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 blame the news media. Some blame our political leaders. Many blame folks on the other side of the culture wars. But my research shows that a variety of interrelated factors contribute to the extreme polarization in our society, including some influences that creep in beneath our conscious awareness:
- Social media. If there’s one thing most people actually agree on, it is that social media can exacerbate polarization. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter provide the ideal forum for the moral grandstanding and flame-throwing that fuel our culture wars. Some folks love a good fight and make a hobby of keeping everyone stirred up through deliberate trolling. For more of us, the relative anonymity of a screen allows us to share sentiments we’d never dream of expressing out loud to someone in a face-to-face conversation.
- Ideological bubbles and echo chambers. In his book The Big Sort, journalist Bill Bishop describes a demographic trend in which Americans have segregated themselves into homogenous communities, choosing everything from cable news networks to civic organizations and church denominations compatible with their lifestyles and beliefs. We have even separated geographically from those who differ from us ideologically. The result, Bishop says, is “a country that has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred, the people don’t know and can’t understand those who live a few miles away.” Meanwhile, on the Internet, sophisticated algorithms create “echo chambers” that ensure we are exposed mostly to people and sites promoting our own worldview and shielded from conflicting ideas or viewpoints.
- Manipulation. We are relentlessly manipulated, often without realizing it, by folks who profit handsomely from keeping us polarized. Social media advertisers know the most salacious headlines get the most clicks – and generate the most ad revenue. Politicians whip us into an us-versus-them frenzy to secure our votes. Cable news networks boost their ratings by keeping people angry and divided. Online businesses appeal to our partisan divisions with in-your-face merchandise – a Deplorable University coffee mug or Safe Spaces Are for Snowflakes bumper sticker for conservatives, a Jesus was Progressive car magnet or Democrats Cleaning Up Republican Messes Since 1933 dog sweater for progressives (or their pets).
- Groupthink and our need for belonging. Kids begin forming in-groups as early as kindergarten and our cliquish behavior unfortunately doesn’t end when we leave high school. “The human mind is exquisitely tuned to group affiliation and group difference,” says political analyst Ezra Klein in his book Why We’re Polarized. “It takes almost nothing for us to form a group identity, and once that happens, we naturally assume ourselves in competition with other groups.” The more we identify with a group, the more we feel pressured to agree with its dogma – a party line that seems to include 650 boxes which must all be checked or we risk rejection by our chosen peers. The deeper our commitment to an identity group, the more vulnerable we are to the effects of “group polarization” – the tendency for the group as a whole to adopt attitudes or actions that are more extreme than the initial inclination of its individual members.
- Projection and scapegoating. We humans have a distressing tendency to project our own less-than-admirable thoughts, behaviors and forbidden impulses onto others. Christians and non-Christians alike “are at times behaving horribly in the ways they engage in our political discourse,” says the Rev. Eugene Cho in his book Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk. “We want to preach to others, but we don’t preach to ourselves. We love to flip tables, but not our own. We love to expose the privilege in others, while rarely considering our own.” The concept of scapegoating first appears in Leviticus 16:8-10 – a goat would literally be cast into the desert to carry away the community’s sins – and the word “scapegoat” has since developed to indicate a person or group of people blamed and punished for the sins of others. Once we’ve blamed someone for all of society’s problems, it’s a short step toward demonizing and dehumanizing them.
- Our soundbite culture. One problem that keeps us from discussing and resolving issues appropriately is our modern emphasis on brevity, which is often designed to accommodate our increasingly short attention spans. According to the Rev. Cho, our failure to engage issues more intelligently prevents us from fully understanding the “why” behind our convictions. (“Don’t just be a headline reader,” he urges us.) It is nearly impossible to give an issue the depth it deserves when we limit our communication to bumper stickers, 15-second sound bites and 280-character tweets.
- Our inability to tolerate ambiguity or acknowledge moral complexity. Moral and ethical questions don’t always lend themselves to simplistic answers, and honest people can honestly disagree about the best way to resolve complex issues. A current example of this dilemma is our struggle over the best way to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. How do we protect people who are more vulnerable to severe illness or death without destroying the jobs that allow other people to feed their families, keep a roof over their heads and afford basic health care? When we don’t have enough of a life-saving vaccine to go around, who gets priority? Adding to the dilemma, scientists’ changing understanding of the virus has made it difficult for public health experts to offer consistent advice on safety measures. But rather than remain open to new research, too many of us prefer to dig in our heels and stick with whatever our identity group decrees to be “the truth.”
- Our oppositional mindset. We often hear how it’s easier to unite Americans against something than to unite them for something. In The Argument Culture, linguistics professor Deborah Tannen describes “a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight.” She explains that our society constantly urges us to engage the world in an adversarial frame of mind: “The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as ‘both sides’; the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you’re really thinking is to criticize.” Our use of language reflects this mindset, she adds: “The war on drugs, the war on cancer … war metaphors pervade our talk and shape our thinking.”
- Relentless pressure to take sides. Our determination to pursue truth by setting up a fight between two sides leads us to believe every issue has two sides – no more and no less, Tannen says. But opposition “does not lead to truth when an issue is not composed of two opposing sides but is a crystal of many sides. Often the truth is in the complex middle, not the oversimplified extremes.” In other words, an issue may not actually have two sides, but rather, three or four or seventeen sides. Pressure to choose between the two sides presented to us keeps us from recognizing and remaining open to other options.
- Negative partisanship and defining-by-opposition. Partisan behavior is often driven not by positive feelings toward the political party we support but by negative feelings toward the party we oppose, according to Klein. You might be guilty of negative partisanship, he says, “if you’ve ever voted in an election feeling a bit bleh about the candidate you backed, but fearful of the troglodyte or socialist running against her.” Charles C. Camosy describes “the politics of defining-by-opposition” in his book Resisting Throwaway Culture. “We almost always view the ideological communities to which we belong through the lens of a narrow progressive/conservative binary – a binary into which all issues, regardless of their complexity, are shoved and made to fit,” he explains. “We define ourselves by our opposition to ‘the other side’ well before we even engage their ideas and arguments.”
- Logical fallacies. The dualistic, oppositional, either/or mindset outlined above is an example of a logical fallacy – a thinking error that distorts our perceptions and leads to inaccurate conclusions. Other logical fallacies that contribute to polarization include zero-sum thinking (we insist that one side’s gain must be the other side’s loss); fundamental attribution error (when bad things happen to other people, we believe they are personally at fault, but when bad things happen to us, we blame the situation and circumstances beyond our control); confirmation bias (we embrace information that supports our viewpoints, while ignoring information that doesn’t); and all-or-nothing thinking (if we change our mind about one issue, it will mean everything we’ve ever believed in is wrong, so we’ll be forced to change our entire worldview).
- Addiction to outrage and contempt. There certainly are plenty of issues to be legitimately angry about in our society right now. But face it, outrage and contempt can help us feel so superior to others that many of us are hopelessly addicted. We live in a culture of contempt, says Arthur C. Brooks in his book Love Your Enemies. Brooks variously defines contempt as “anger mixed with disgust,” “an enduring attitude of complete disdain,” and “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” While most of us hate what unbridled outrage and contempt are doing to our society, he says many of us “compulsively consume the ideological equivalent of meth from elected officials, academics, entertainers and some of the news media.”
- Our sinful nature. Many Christians believe sin can ultimately be defined as separation. And what word would describe extreme polarization better than separation? Several “sins of separation” contribute to the polarization tearing our society apart. We commit idolatry when we turn the conservative/progressive movements into quasi-religions and place our loyalty to a political ideology or party ahead of our loyalty to God. We take God’s name in vain when we use it to promote hatred toward people or groups we oppose. We bear false witness against our neighbors when we deliberately twist their words and distort their positions on various issues so we can portray them as terrible people. We ignore the plank in our own eye while focusing obsessively on the speck in our perceived opponent’s eye. Most of all, we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially if they voted for the wrong candidate in the last election.
Unfortunately, polarization can be self-reinforcing, creating an endless feedback loop, according to Klein. To appeal to a polarized public, political institutions, cable news networks and other public entities behave in more polarized ways. As the political institutions and other actors behave in more polarized ways, they further polarize the public. To appeal to a further polarized public, institutions must polarize even more. The cycle becomes a downward spiral.
If we want to stop this depressing cycle, a good first step might be paying attention to the ways we are pressured and manipulated to take sides in situations where taking sides may not be the best idea, as well as recognizing the logical fallacies that encourage polarized thinking and behavior. I’m also thinking those of us who identify as Christians may need to renew our commitment to follow the Lamb rather than the elephant or the donkey.
Questions for readers: What factors do you see leading to the extreme polarization in our society? What would help alleviate this? 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).