An Antidote for Corrosive Polarization
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension…is itself a frightful despotism [serving] always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. [It is] a spirit not to be encouraged. — George Washington
So much for discouragement. Which team are you on?
Do you identify with Them? Or are you one of Us?
Are those who disagree with you a lower form of intelligent life or a slightly different version of yourself?
America in 2020 is as divided as it was prior to the (first) Civil War. We’re not referring here to boring old partisanship. We’re talking about the descent into full-blown tribal warfare that’s no longer seen as aberrant extremism; it’s standard operating practice. The causes are manifold — geographical fluidity allowing voters to self-select their ghettos; AI algorithms that spoon-feed consumers the worldview they prefer — and the result is toxic.
Exactly when this trend originated — and we’re not sure that’s traceable — thanks to the blogger Tim Urban, we know as early as 2012 Republican candidate Chris Christie’s entire convention speech used the easy-to-follow structure of “They believe this; We believe that.” In her 2015 Democratic presidential campaign announcement, Hillary Clinton made six “They [insert something horrible]” statements in just over a minute. And not long ago, the allegedly mainstream Democratic candidate Kamala Harris urged voters to not “let the bad guys win.”
If you’re one of the millions of Americans who consider themselves informed and educated because every day and night you watch FoxNews or MSNBC or CNN, this is the default lens through which you view the world. It’s a strategy that guarantees myopia, and it’s the most effective way to con suckers into thinking one carnival midway is somehow less gaffed than the other.
Not that anyone wants to be reminded of this. Let’s be painfully clear: people who slavishly consume one kind of propaganda (MSNBC/CNN) hate to be compared to people who slavishly consume another kind of propaganda (FoxNews), and vice-versa. To suggest an equivalency (that these networks are equally bad for democracy and the free flow of ideas), offends true believers from both camps. To cable news acolytes, the truth is it’s only Them who have a problem seeing things clearly, not properly calibrated folks like Us. Furthermore, the “other side” isn’t merely mistaken or misinformed or the victims of propaganda; they’re morally “disgusting,” impossible to talk with, a cancer upon our republic, etc.
Thus the slippery slide into dehumanization begins, the necessary first step in convincing otherwise kind and loving Americans that their “enemies” are barbarous animals, not living manifestations of divine love.
Yet many rather intelligent people continue to consume their televised Preferred Story as though it were genuine news, or a genuinely authentic attempt to understand and explain the world, not merely another corporate-produced entertainment designed to play on viewers’ fears and sell pharmaceutical products. Which is ironic, since MSNBC/CNN/FoxNews appear to be nearly as addictive as processed sugar, and just as nutritionally empty.
When American news switched in the 1980s from broadcasting to narrow-casting via cable channels, the self-identification games began, with “conservatives” donning the red uniforms and “liberals” donning the blue, both of them abjuring a fetching shade of purple. Rather than developing a nuanced approach to understanding the desires of our fellow citizens, we’ve learned to find the label that most efficiently communicates to the world which side of the aisle we stand on. The network we watch invariably correlates with our beliefs. Religiously, you might say.
This is a foolish — and ultimately dangerous — method for organizing our society. If you’re not regularly asking yourself Why do I believe what I believe? as well as Why do the people who believe otherwise think and feel as they do? you’re doomed to a grossly distorted picture of the world, one that’s not nearly as bifurcated as the cable drug dealers would have you think. This is why I maintain friendships with people who proudly support the policies of Donald Trump and why I maintain friendships with people who proudly support the policies of Joe Biden, although I support the policies of neither man. It’s vital for anyone who wants to build a republic built on cooperation and mutual consideration to hear what everyone has to say — even if what they have to say is a chorus of regurgitated talking points fed to them by Hannity or Maddow.
Do you really want a better America, or do you merely want your confirmation bias forged into an alloy so impenetrable nothing can get through but what you already know? If it’s the latter, keep consuming the standard narrative and you’ll always be right, the other guys will always be wrong, and one day the correct team will win.
If, however, you wish to be a solver and not an enabler of destructive sectarianism, here’s an idea: turn off the TV.
Instead, go for a walk, and without the help of someone with a teleprompter see if you can come up with some original and universally compassionate ideas about how to make America truly great.