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…April may not prove to be the cruelest month. But I’m sure it won’t be for lack of trying. Battling to prevent the establishment of dictatorship in Germany between the wars, legal theorist Hans Kelsen argued that the essential component to advancing the freedom of liberal democracy was a structure that nurtured compromise, for the simple reason that compromise was the only way to protect (rather than destroy) the critical freedom to disagree. Which is a reminder that polarization is the gateway drug to authoritarism. That’s because polarization is an effort to close rather than open the door to finding reasonable compromise, most commonly by bypassing deliberation about the content of the disagreement and, instead, branding your opponent as being so wrong, so bad, so “other” that you can’t—you shouldn’t)—even be talking to them. See below for examples.
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.