Make America Adult Again

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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 weekthe memory of when you could have passionate—even angry—but still rational, focused  disagreements over serious issues seems like a distant dream. What are the issues?  What are the talking points? How do we decide? All of that takes a backseat to impugning and insulting the “other side.” Perhaps it’s time for a campaign to Make America Adult Again. 

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

Johnologue 1: Uniting America

Better Angels leader and media director John Wood, Jr. calls upon us to “Unite America,” addressing the challenges and arguments against depolarization in this special episode of The Better Angels Podcast.

The Damage of Bashing the Other Side

This week offers a wonderful textbook case for one of the favorite technique of polarization: Instead of arguing the pros or cons of a controversial issue with the goal of working toward resolution, cynically use—indeed, supercharge— that issue to bash the other side.

Patriotism and Diversity, Shallow and Deep

What we need is a deeper patriotism and a deeper diversity, each of which values citizens as individuals with their own combinations of values and beliefs, instead of pigeonholing them or criticizing them for failure to live up to our preconceptions.

2 thoughts on “Make America Adult Again”

  1. Tom Smerling

    Both columns of headlines are polarizing and inflammatory, criticizing not just policies but people. But I noticed an interesting difference. All the blue headlines target Trump or Republican politicians. All the red headlines target all liberals/leftists/Democrats as a whole, not just politicians. Is that difference representative of most red and blue polarizing headlines, or this sample not representative?

    One step toward depolarization is to distinguish between political leaders vs. their voters. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in Better Angels it’s that even if we believe a political leader — on either side — is reprehensible, that doesn’t mean everybody who voted for him/her is reprehensible. It’s an important distinction.

    1. Greg Munford

      Good and relevant observation. I’ve noticed that as Donald Trump as come to define the Republican Party most of the comments from the left are focused on him or other prominent specific Republicans. The Left/Democrats don’t have nearly as singular a target, so most of comments aimed in that direction identify the ideology rather a person. And yes, distinguishing between a politician and those who voted for him/her is an important de-polarizing step. But It’s not easy. Trying to focus in disagreements over policy is safer ground than who to characterize as “reprehensible.”

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