One of the chapters in my recently published book Ubiquitous Relativity that has seemed to strike a chord with readers is my discussion of Polarization in this country and how we can mend the situation simply by asking a question with one word: “Why?”
From Chapter 4 of Ubiquitous Relativity: The Flip Side of Technology
These days in the United States, we seem to constantly remark that we have never seen our country so polarized. Is that really the case, and if so, why is it happening? We have been quick to blame our politicians and the media for driving us to opposite ends of every spectrum. We have used words like “demagoguery” and “divisiveness” to label our leaders and their policies. A concept like polarization feeds on itself, so the more we say it, the more we reinforce its perception. As a student of history, I began to question that description of the current state of our society. What if we are not any more polarized now in our beliefs than we have been in the past? In fact, what if people’s beliefs have been far more polarized in other periods of our brief history as a nation?
One only has to study the Civil War to witness the extremes to which people will go in defense of their beliefs. Brothers fought against their own brothers in that conflict. West Point graduates who shared a room while enrolled at the United States Military Academy waged war on each other in the bloodiest of battles. At the time of this writing, we are not seeing the complete fracture of every institution in the country into two separate nations. There is loss of life in this country as a result of conflicting beliefs, but nothing remotely close to the millions of casualties from 1861–1865.[i]
In the late 1960s, violent protests erupted all over the country to end a war in Vietnam that bitterly divided a nation and to fight for the cause of civil rights. The imagery of that era is painful to watch, as Army soldiers killed college students and citizens burned their own draft cards. The riots and marches often grew violent. While we have our share of marches today, they are largely peaceful and without incident.
Putting our era into the perspective of those times in our nation’s history causes me to question the conventional wisdom that “we as a country are more polarized than ever.”
So if polarization in beliefs has not increased, what has changed recently that makes this feel so much worse than in earlier years? I think there has been a dramatic falloff in our connections to other people — as a direct result of the new technology at our fingertips.
Before social media, if two people had a disagreement, they discussed it. Their discussion might sometimes be irrational, but nonetheless it happened and it was in person — or at least on a landline with a live voice on the other end of the phone. Now, discussion about issues is limited mostly to online posts and truncated 280-character messages. If we see something on social media we agree with, then we “like” what is said and keep that person as our friend. The opposite is also true. Over the last few years, many times I have heard someone remark, “I just had to ‘unfriend’ a lot of people because I cannot believe their views.” I remember a time when people had wildly divergent beliefs, yet could still agree to disagree over a dinner party. At Thanksgiving dinner, it is hard to “unfriend” someone.[ii]No matter how irrational the holiday discussions became (my own opinions included), nobody was able to log off from the conversation. Members of families could hold wildly divergent views, but by the nature of actual face-to-face conversation, they had to hear opposing opinions to their own.
When we wall ourselves off from other opinions and thoughts, we only serve to increase our own biases. We lose the opportunity to learn something we did not know — something which could actually lead to a change in our mindset. We also flat-out lose the chance to influence others. If we are highly convinced of our opinion on a subject, is cutting someone completely out of our lives the best way to try to get them to see our point of view?
I have tried alternating my news sources from FoxNews to MSNBC, from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times. I do this because I want to understand where viewpoints opposite of own get their genesis. If someone has a view that is opposite of mine, I really try to ask “Why?” — One word can change the whole nature of a conversation. “Why” can keep things civil. “Why” can keep me from losing a good person in my life simply because we disagree on an issue. “Why” may open me up to the possibility that I am wrong (a frequent occurrence.) But most of all, “Why” connects us as human beings and distinguishes us from every other life form on the planet.