Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.
Some would argue that the extreme polarization in our society is normal and relatively harmless. We must simply learn to ignore the drama. Turn off the TV. Spend less time on social media sites.
If only it were that simple.
Around the tables at 12-Step group meetings, people say it’s important to distinguish between “normal” and “healthy.” Some situations and behaviors considered all-too-normal in our society are actually anything but healthy, they warn.
For example, it would be bad enough if the tide of anger and disrespect swirling around us served merely to put people in a surly, antisocial mood. Unfortunately, the damage doesn’t stop there. On a societal level, our finger-pointing epidemic leads to everything from Congressional gridlock and loss of trust in our institutions to violence against individuals who belong to maligned groups. On a personal level, people report damaged relationships and higher levels of stress. Perhaps worst of all, our children are watching us.
Here are some of the ways I see the Culture Wars affecting us, both personally and as a community.
- Our relationships. In a study published by the journal PLOS ONE (link HERE), about 20 percent of respondents reported that political animosity had damaged their friendships. Nearly 40 percent of registered voters – both Democrat and Republican – surveyed by the Pew Research Center (link HERE) said they do not have a single close friend from the opposing party. I’ve watched some of my own Facebook friends – both conservative and progressive – shred each other on my news feed to the point where I needed to block them. Others have pressured me to “unfriend” or stop associating with people who voted the “wrong” way in an election. I’ve fretted about who to invite to gatherings at my house because I worried that one of my more opinionated guests might insult or offend another guest. Sadly, I’ve had loved ones decide they’re “done” with me because “we don’t agree on anything” politically.
- Our livelihoods. Polarization can impact our jobs, along with our ability to support ourselves and our families. At the national level, our elected officials regularly threaten to “shut down the government” unless they get their way on hot-button priorities. In the past few years, government shutdowns have resulted in workers getting furloughed until the impasse is resolved. In Illinois, where I live, social service agencies were forced to conduct massive layoffs when our legislators and the governor held the state budget hostage for two years while fighting over ideological agendas.
- Our civic engagement. The Culture Wars may boost TV ratings and generate clicks for social media advertisers. But the toxic nature of our conflicts leaves too many of us wanting to drop out of the civic arena entirely. Hidden Tribes (link HERE), a survey of public opinion by the organization More in Common, says two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans belong to a group the authors have dubbed “the Exhausted Majority.” Although members of this group have many political and ideological differences, they share fatigue with the current state of U.S. politics. The relentless back-and-forth arguments have rendered many folks just plain fed up and wondering if the U.S. can move beyond division, according to the report. At least a quarter (26 percent) of those surveyed report feeling detached, distrustful and disengaged. On a personal level, the warring factions leave me wanting to grab a good book and a flashlight and dive under the bed with my cat.
- Our conversations. No matter how innocuous or trivial the topic, many of us have become reluctant to express our true thoughts. Personally, I’m not afraid that people might disagree with me, which is fine, or even that someone might prove me wrong, which I can live with. But I do tend to avoid speaking up in situations where I might get name-called or otherwise bullied, and several friends have reported having similar experiences. I don’t think this makes us snowflakes. It means we practice good self-care. Unfortunately, this situation puts a damper on our ability to engage in anything more than the most superficial small talk with others.
- Our credibility. Name-calling, flaming, trolling and other rude behavior don’t just stop genuine discussion in its tracks. Obnoxious behavior invites others to take us less than seriously. When we lash out with insults toward those who disagree with us, we only give others an excuse to discount us and dismiss our message.
- Our ability to profit from advice. Lately I’ve noticed that the constant vitriol has made both me and others more reactive, less able to tolerate even the mildest, most constructive criticism. I don’t think this is entirely a matter of our having overly delicate egos. What passes for criticism is so pervasive and so relentless that we all feel like we’ve had our lifetime quota and cannot bear even one more iota of “feedback.” How many times can we hear words like “moron” and “Nazi” directed toward ourselves before even the most thick-skinned among us gets defensive and shuts down?
- Our ability to fix or learn from mistakes. People these days find it almost impossible to admit when they are wrong. Again, I think this goes beyond fragile egos. I suspect one factor is that the punishment so often exceeds the crime. We don’t just ask people to repair the damage when they make mistakes. We sue them for everything they’ve got so we can make an example of them. We don’t just fire people. We seek to ruin their entire careers in the name of “accountability.” We “call them out,” target them for public humiliation and attempt to “cancel” them like credit cards. No wonder people are afraid of even the appearance of being wrong.
- Our ability to resolve real problems. While we bicker incessantly, genuine problems go unaddressed. Raging war in various global hotspots creates millions of refugees. Thousands of children worldwide die each day of starvation and/or totally preventable diseases. Nearly a third of all children in the U.S. live in poverty. Because of Congressional gridlock, our elected officials are completely unable to come up with sensible policy on issues ranging from immigration, health care and our crumbling infrastructure to criminal justice reform and how to manage a pandemic.
- Our trust. We don’t trust anyone these days – not the government, not the press, not the police, not doctors or scientists, and not even the church. According to a recent Gallup poll (link HERE), barely half (51 percent) of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the medical system. Fewer than half expressed similar confidence in the police (48 percent), the church/organized religion (42 percent), public schools (41 percent), the Supreme Court (40 percent), banks (38 percent), or large technology companies (32 percent). Fewer than a quarter expressed confidence in the criminal justice system (24 percent), big businesses (19 percent), newspapers (24 percent) or television news (18 percent). A measly 13 percent of us expressed confidence in Congress.
- Our physical health. It would be nice if our elected officials could sit down like mature adults and work out a comprehensive policy to ensure appropriate health care is available to everyone, regardless of income or pre-existing medical conditions. Instead, members of Congress insist on turning our health care into a political wedge issue. Disastrously, the Culture Wars have rendered our national and state governments totally unable to effectively address either the medical or the economic fallout of COVID-19. The tricky part for the rest of us is figuring out how to separate the progressive-versus-conservative political spin from the medical information we need to know in order to protect ourselves from a potentially deadly virus.
- Our mental health. In “Stress in America 2020,” an annual survey published by the American Psychological Association (link HERE), 68 percent of adults named the current political climate in the U.S. as a source of stress. Republicans and Democrats were equally likely to say this was true for them. Three in five (60 percent) say the sheer number of issues America faces currently – ranging from racism and immigration to health care, the economy and climate change – is overwhelming to them. As anxiety arising from the COVID-19 pandemic has been added to our tension over these already existing conflicts, our stress levels have skyrocketed to the point that APA has sounded an alarm: “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.”
- Our faith. The Culture Wars have literally split congregations down the middle in recent years, and major denominations have faced schisms over such issues as LGBTQ rights, abortion and the role of women. How do we have conversations about genuine moral issues such as racism or poverty when important Biblical passages are labelled “too political” and therefore off-limits for discussion? For those of us who claim to be people of faith, spewing hurtful and gratuitous snark on Christian social media sites gives the increasing numbers of young people who identify as “none” ammunition to call us hypocrites and declare they want nothing to do with either us or our religion.
- Our safety. Taken to extremes, polarization can promote dehumanization and lower the threshold for violence. Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Republican Congressman Steve Scalise were shot by mentally unstable individuals who took our society’s heated political rhetoric too literally. Other elected officials from both parties routinely receive death threats in response to their policy decisions. We have groups on both the left (such as Antifa) and the right (such as the Proud Boys) who endorse violence as a legitimate way to achieve political ends. Perhaps more disturbing, a Voter Study Group survey (link HERE) found that 16 percent of ordinary Americans felt that violence is sometimes justified to advance political goals. We’re not even safe in our places of worship – mass shootings have occurred in Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques and a Sikh temple.
- Our children. Do we really think our kids don’t notice the mudslinging we’ve come to regard as normal for political campaigns? Or the car with the middle-aged driver and the bumper sticker that tells us what we can eat if we don’t like the owner’s driving? Or the (alleged) adults who consider “flaming” a popular sport on social media? Or the talk show host who refers to ideological opponents as “wackos”? I’ve heard parents and teachers alike share concerns about children and adolescents watching political debates because of the abundance of name-calling, constant interruptions and generally uncivil behavior. Young people looking to adults for an example of how to behave could be excused for concluding that rudeness is clever. Kids who take their cues from their elders might also get this message: Consideration for others is passé.
So, is extreme polarization normal in our society? Unfortunately. Is it healthy or harmless? Hardly.
Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? How do we become part of the solution rather than part of the problem? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. 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).