of me…stuck in the middle with you. (With apologies to the one-hit wonder band Stealers Wheel). Hardly a day goes by without fingers from the right and fingers from the left pointing to FASCISM.
How did accusations of fascism get to fashionable? The key, ironically, is that fascism is one of the few points all sides agree on: It’s bad. So it becomes a very useful political football, both to accuse the other side of being it…and as an opportunity to employ the deflating jiu-jitus technique of mocking the other side of accusing you of being it. It needs no explaining. It just needs identifying. Ha! Gotcha! Fascist! And you call me a fascist??? You’ve got to be kidding!!!!
And more seriously, it serves as useful reminder that, apart from the damage polarization does to the essential democratic instrument of discourse and compromise, it also dulls our critical thinking about important issues. We’ve been through this before. The Red Scare of the 40s and 50s became such a political hyper-farce that reaction and overreaction from both sides of the “argument” caused clear, rational thinking—and policy—about the actual global threat of totalitarianism to take second place to protecting your ideological flank: Politicians had to bend over backwards to show their base (and their opposition) that they weren’t “soft on Communism”…or a “fascist pig.” With the Vietnam and Kent State as just two examples of the tragic, ugly results. What a glorious victory for polarization.
It’s hard to make the case when looking around the world that the threat of fascism is not serious and real. So we should be serious and realistic about it. And that means untangling the polarizer’s finger pointing, feints and fakes and thinking clearly and rationally about what, who and where that threat really is. Regardless of what “side” it’s on.
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 a few blue and red polarizing headlines from the past week.