I think one of the saddest aspects of our current political, social and cultural polarization in these dis-United States is that most of us no longer listen to those with different opinions to our own. We’ve retreated into our “comfort zones”, and we tend to stay there. Anyone who agrees with us is in that zone too; anyone disagreeing with us is instantly classified as outside that zone, and is therefore automatically to be distrusted, even shunned.
I find support for this theory in the news and opinions we consult every day. I grew up with parents who encouraged me to read widely about the news; to expose myself to opinions from both the left and the right, and think about why they said what they said, and how they were trying to portray current events. As I matured, and became a participant in some of the events thus described, I could see for myself how the bias of the journalists and editors concerned affected their reporting, and thereby judge whether their outlets were worthwhile or not. Sadly, people today don’t seem to want to do that at all.
Back in 2018, David Blankenhorn wrote an article titled “The Top 14 Causes of Political Polarization“. Two of those reasons he described as follows:
12. The spread of media ghettoes. The main features of the old analog media—including editing, fact-checking, professionalization, and the privileging of institutions over individuals—served as a credentialing system for American political expression. The distinguishing feature of the new digital media—the fact that anyone can publish anything that gains views and clicks—is replacing that old system with a non-system that is atomized and largely leaderless. One result made possible by this change is that Americans can now live in media ghettoes. If I wish, I can live all day every day encountering in my media travels only those views with which I already agree. Living in a media ghetto means less that my views are shaped and improved, much less challenged, than that they are hardened and made more extreme; what might’ve been analysis weakens into partisan talking points dispensed by identity-group leaders; moreover, because I’m exposed only to the most cartoonish, exaggerated versions of my opponents’ views, I come to believe that those views are so unhinged and irrational as to be dangerous. More broadly, the new media resemble and reinforce the new politics, such that the most reliable way to succeed in either domain is to be the most noisesome, outrageous, and polarizing.
13. The decline of journalistic responsibility. The dismantling of the old media has been accompanied by, and has probably helped cause, a decline in journalistic standards. These losses to society include journalists who’ll accept poor quality in pursuit of volume and repetition as well as the blurring and even erasure of boundaries between news and opinion, facts and non-facts, and journalism and entertainment. These losses feed polarization.
There’s more at the link.
I’m not sure whether Mr. Blankenhorn’s reasons are among the causes of political polarization, or among its results – or both. An argument can be made either way. Nevertheless, I think his concern about our failure to consult more and wider sources to obtain news, and the failure of many news media to report accurately and factually, instead of reporting opinions as facts and seeking to manipulate their audience, are both spot-on.
To use myself as an example, I consult several news resources each morning, choosing some from each side of the political and cultural spectrum so that I can view events from both perspectives. On the right, I have the Wall Street Journal, Fox News and the New York Post. On the left, I have the Drudge Report (which used to be on the right, but has changed radically over the past few years), the Washington Post and the Guardian’s US edition. For overseas news, I look to the BBC and some British and European newspapers, consulting them less frequently than US sources, but often enough to get a feel for how things are viewed from non-US perspectives. I find this mix of sources gives me a reasonably balanced view of what’s happening in the world, and what it might mean.
It doesn’t take that long to skim through these news sources each morning; I daresay I take less than half an hour each day to do so. Nevertheless, it helps keep me balanced, aware of both sides of the story, and more able to see through partisan propaganda and judge opinions against facts. I highly recommend the practice to all who have time to do likewise. It helps us to stop seeing things from one side only, and seeing those who think differently from us as enemies rather than as fellow human beings.
Reading different opinions doesn’t mean that I don’t have any of my own, and it doesn’t mean that I’m so unsure of myself that I’m at the mercy of the prevailing political, social or cultural winds. It simply means that I want to view the world from as many perspectives as possible, to understand how others are seeing it differently to me. It also challenges me to think about why I hold my opinions.
I’ve often used the analogy of white light being refracted through a prism. The prism separates it into primary colors according to their wavelength, like this:
Someone standing in the beam of red light might exclaim, “Oh, what a lovely red!” Someone standing in the blue beam might object, “It’s not red – it’s blue! Look, I can see it with my own eyes! I can’t be wrong!” Of course, they’re both wrong about the light in its original form. They’re seeing it through their own “filters”. They can each see part of the truth, but not the whole of it. If they both took the time and trouble to investigate, they’d acknowledge that the totality of the light – before refraction – was white, and that they were each viewing only one wavelength of it, and that neither of them understood the full picture. However, they probably wouldn’t bother to take the time or the trouble to do that. Does that remind you of our current political, social and cultural polarization? It sure does me!
Sadly, my efforts to retain a balanced perspective don’t meet with the approval of some of my readers. Interestingly, such opposition comes from both sides of the political fence. I’ve been accused of being both liberal and reactionary; of being a “fence-sitter”, and an ideologue or extremist. None of those accusations are correct. I’m simply trying to be true to myself, and what I’ve learned to believe as the result of a life filled with many experiences that I’d rather not have had (as regular readers will understand). I know extremism doesn’t work, on either side of the political fence. I know centrist perspectives risk being neither fish nor fowl, and run the risk of havering and equivocating and hesitating, rather than committing to action as a situation or event demands. However, I also know (I’ve learned the hard way) that trying to understand both sides is required if we’re to remain balanced. No effort = no understanding = extremism. Q.E.D.
That angers some people who’ve decided that balance is irrelevant. For them, it’s “their way or the highway”. Well, I can’t change them, and they won’t change me. I’ll continue to do what my pastor’s heart tells me I must, and try to be “a city set on a hill” and “a light to the world”. It may be a rather battered city and a flawed light, and I may be wrong at times, but I still hope to offer a little shelter and provide a little illumination here and there. Judging from the several thousand readers who return here each day, I must be doing something right!
Even if we still disagree (perhaps vehemently) with some other perspectives, we can at least try to understand them, and acknowledge that some of those holding them are as sincere in their beliefs as we are. Given that, we can seek to work together in at least some areas, for the good of our communities, towns, cities, states and our nation as a whole. That doesn’t mean we have to surrender what we hold dear; it means we hold fast to the core, and accept that others hold different core beliefs to our own, and do our best to work with them in areas that don’t threaten our respective cores.
There are far too many extremists out there right now, trying to burn down this country and destroy our national unity. Let’s not add to their number.