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…instead of looking at the usual blue vs red examples of polarization, I thought a look at some headlines from a single day in a single newspaper— Monday, May 20, The Washington Post—was interesting. And sobering. These headlines are not examples of polarization. They are reports about it, though it may not seem so at first glance. But if we understand polarization as the process of hardening and widening conflict through emotional intransigence toward “us vs them,” rather than softening and narrowing conflict through reasonable discourse to find common ground, these headlines suggest how deeply the mindset and mood of polarization has infected our world. You Tube users try to “destroy” each other…Brits “milkshake” those they disagree with….Walmart workers “crash” a meeting with a controversial guest…Democrats subpoena, Republicans reject…an activist tries to “remake the courts” (the source of non-representative power) according to his liking…progress for democracy is Afghanistan is vulnerable…polarization “has arrived” in India. All this in a single newspaper in a single day. (And flipping over to the movie section which is dominated by one-dimensional comic-strip movies that resolve conflict by pitting power against power doesn’t provide much relief). There is much talk these days about the waning of the ideal of democracy. If you see polarization as the gateway drug to authoritarianism, you don’t have to look hard to be worried.
Here are some headlines from one day in one newspaper the Monday, May 20, The Washington Post, attesting to the pervasiveness of polarization here and around the world.