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:
- SEDUCES with loaded, heated language and childish name-calling that appeals more to emotion that reason.
- BLINKERS by using cherry-picked facts, and ignoring or mocking opposing arguments and evidence rather than actually addressing them.
- TRIVIALIZES by focusing on “straw-man” issues whose value in re-enforcing biases is clearly greater than their substance.
- BULLIES by making you feel like a dupe or a traitor if you even listen to the other side.
- 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.
- FRIGHTENS by portraying the other side as not just wrong, but a dangerous, evil enemy, replete with wicked hidden agendas.
- “CLANS,” that is, plays the “us vs. them” identity politics game of associating the other view with groups or people (implicitly) “inferior” to “us.”
- “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 week…REPUBLICANS/DEMOCRATS STOP VICIOUSLY BEATING THEIR SPOUSES! Maybe so. But it is a reminder that polarization does not preclude factual reporting. The essential point of polarization is not that it is not factual, but that it uses facts, opinions, analyses, word choice—whatever it can find—to widen and harden the gap between sides rather than narrow and ultimately resolve the gap between points of contention. Admittedly, the difference between a strong editorial viewpoint and polarization can be hard to distinguish. But there are some useful smell tests. For example: Does the piece use a particular “bad” incident to tar an entire group? (It’s just like them!) Does it suggest ulterior motives of the other side? (You can see what they “really” are after!) Does it use language the suggests the other side is dishonest? (Who can trust anything they say?) Or language that demeans the other side, assuming you already agree? (Oh, them!) Does the content of the piece actually merit reporting (is it news), or is it simply using the story to “prove” how despicable the other side is (or is it a bludgeon)? (How typical!) Is the point of the story really to tell the story or simply to use it as an example of how horrible “they” are? (They’re at it again!) Strong editorial viewpoints and arguments are critical to the democratic process. But there is a sometimes subtle but important difference between inciting and informing, persuading and enflaming, convincing and stoking. It’s up to us readers to discern the difference since the polarizers try to blur it.
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 just a few of the blue and red polarizing headlines from the past week.