Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and discusses an appropriate Christian response. To read my first excerpt, link HERE. For an overview of the book, link HERE.
Hidden Tribes, a report published by the organization More in Common, says roughly two-thirds of the U.S. population belongs to a group the authors call “the Exhausted Majority.” Although members of this group have many political and ideological differences, according to the report, they share fatigue with the relentless back-and-forth arguments between our nation’s warring factions.
If we feel exhausted by the polarization ripping our society apart, I suspect one reason is the sheer pervasiveness of the Culture Wars.
I realize this divisive bickering has been percolating for decades, but something seems to have changed. At first the polarization centered around a handful of specific hot-button issues – abortion, civil rights, whether the U.S. should involve itself in various wars. In recent years, however, our “Red” or “Blue” identity has become the yardstick against which all choices big or small are measured, even those seemingly irrelevant to the identity in question. Each issue, each choice, no matter how trivial, has become a way of signifying our tribal affiliation. What do we put on our plates – bacon or tofu? What kind of vehicle do we drive – a RAM pickup truck or a Prius? Which cable news network do we watch – FOX or MSNBC?
People from every possible categorical grouping get pitted against each other: young vs. old; male vs. female; people of color vs. white folks; rich vs. poor; LGBTQ+ vs. cis-gendered heterosexual; disabled vs. able-bodied; rural vs. urban; native-born vs. immigrant; socialist vs. capitalist, Democrat vs. Republican, college-educated vs. high school graduate; meat-eater vs. vegetarian; obese vs. skinny; Christian vs. atheist. Besides abortion and civil rights, we fight over guns, the environment, food, clothes, animal rights, health care, education, immigration, economics, trade policy, voting rights, standards of attractiveness, the role of government, how to address poverty, church/state separation, and on and on and on.
When we read online news articles and blog posts, we’ve come to expect the comments sections that follow will overflow with trash-talk of both political stripes: I’m going to say this real slowly so you un-ed-i-cated redneck Repukelicans can understand it. … I can see why you vote Dumbocrat – it’s easier than working. … I can’t even understand what you’re trying to say, it’s so stupid.
Even on my favorite Facebook gardening page, the administrator feels the need to post a set of guidelines reminding readers to be civil. “No foul language, bullying, etc.,” she warns. “Mind your manners, please!!!!!” By way of explanation, she says, “You wouldn’t believe how crazy people are nowadays and unfortunately need to be told these things.”So what could people possibly find to argue about on a gardening page? Oh, that’s right. Should we have neatly manicured lawns or let the dandelions and white clover grow to attract bees? Should our flower beds feature native plants or the latest trendy hybrid blooms? Can we use pesticides and lawn fertilizers or should we let nature take care of itself?
Some of us have tried limiting our time on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to avoid the inevitable insults and name-calling. However, prying ourselves away from our television sets and computer screens doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. The Culture Wars have infiltrated every nook and cranny of our lives, and we can’t seem to escape the bickering, no matter where we go or what we do.
If we live in a so-called “purple swing district” during an election year, the audio/visual pollution of negative political ads won’t be limited to our Facebook news feeds or our favorite TV shows, but will leap at us from billboards and the sides of city buses while we walk down the street. As election day approaches, we can expect to be harassed by at least a dozen campaign robocalls by lunch hour: Would you vote for Candidate X if you knew she has horns and a tail??
Driving home from exercise class, my husband and I pass by politically conservative demonstrators standing outside the Planned Parenthood clinic with their picket signs (God is pro-life) and liberal/progressive protesters gathering outside our Republican Congressional representative’s office (Keep your laws off my body!). As we stroll through the parking lot at the grocery store, we notice several cars with bumper stickers that proclaim the owner’s tribal allegiance: Suck it up! We survived your president. You’ll survive ours. … Turn left at next election. In the doctor’s office waiting room, we encounter people wearing in-your-face t-shirts: I may be DEPLORABLE but at least I’m not LIBERAL. … Trump’s second term: Prison. Some of the bumper stickers, buttons, t-shirts and picket signs seem deliberately provocative: P.E.T.A.: People Eating Tasty Animals. … Doing my best to piss off the Christian Right.
While shopping (earlier and earlier each year, it seems) we’re subject to the “Happy Holidays!” vs. “Merry Christmas!” battle. Trying to lose weight? Welcome to the fat-shaming vs. fat acceptance controversy. Want to relax in front of the TV and watch a football game? First we must get through the national anthem – are those players standing or kneeling for The Star Spangled Banner? And if we stay awake long enough, we have late-night comedy show hosts encouraging us to ridicule anyone who disagrees with us, so we can all go to bed feeling smug, self-righteous and angry.
From morning till night, day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out, the Culture Wars have become the white noise in the background of our daily lives. Drip-drip-drip. Rat-a-tat-tat. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. No wonder we’re exhausted!
One would think the Reds and Blues might declare at least a temporary truce during our current pandemic crisis. We might try to be positive and do our part to support each other through an experience that has been rough on all of us. We might realize that spewing hate will only create more anxiety and fear.
Alas, no such luck. The media simply can’t resist using sensational headlines to grab eyeballs and generate clicks, nor can our elected officials thwart their powerful desire to co-opt the issue for political gain. Our respective tribes cannot stop sparring over whether or how long to shelter at home, the trade-off between rescuing the economy and saving lives, and who should get scarce personal protective equipment and ventilators first. Facebook and Twitter meme wars rage. Blame and finger-pointing abound. Insults and name-calling continue to flourish everywhere.
Common sense would dictate that one should not be able to predict how people will answer medical questions based on our political affiliations. Nevertheless, one can pretty much guess whether we’re Democrats or Republicans by how seriously we take the pandemic and how soon we think restrictions should be lifted so our lives can return to normal. “Red and blue America aren’t experiencing the same pandemic,” laments Caroline Mimbs Nyce, senior associate editor of The Atlantic (link HERE). “The pandemic, and America’s response, is being swallowed up by the country’s culture wars.” Meanwhile, social distancing (or not) has morphed into a political act, “a way to signal which side you’re on.”
Even some Christians have begun quarreling. To go to church or not to go to church? ’Tis the question. Should we prove our faith in God’s protection by packing sanctuaries in spite of the pandemic? Or should we demonstrate love for our neighbors by staying home and “attending” church remotely?
If there was ever a time when we need to take off our political/ideological hats for just a few minutes, eliminate the name-calling, the shouting, the trolling and the flaming, and have a rational discussion about how to help each other through the current crisis, it would be now. Sadly, I’m not holding my breath.
Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? (If you live outside the U.S., is there similar polarization going on your country?) Which problems do you see going unaddressed while we rip each other apart? What do you think is behind all the divisiveness and how do we turn down the heat? How do Christians avoid becoming part of the problem?
I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on the article itself. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).