Why we are so polarized


A man opens fire on a crowd in front of a grocery store; six are dead and 13 more are wounded.  A quick and easy explanation that somehow blames a political enemy would be nice, right?  Not so fast…

doc4d290f6a042817218110492This discussion got jump-started last week after the Tucson shootings thanks to the rampant news media speculation that accused gunman Jared Loughner was encouraged in this crime by violent rhetoric from the political right.  It turns out, most Americans aren’t buying: in a CBS News poll nearly 60% say there is no connection at all.

But Loughner is mentally disturbed, and according to his friends his view of the world, and his imagined grudge against Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, were influenced by extremist conspiracy theories (read about a couple of them here and here).  And so, some argue, Loughner is responsible for the crime but was influenced by a world in which violent rebellion against those who would hijack “our America” is seen as an heroic act.

…if you decide to go kill a bunch of innocent people, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re not a picture of mental health. But that doesn’t sever the link between you and the people who inspired you, or insulate them from responsibility.

The quote is from Robert Wright’s Opinionator blog entry on Tuesday about the growing demonization of “the other” in our society.  He makes the point that any demagogue can whip up a fear frenzy among the gullible, that today’s technology allows each of us to shield ourselves from any competing point of view if we choose to, and that it’s easy to think the worst of people “you never communicate with, and whose views you never see depicted by anyone other than their adversaries.”

It feels true: most of us rarely discuss political issues with people who hold different views.  There seems to be no common ground from which to start a discussion, no one wants to hear what the other side has to say, and we end up beating each other over the head with talking points rather than exchanging ideas.

Paul Krugman attributes this to a deep divide in American political morality:

When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.

He does a good job identifying the roots of today’s ballistic political tone, attributing it to a morally-based difference of opinion about what is appropriate, or constitutional, for our government to be doing.  A disagreement stemming from moral belief, as Krugman believes this one is, would be a disagreement not easily reconciled.

That doesn’t give us permission to stop talking to each other, or stop trying to find common ground, or to subtly encourage violent means to win the moral struggle.  Because then nobody wins.

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10 Responses to Why we are so polarized

  1. R P says:

    Why does everyone think the tragedy in Tucson is evidence of some new wave of extreme political polarization?

    Sanne Johnson has done a great job of collecting 40-some years of history of famous mass shootings on her blog:
    http://sannejohnson.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/spiritual-life-of-an-atheist-longing-for-transformation-after-tucson/
    As I noted over there, on average more children die from Christian faith healing every year (per the AP) than die from these kinds of events. I don’t hear anyone crying about “a new wave of fundamentalism taking over America”.

    The difference of course is that the events in Tucson are new and highly visible because [they were] highly publicized, and so everyone gets wrapped up in a national fit of hand-wringing. But controlling for the growth in the U.S. population, deaths from events like this are NOT any greater than they were in say the 1980s.

    That being said, Robert Wright is correct in his blog about the insulating effects of technology. In the interests of disclosure I feel I should reference another comment made earlier today on J. Brohamer’s blog:
    http://hammerstrung.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/you-dont-know-everything-and-i-dont-either/

    All this hand wringing only matters if civility is actually decreasing, or rather if incivility is increasing. Everyone seems certain it is, and I know I am in the minority, but then I remember learning in college about politicians dueling each other with pistols in the early days of the republic, and anti-Federal extremists literally tarring and feathering tax collectors in rural Appalachia, and a disagreement so uncivil it led to civil war, and about pro-socialist/anti-capitalist mobs first during the waves of union mobilization and again during the Great Depression, and about the rhetoric of Joseph McCarthy, and lynchings and mass civil rights protests in the 1960s, and so on.

    As I noted on the hammer-strung blog, how can we truly account for increased or decreased “civility” when for most of the history of our nation, “civil political discourse” was only that between educated white males? Does forcible exclusion from the entire political process count as incivility? It seems to me that’s the worst kind! So how is it things are truly so much worse now?

    What happened in Tucson is a horrible tragedy, but it is demonstrably NOT a sign of anything more than the power of modern firearms in the hands of a lunatic.

    • Pat Ryan says:

      I don’t think the Tucson shootings are a sign of greater political polarization, either. I think the mistaken assumption (and subsequent on air discussion) by the news media that the crime was directly influenced by extremist political speech sparked new discussion of that polarization; we’ll see where it leads.

  2. Pascal Piazza says:

    Your readers need only read the discussion among 777Denny, you and me to the first blog on the shootings [Jan. 10 post–PR] to know that persons who disagree can engage in rationale thought. The existence of disagreement did not lead to the current condiition.

    Disagreements about the role of government are not unique. Not for this country. Not for the world. Our earliest human ancestors three million years ago or six thousand years ago (depending on your outlook), like the earliest settlers in North America fourteen thousand years ago (or more depending your outlook on the Clovis-Folsom population) or two hundred years ago, probably moved from place to place because of disagreements of how things were or are run. The debates among the Federalists and Jeffersonians have raged and continue to rage on paper, although there seemed to be more of a congruence when either side actually had or has to rule.

    The problem arises first when one side assumes that their side is absolutely error-free and can admit no other position and second when one side or the other does not debate a specific issue, but rather lumps the other side’s position into a pre-ordained format. I cannot defeat the other side’s argument, so I just call them “X” because “X” believes “a, b and c” and “a, b and c” are wrong so the other side is wrong even though the other side does not believe in “a, b or c.”

    There are moral absolutes, but most political discussions rarely really invoke such absolutes. Most discussions occupy the crucible of thought when the moral fabric of a society is not even nudged, let alone cut or torn.

  3. Collision of Souls says:

    Explore this concept.

    We live in a realm of duality: positive and negative, light and darkness, good and evil, flesh and spirit, day and night, joy and sorrow, etc.

    http://www.isleofexile.blogspot.com

  4. Pascal Piazza says:

    I would add, at least, one more example to the list supplied by Collision of Souls — there are those who believe in a realm of duality and those that do not. I would entertain a debate on the philosophical underpinnings of the universe and life even though such a debate may involve a peregrination through inveterate religious, scientific and philosophical dogma (including my own).

    As I stated before, this is not the place, however, for such a debate, as the issues debated in Congress, in the Texas Legislature, or in Houston City Hall which comprise the dreaded polarity of views do not involve the deeper stratum which either reveals or belies the duality of the structure of life.

    I may disagree with the other side. I may even find the other side to be amoral or immoral. That does not mean that the other side is the personification of some evil that has to exist to balance the personification of some good (even if it were true that the world exists in some series of dualisms). The other side may just be wrong. Or, I may be wrong without being evil.

    Yes, there are moral absolutes, but again these debates do not involve these moral absolutes yet. I am also certain that those who disagree with me will not agree on what moral absolutes do exist.

    Claude Levi-Strauss articulated a dual world that is very different from the dual world postulated by Francis Schaefer. Each man’s scholarship must subsist on its own respective merits. The debate on those merits may proceed while the world [in its duality or in its spectrum] spins in greased grooves.

    Pace e salute.

  5. Dirty Butter says:

    I’ve been around for a long time now, and seen way too many high profile mass murders and killings such as the one in Tuscon. As one commenter said, they tarred and feathered people in the early days of our nation. I really don’t [think] things are much different than they have always been. Your call to civil discussion is admirable, but the two things that are the hardest to discuss with any likelihood of a change of either person’s mind are religion and politics.

    I found you on ExposeYourBlog.

  6. Jon says:

    If we are going to ask questions about the cause of this tragedy, as almost every commentator has done, and attempt to blame it on bipartisan rhetoric, perhaps one of the “cures” could be to have a multipolar, not bipolar, political rhetoric? If anything, any pointing at either Democrats or Republicans just further deepens imaginary lines of division between the two almost identical parties.

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