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8 Red (and Blue) Flags of Polarization


We, as Americans, cherish the freedom and right to disagree—which we do, often deeply about important issues that need resolution. But polarization undermines that freedom by tightening prejudices rather than opening thought, thus diminishing the chances for finding resolutions and moving forward.  So while polarization may feel like a righteous champion of freedom and right, it is in fact just the opposite—a stick jammed in the spokes of the democratic discourse of freedom. Here are some of the common ways it does it:

  1. SEDUCES with loaded, heated language and childish name-calling that appeals more to emotion that reason.
  2. BLINKERS by using cherry-picked facts, and ignoring or mocking opposing arguments and evidence rather than actually addressing them.
  3. TRIVIALIZES by focusing on “straw-man” issues whose value in re-enforcing biases is clearly greater than their substance.
  4. BULLIES by making you feel like a dupe or a traitor if you even listen to the other side.
  5. FLATTERS with language and a tone that makes you feel like an insider, who, of course, agrees with them because you “get it” … just like they do.
  6. FRIGHTENS by portraying the other side as not just wrong, but a dangerous, evil enemy, replete with wicked hidden agendas.
  7. “CLANS,” that is, plays the “us vs. them” identity politics game of associating the other view with groups or people (implicitly) “inferior” to “us.”
  8. “TRIBES” by using the knowing winks and nods of sarcasm, coded language, words in quotes (suggesting they’re misleading) and innuendo which you, as a member of the tribe, of course, will understand without explanation or justification.

This weekreminds us how easy it is to reject polarization when you disagree…but how hard it is when the polarizer strikes a chord, pushes your buttons. When a comedian lands a political zinger or a commentator prints a headline that distills perfectly the outrage you feel, it doesn’t feel like polarization. It just feels right.  And Donald Trump —love him or hate him—is the poster child of polarization. It is almost impossible not to have an emotional, polarized reaction to him, right and left.  So what’s the harm? Little, if we’re talking just about how you feel. The harm comes when you “go public” with your feelings, because public polarization poisons the effort to find a way to resolve legitimate but differing views. The point of electioneering is different – it is a zero-sum, win-or-lose game. But the point of democratic citizenship and governing (rather than authoritarian obeying and ruling) is not to “defeat the opposition” but to make the government work reasonably well for all citizens – even those with whom you disagree.  And that requires having the maturity, humility and respect to control your passions and adhere to the rules of civil discourse. Not just for the sake of civility, but for the preservation of the process which allows for the freedom to productively disagree. Including yours. That is what is called being an American. 

When reading these examples, check the above list and ask yourself: regardless of whether you agree or disagree, is this really advancing an intelligent resolution through the persuasive, rational arguments of advocacy…or simply fueling the fire of conflict through the divisive, emotional manipulations of polarization?

Here are some of the week’s most polarizing articles, from the left and right:

More to explore

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