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).