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…was a good chance to see one of the dirty little secrets of the power of polarization in action. Polarizers win their game not by winning the debate but framing the debate. Polarization is a taunt, enticing you to respond in kind…to their topic. Game over. It doesn’t matter if the responses are stronger, more factual, more coherent, more logical because the goal of polarization is not to change minds but to close minds – not to win arguments but to energize the base. By defining the topic, polarizers win at the outset because they choose the topic that will excite their base. Facts be damned. So in some ways doesn’t matter who ”wins” the contest of the post-analysis of Muller’s investigation into Trump, or Trump’s slam against Baltimore. Because it’s not the dancers that matter. It’s the person playing the tune.
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 examples of the polarizing headlines, from the right and left, that dominate today’s political “thinking.”