Book excerpt: Clarification and some definitions

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 other excerpts, click HERE.

When I express my desire to step back from the culture wars and find less-polarizing ways of addressing societal problems, I get a pair of common responses.

Some folks who identify as progressive will say sarcastically, “Oh, I see. You think we should all be NICE.” They practically spit out the word nice, then accuse me of wanting to look the other way in the face of injustice. Some who identify as conservative will suggest that what I really want is for everyone to simply ignore sinful behavior.

My spiritual director – a wise woman who had a talent for posing questions most people don’t think to ask – challenged me with this question: “What, exactly, do you mean by culture wars?” And this one: “What would you consider to be polarizing behavior?” She made an important point. Those words may not mean the same thing to everyone who hears them.

So I’d like to clarify: When I speak of the culture wars and the resulting polarization in our society, I’m not talking about honest disagreements between people of good will who just happen to have differing ideas about the best way to resolve issues. I’m not saying we should look the other way in the face of injustice or cease discussing sin in sermons, Bible study sessions and religious education classes. I not suggesting we should retreat from the political arena, refrain from sharing opinions on social media about issues we feel strongly about, forsake our favorite causes or stop working to resolve problems such as poverty and hunger.

When I speak of the culture wars and the resulting polarization in our society, I am talking about the trolling, the name-calling, the insults, the character assassination, the demonizing and scapegoating, and the gratuitous rudeness that have become a mind-numbingly routine part of our daily conversations and social media interactions. I’m talking about activist groups doctoring videos and jerking quotes out of context to make ideological opponents look sinister, candidates for public office deliberately playing on fears and divisions to score political points and get votes, ordinary folks combing through comments on Facebook or Twitter looking for “gotcha” opportunities so they can pounce, and extremists phoning in death threats to people who say or do something they disagree with.

Dictionary.com defines culture war as “a conflict or struggle for dominance between groups within a society, or between societies, arising from their differing beliefs and practices.” Wikipedia points out that “in American usage the term culture war may imply a conflict between those values considered traditionalist or conservative and those considered progressive or liberal.” Dictionary.com defines polarization as “a sharp division, as of a population or group, into opposing factions.” Urban Dictionary defines culture warrior as “a member of one of the two major political tribes who have come to dominate political discussion in the U.S. with their divisive, polarizing conflict.”

A key concept for me in these definitions is dominance. The competing factions in our culture wars aren’t so much concerned with actually resolving issues as they are with winning – at any cost – by humiliating and annihilating people perceived to be their opponents. These “opponents” are no longer simply misguided or mistaken, they are stupid, crazy or just plain evil.

When I express my desire to step back from the culture wars, I also get another common response. Some equally exhausted folks enthusiastically nod their heads and suggest I should turn off the TV, log off the Internet and disengage from the larger society. Some will argue that even talking about politics or hot-button social issues is poor etiquette. That getting involved in causes is the province of people afraid to look too closely at their personal problems. That marches, rallies and boycotts are inherently divisive. That civil discussion is a waste of time since most of us already have our minds made up. That special interests control our government to the point where voting is futile, so why bother?

I would respectfully disagree with the idea of simply “dropping out.” The Constitution guarantees our right to petition our government for the redress of grievances. Participating in the political process is not only a right, but one of our responsibilities as citizens. Supporting a good cause with our time or money beats sitting in front of our screens mindlessly surfing the Internet or playing one video game after another. Too many problems need addressing for us to move in the direction of apathy and disconnection. We do need to stay engaged.

But could we please, please, please stop the vitriol? If we really want to change hearts and minds, we must stop the name-calling, the scapegoating and the demonizing. It’s one thing to write a politely-worded letter to an elected official. It’s another to send a profanity-laced screed containing death threats. It’s one thing to attend a candidate forum or town hall meeting and ask an intelligent question when it’s our turn to do so. It’s another to shout down a lawmaker or candidate who is trying to speak. It’s one thing to participate in a march or rally in which organizers have obtained all the proper permits. It’s another to vandalize property, set fire to a police station or bomb a clinic.  

Name-calling and other rude behavior stop genuine discussion and problem solving in their tracks. Lashing out gives others an excuse to ignore our concerns, discount us and dismiss our issues. For those of us who claim to be people of faith, spewing snarky insults gives people ammunition to call us hypocrites and declare they want nothing to do with either us or our religion. And violence only begets more violence.

In my own case, I actually have changed my mind now and then over the years, even on some fairly important issues. When I did so, it was because someone presented factual information in such a way that I could listen without becoming defensive. It also helped if the other person was willing to hear my side of the story, shared their personal experience of the issue in question, or showed me how I could come around to their way of thinking without sacrificing important values.

But I can promise I have never, EVER changed my mind about anything because someone called me names, insulted me or tried to convince me they were morally superior to me. All yelling and character assassination ever did for me was encourage me to dig in my heels or walk away. People of all political stripes have let me know I’m not alone in this regard.

In our current environment, we are so often presented with only two alternatives – be “in-your-face” reactionary or be apathetic. I’d like to see a third option. I’d like to see all of us eliminate the name-calling, the trolling and the flaming, and have a respectful discussion about serious issues. We need to replace our desire to be right and come out on top with a desire to solve problems. That way, instead of our side winning, perhaps we can all win.

Questions for readers: Have you found a constructive way to address pressing social issues without getting caught up in the vitriol that characterizes the culture wars? I’d love to hear your response to this question, 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).

Book excerpt: Little epiphanies

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 other excerpts, click HERE.

Insight doesn’t usually come to me in big EUREKA! moments, but tends to creep into my awareness through a series of little epiphanies. And so it was with the realization that our society’s culture wars were wreaking real damage, both in our communities and in my personal life. Even worse, I began to discern – albeit more slowly – that my own attitudes and behavior might be contributing to the problem.

The first of these little epiphanies came during my 20-year career in human services. Between my paid employment and my volunteer commitments, it was hard to avoid the fallout from our larger society’s political battles because the never-ending conflict so often affected my ability to simply do my job. Government funding to the social service agencies where I worked would be cut or delayed on a regular basis because elected officials liked to hold state and federal budgets hostage until they got their way on ideological priorities. This often resulted in staffing shortages and a reduction in the level of services we were able to provide for people in need.

“Philosophical differences” within the social service system itself sometimes kept helping professionals from working together for the benefit of people who sought assistance for problems ranging from drug addiction and homelessness to domestic violence and mental health issues. Conservative colleagues said poor choices and lack of personal responsibility were to blame for these individuals’ problems, while progressive colleagues insisted bad luck and social oppression were the culprits. My own experience told me the cause of most client problems was a complex combination of poor choices, bad luck and social oppression, but I often felt pressured by colleagues on both the left and the right to deny the reality in front of me when certain details of a person’s situation were not “ideologically correct.” 

Outside of work, I frequently found myself sucked into arguments with friends, relatives and even strangers over contentious “hot-button” issues such as abortion, gun violence, climate change and racial unrest. Sometimes online squabbles would get sufficiently nasty for me to block or “snooze” Facebook friends – both progressive and conservative – who refused to stop insulting my other Facebook friends. This situation got more pronounced after the 2016 election, with some friends actually pressuring me to stop associating with people on the “wrong” side of the ideological divide. 

However, I have to admit I wasn’t always the innocent victim or bystander in these skirmishes. For years, I had been repelled by the culture wars and yet attracted like the proverbial moth to a flame.

One sign that I might be a bit too invested in the culture wars came when I realized I had just wasted an entire afternoon arguing with total strangers about jello. Yes, jello. Progressives and conservatives on one Christian denomination’s Facebook page had been wrangling for days over this question: “Is it racist to make jokes about jello at church potlucks?” I further realized it wasn’t the first time this had happened. Conservative and progressive Christians frequently mauled and skewered each other on Web sites such as Patheos, gleefully calling each other names and dropping F-bombs on people left and right. While I didn’t resort to insults or profanity myself, I confess to participating in too many of these “discussions” for longer than I should have. 

Another “Aha!” moment came during election season when I realized I hadn’t done my morning meditation in several days. Morning meditation was one of my favorite prayer rituals. I settled in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee by my side and a cat in my lap and asked for God’s protection and guidance as I journaled about my priorities for the coming day. Sometimes my husband serenaded Oley Cat and me with sacred songs on his dulcimer. So why was I missing out? Not because of early doctor appointments or work commitments. Before I even had my morning coffee, I would rush to my computer and click into Real Clear Politics or FiveThirtyEight.com to see who was ahead in the polls. Housework and my writing also languished while I aimlessly surfed the web, looking for that news story or editorial that would magically reassure me the right side was winning.

One beautiful October day, I was taking a twilight walk when I suddenly stopped short. Mother Nature’s handiwork prompted me to gasp. Fall leaves flashed yellow-orange-crimson. Light from the setting sun bounced off the tops of trees in even more vivid colors. The sky competed with the trees for sheer outrageousness – the sun painting the clouds red, orange, yellow, pink, purple. A still-warm breeze blew gently across my face. Then I stopped short again. I realized I had been walking for several minutes before I noticed what was in front of me. While God was putting on this living fireworks display, I had been gazing at the sidewalk, my mind flitting from one surly thought to another: I wish our elected officials would stop acting like children. … What kind of people would vote for a monster like that? … What on earth is wrong with people?! … How can they think that way?  

The final straw that convinced me I’d had enough of the culture wars came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we were, facing a virus that was killing hundreds of thousands of people, and our elected officials would not stop brawling long enough to develop a coherent plan for addressing this urgent public health issue. One would think the general public might urge lawmakers to put aside their political differences and collaborate on ways to get personal protective equipment to our frontline workers, ensure ICU beds were available for everyone who needed one, and help families and small businesses affected by our shutdown orders. Instead, all we could seem to do was bicker about face masks and shame each other with Facebook memes while we retreated further into our ideological camps and dug in our heels.

So what could one person do to stop the lunacy? I was pretty sure the answer was not to retreat from the political arena, look the other way in the face of injustice or stop working to resolve problems such as poverty and hunger. On the other hand, something clearly wasn’t working – either in our society or in my responses to the endless strife. At the very least, my own responses needed to change. 

Unfortunately, the church community – where one might hope to find some guidance – seemed only to provoke more confusion and discord. Many Christian denominations were drawing progressive-versus-conservative battle lines that matched those of secular society. As people on either end of the political/ideological divide pressured me to take sides, I often found myself performing mental gymnastics to make my religious beliefs about an issue fit a particular political party’s platform. And I came to realize how much my own beliefs were being shaped by my desire to fit in with the people around me rather than by an objective search for truth. 

This internal tug-of-war brought on by the increasing divisiveness in our society prompted me to ask myself several questions: What were my own beliefs about the hot-button issues that consumed our nation’s culture warriors? Should I continue holding onto these beliefs and values, or should some of them be changed or discarded? How could I avoid the continual pressure to “choose sides” and do more of my own thinking? What was my role as a Christian in fighting or mitigating society’s political battles? How should I engage people who disagreed with me, while keeping in mind God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves? And perhaps most importantly, how did I avoid becoming part of the problem as our society grew ever more partisan and angry? How could I be part of the solution?

To help me sort through these questions, I engaged a spiritual director shortly after the 2016 election. With her encouragement, I began questioning many things I thought I knew. I questioned values other people wanted me to hold – whether they be conservative or progressive. I began asking myself how much I really believed everything I claimed to believe concerning church dogma and secular political ideologies. Was it possible I was merely paying lip service to certain ideas to please my peer group? I decided for the time being to ignore what academic “experts” thought. I did not want a value system that simply let me fit in chameleon-like with my surroundings. Ultimately, I wanted a personal faith that would stand up to reason, scrutiny and pressure from the various culture warriors in my life. 

In 1 Thessalonians 5:21, the Apostle Paul said, “Test all things; hold fast to that which is good.” 

I certainly haven’t figured out all the answers. But I do think one key to finding an appropriate Christian response to our society’s polarization problem is to avoid knee-jerk ideological responses to heated controversies, hear people out on all sides and keep asking those pesky questions.

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).

Book excerpt: How did we get so polarized?

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).

Book excerpt: Is this criticism constructive or abusive?

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.

Most of us would agree that a hallmark of maturity is the ability to give and take constructive criticism without getting defensive or provoking defensiveness in others. Proverbs 9:8 and 17:10 commend people wise enough to profit from correction. If we must criticize others, Ephesians 4:15 reminds us to speak the truth in love.

Unfortunately, what some people call “constructive criticism” isn’t really all that constructive. Sometimes criticism can be a form of abuse. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than with the “critiquing” so characteristic of the culture wars in recent years. 

In a previous excerpt, I shared my theory that the extreme polarization in our society – along with the constant vitriol – has rendered many of us more defensive than we used to be. I don’t think this is entirely a matter of fragile egos. How many times can we hear words like “moron” and “Nazi” directed toward ourselves before the most thick-skinned among us shuts down?

When we react defensively to criticism, are we being overly sensitive, or is our reaction a signal that we’re being abused? When we deliver the criticism, are we speaking the truth in love or are we abusing others? 

Here are some of the guidelines I was taught by parents, teachers and various mentors about giving and receiving constructive criticism. I invite readers to compare and contrast these examples with the “criticism” so often dished out by our society’s culture warriors on both the right and the left.

Constructive criticism stems from a genuine desire to help the recipient. The motive might be to help the recipient resolve a problem, be more successful at work, gain a different perspective on an issue or improve relationships with others.

Abusive criticism stems from less than honorable motives. The moral grandstanding so prevalent among culture warriors offers a prime example of criticism designed to help participants look good at other people’s expense in order to gain approval from their identity group or tribe.

Constructive criticism attacks the problem, not the person. Criticism focuses on the recipient’s actions or ideas, rather than on the recipient as a human being – for example, “I feel like I must challenge what you just said” vs. “anyone who thinks the way you do is a moron.”

Abusive criticism attacks the recipient personally. Examples of personal (ad hominem) attacks include the name-calling, ridicule and demonization of opponents so characteristic of our culture wars. People don’t just have wrong or misguided ideas. They are stupid, crazy or downright evil.

Constructive criticism respects the recipient’s dignity. The critic may take the recipient aside or raise concerns in a private message, thus allowing the recipient to avoid embarrassment.

Abusive criticism disregards the recipient’s feelings. The critic “calls out” the recipient in a public forum such as Facebook or Twitter, and may get others to join in and pile on. For culture warriors on both sides, public humiliation is often the whole point. Some folks actually make loud pronouncements like, “I don’t care about your hurt feelings.”

Constructive criticism is even-handed. The critic notices strengths as well as weaknesses, and offers praise for things the recipient does right.

Abusive criticism is unbalanced. In our polarized society, we’re discouraged from acknowledging that someone perceived as an opponent might have any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Constructive criticism happens only occasionally. The criticism might take place in the context of a workplace performance review or a private discussion in which the recipient has asked for feedback.

Abusive criticism happens too frequently. The critic finds something wrong no matter what the recipient does, and the criticism is relentless. On a societal level, the “criticism” sounds more like a steady drumbeat of bashing than an honest critique. “Gotcha” games abound.

Constructive criticism is fair. The critic targets things the recipient can realistically change, such as a faulty idea or an inconsiderate action, rather than things beyond the recipient’s personal control such as race, gender or someone else’s behavior.

Abusive criticism is unfair. Culture warriors on both the right and the left often resort to stereotyping and scapegoating entire groups of people, blaming individuals who belong to these groups for all of society’s ills. 

Constructive criticism is stated calmly and respectfully. The critic speaks in a normal tone of voice and treats the recipient like a reasonably intelligent person.

Abusive criticism often feels condescending or threatening. The critic yells, constantly interrupts, stands over the recipient, makes threats, or talks down to the recipient in a patronizing manner. These behaviors have been on frequent display by members of both parties during political debates in recent years.

Constructive criticism is specific and relevant to the situation at hand. Criticism focuses on current issues or concerns, and the critic offers concrete suggestions or solutions for any problems raised.

Abusive criticism resembles a fishing expedition. Culture warriors may dredge up everything an “opponent” has done in the past 30 or 40 years, including mistakes the individual has long since atoned for. The goal is not so much to resolve a problem, but rather to demonize, discount or destroy a perceived enemy.

Constructive criticism is a two-way street. The critic understands there are at least two sides to most issues and is able to look for their own part – or their own side’s part – in any problems being addressed.

Abusive criticism is all one-way. The critic can dish it out but can’t take it. Culture warriors often dodge a gentle invitation to look in the mirror by offering up accusations of “false equivalence” or “whataboutism.” 

“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up,” 1 Thessalonians 5:11 reminds us. 

I truly believe the heat generated by our society’s intense polarization could be turned down several notches if people on all sides of our culture wars could learn how to distinguish constructive criticism, which builds up, from the abusive variety, which tears down. We could all profit from more building up and less tearing down.

Questions for readers: What are some examples of abusive criticism you’ve encountered? What would make the criticism more constructive? 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).

Book excerpt: Why is everyone so angry?

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.

Even in this age of extreme polarization, conservatives and progressives still have at least one thing in common: Our anger.

Why are we all so angry?

We’re angry because we can’t trust anyone these days. People in positions of authority lie to us shamelessly. Congress sells out to special interests. The news media are hopelessly biased. We suspect insurance companies make more medical decisions than our doctors. Members of the clergy molest children and church leaders cover it up. Scam artists pose as IRS agents so they can steal our identity and go on a shopping spree. 

We’re angry because we’re bombarded with change. Occupations become obsolete before we finish training for them. Staying current with the latest technology is a full-time job. Cultural shifts mean the rules of etiquette keep shifting. We adapt to these transitions, only to confront more demands for change, with no time to catch our breath. We worry we’ll lose everything that matters to us – our livelihoods, our way of life, respect for our values. 

We’re angry because injustice reigns. People face discrimination based on race, gender and every other human difference imaginable. Powerful people bully and exploit less powerful people with impunity. Nations go to war for reasons other than national security. Poverty persists as the gap between the rich and poor becomes a yawning chasm. Nearly 30,000 children die every day from starvation and other preventable causes. Political candidates vow to address these issues, then forget their promises once elected. 

We’re angry at the petty annoyances of modern life. Junk mail, email spam and telemarketing calls elude our efforts to block them. Appliances stop working the minute the warranty expires, and giant corporations no longer seem to care whether we’re happy with their products or not. Getting a prescription refilled or a driver’s license renewed has turned into a bureaucratic ordeal. And just try to get a live person on the phone when we have a question or need help with something. Yes, these annoyances may seem like trivial first-world problems, but they keep coming at us. All. Day. Long.

We’re angry at other people’s sins. Those progressives/conservatives (depending on which side we’re on) not only keep sinning, they flaunt their iniquity. They celebrate their greed, their violence, their bigotry and their moral depravity, and no one lifts a finger to hold them accountable. What’s worse, these same people stoke public anger at us for not thinking or acting the way they do. When people who are unhappy with us try to shame us, our fury increases exponentially.

We’re angry at our own weaknesses. We know intellectually what we need to do: Eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, pay more attention to our relationships and practice self-discipline. The challenge lies in translating intellectual knowledge into action. We can’t seem to quit our bad habits or stick to a healthy eating plan. We should be doing more in our communities, but who has the time? We feel like the Apostle Paul, when he says in Romans 7, “I don’t understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. … I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” 

We’re angry because we’re overwhelmed. We’re constantly pulled in 20 different directions by our overloaded and chaotic schedules. We cross items off endless to-do lists: our to-do list for work, our to-do list for household chores, our to-do list of personal self-care routines, our to-do list of urgent matters, even a master list to keep track of all the to-do lists. We juggle so many balls in the air, we’re convinced we have to keep these multiple to-do lists or we won’t remember to do simple things like brush our teeth. Despite all the to-do lists designed to help us hold ourselves accountable for how we spend our time, we can’t keep up with all the demands. 

We’re angry because we’re anxious and afraid. Each day, the news presents another potential catastrophe for us to worry about. What can we do about climate change, or have we already passed the point of no return? Is there anything these days that doesn’t cause cancer? Will technology replace our jobs with robots? Will Social Security still be around when we’re 90? How do we keep criminals from breaking into our homes, our credit card accounts and our retirement funds? If the wrong political party gets into power, will we be forced to live according to a value system we abhor? Will we still have a country in four years? Will we get through this pandemic alive? Will our loved ones?

We’re angry because we’re lonely. The social distancing prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our ties with family, friends, colleagues and members of our faith communities. However, even before the pandemic, people were becoming increasingly isolated. Technology keeps us focused on our screens rather than our relationships. Time spent climbing the career ladder equals time spent away from people who matter to us. Frequent career moves also uproot us from our communities and this loss of connection leads to a loss of our support systems. 

We’re angry because we’re grieving. We have lost 500,000 people to COVID-19 in the U.S. alone – that’s a half million parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, neighbors and valued colleagues. Worldwide we’ve lost two million human beings and counting. We’ve lost jobs and businesses. We’ve lost our family gatherings, our concerts, our church services and our vacation trips. We’ve lost our freedom to come and go as we please. We’ve lost our sense of safety, our sense of security and our sense of control over our own lives. We’ve suffered so many losses we’ve run out of tears, and still the losses escalate.

We’re angry because we’re exhausted. Cumulative, unrelenting crises generate fatigue and despair. Each week, we hear about yet another terrorist attack, another mass shooting, another natural disaster. War rages endlessly in hot spots around the world. Political scandals persist unabated. People around us won’t stop fighting at work, on Facebook, on the streets or even at church and their constant bickering wears us out. 

We’re angry because we feel powerless. We know what policies would resolve our problems if only our leaders would summon the political courage to implement them, but we’re not in charge, and they won’t listen to us. We write to our elected officials, who respond with a form letter that makes it clear they (or their assistants) failed to read past the first paragraph. We march for life, for peace, for justice or for other noble causes, and for a brief moment it appears we might see change. But then the public gets distracted, the media chases after the next shiny object and we’re back to the status quo. We sense that nothing we do matters. Our efforts seem like a cosmic joke.

We’re angry because we repress our true feelings. The Psalms brim with poetry about anguish, pain, fear and grief. The Bible offers an entire book titled Lamentations. Jesus wept. Yet our modern culture discourages overt expressions of strong emotions. “Suck it up, buttercup,” we’re lectured. “Stop the pity party.” With few acceptable outlets for the legitimate expression of painful emotions, we simply “stuff it” until we erupt. In some circles, even positive emotions such as passion and joy are suspect. “Curb your enthusiasm,” we’re told. Outrage, on the other hand, is not only accepted but encouraged and celebrated.

We’re angry because questions are forbidden. When confronted with inquiring minds, religious and secular ideologues alike discourage too much probing. “You mustn’t question God’s will,” some folks sternly warn us if we dare to question their interpretation of Biblical truth. Not that the “nones” are any better in this regard. Heaven forbid we question one tiny iota of an identity group’s dogma. That’s a good way to wind up cancelled like a credit card.

We’re angry because we’ve lost our sense of meaning. In a society that worships Mammon rather than God, success means having a fancier job title than our neighbor, and “enough” gets defined as whatever the neighbor has – plus one. If our neighbors define “success” and “enough” the same way, we become trapped in a competition we can’t win. Our homes runneth over with stuff, but material goods fail to satisfy. The brass ring turns out not to be so shiny once we’ve grabbed it. People in 12 Step groups often speak of “spiritual bankruptcy” – a state of psychic numbing or sleepwalking in which our lives lose all meaning beyond getting our needed fixes. We want our lives to amount to more than eating and sleeping, acquiring the latest toys, dodging other people’s dramas and crossing items off to-do lists, but we don’t know where to start. 

Experts agree that emotions are complex and often intertwined. Fear, anxiety, grief, frustration and feelings of futility can masquerade as anger. Fighting against whatever we perceive to be the source of our anger helps us feel more powerful and promises to give our lives meaning. Sadly, at the moment, rage seems to be what connects and unites us.

The good news: If we’re angry, we’re not alone. We can rest assured we have a lot of company. Given everything that’s going on, our anger is understandable, reasonable and legitimate. In other words, we’re “normal.”

The bad news: If we’re angry, we’re not alone. Unfortunately, anger is often contagious. When people around us lash out at the rest of the world, this tacitly gives us permission to do the same. When not channeled in a constructive way, our collective anger can become our collective insanity. And a long line of folks stands ready to exploit our personal and collective anger for their own ends.

Questions for readers: How do you see our anger being exploited, and by whom? How can we channel our anger constructively? 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).

Book excerpt: The Wide World of Anger

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.

One of the biggest factors underlying today’s extreme polarization is the bottomless pit of seething resentment and rage running through our society like hot lava.

I mentioned in a previous post that many people I encounter these days seem more cranky and defensive than they used to be, and some seem to be spoiling for a fight. We have Road Rage, Airport Rage, Parking Lot Rage and Starbucks Rage. We have Climate Wars, Health Care Wars, Class Wars, Mommy Wars and even Worship Wars. We spew our in-your-face venom onto everything from t-shirts, lapel pins and bumper stickers to coffee cups, refrigerator magnets and doormats like this one sold at Amazon.com:

“The easiest thing you’ll do all day is get ticked off at something,” Jeffrey Kluger writes in a Time magazine article titled America’s Anger Is Out of Control (link HERE). “Someone cuts ahead of you in traffic? Ticked off. Guy in front of you at Starbucks needs his entire order remade because his mocha half-caf, double frap had the wrong frigging number of espresso shots in it even though you know full well nobody can taste the bloody difference? Exceedingly ticked off. We’re all that way – and that’s a problem. Anger is … quick, it’s binary, it’s delicious. And more and more, we’re gorging on it.” 

The gratuitously nasty responses to a popular bumper sticker handed out by school districts offer a perfect illustration of this free-floating over-the-top anger. Personally, I think proud of my honor student bumper stickers are a nice way for schools to show appreciation to hardworking students and promote academic achievement. But apparently some folks beg to differ, judging from their own bumper stickers. My kid beat up your honor student and my kid got your honor student pregnant are just a couple of the snarky “statements” that leave me shaking my head. Good grief! If we don’t want our young people using drugs, joining gangs or making other unfortunate choices, why the hostility toward kids who are doing something right?

Lloyd Vries at CBS News (link HERE) shares, “A reader wrote to me, ‘Just do the country a favor and shoot yourself.’ … How angry does someone have to be to write something like that? And ‘Mr. Go Shoot Yourself’ is not atypical. Surf the Internet for a second or two, and you’ll see the venom pouring out from those who verbally attack each other.” At my computer I type the words, “Why is everyone so angry?” The Google search yields nearly 150,000 entries and an inescapable conclusion: Vries is correct. There sure are a lot of angry people out there.

A short browse through just a few of the 150,000 entries reveals that the population of folks gorging on anger isn’t limited to the U.S.

The British are vexed about Brexit, among other things. Some display their fury in ways that rival their U.S. counterparts on the rage-o-meter, according toan article for The Daily Telegraph in London (Short-Fuse Britain: Why is Everyone So Bloody Angry? – link HERE). Judith Woods writes, “Last weekend, my children and I were nearly knocked into the canal by a cyclist incandescent with rage that I was walking by the canal. He was followed by a peleton of similarly rude men in a tearing hurry who refused to give way to pedestrians, as they are supposed to. I was sorely tempted to lie across the path in a gesture of defiance, but I couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t have pedaled straight over me, leaving cartoon tyre marks, so instead I shouted at them. Of course I did: I’m as cross as everyone else.” 

What do people get cracked about in Australia? Blogger Jacqueline Lunn (link HERE) relates: “In the space of a week I’ve seen people get twitchy at each other as they wait in the line for ice cream. I’ve seen scenes of obvious, quite nasty, frustration due to an elderly man exiting a bus. I’ve watched three grown men, not one but three, push past my 10-year-old daughter to be served before her at the counter. Brows furrowed, on a mission, about to snap. Her older sister had to stand with her so pushing past was thwarted. I’ve completely cracked it because the dishwasher wasn’t unpacked when I’ve come home from work. Cracked like an egg rolling off a benchtop.” 

In a feature article on the Web site Modern Ghana (link HERE), Nicholas Ameyaw-Akumfi recites a litany of angsty issues that will sound familiar to most Americans. “Why are people so angry these days?” he asks.“It seems as though everything challenging in life is hitting them faster and from every direction. Changes in technologies and communications have caused their lives to move faster. Unemployment prevails as the cost of living keeps rising. Sleep doesn’t come as easy as it used to.” His account of how Ghanaians respond will sound familiar as well: “A spilled cup of coffee in the morning can ruin the better portion of a person’s day and a ringing telephone or barking dog can set their nerves on edge.” 

Meanwhile in India: “How have rage and vitriol become so addictive?” asks blogger Manika Raikwar Ahirwal, managing editor for that country’s NDTV (link HERE). “We need our daily dose of rant. And if it’s angry and full of abuse, even better. … In this new world of hatred, your mission, if you so choose, is to destroy without prejudice. Anything, everything is fair game. We will target you and by association anything we can get our hands on.” 

As my husband would say, “Ay, covfefe!” And to think some of us here in the good ol’ U.S.A. thought we might be able to escape from our own Fury Festival by fleeing to another country …

All this frenzy calls to mind the parable of the boiled frog – a cautionary tale most of us will hear sooner or later if we attend enough business conferences or stress management seminars. The storyline goes like this: If a frog is suddenly tossed into a kettle of boiling water, it will jump out and save itself from impending death. But if the frog is happily swimming around in lukewarm water, with the temperature turned up gradually, it will not perceive danger and will be cooked to death. 

Turns out the boiled frog story may actually be nothing more than an urban legend. In reality, say some experts, the frog will be smart enough to hop out of the water in the nick of time, no matter how slowly one turns up the heat. I’m left wondering, however, whether we humans will be so sensible.

Questions for readers: What factors do you see leading to so much anger? If you live outside the U.S., is there similar anger and polarization going on your country? 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).