Political division is at an all-time high. In the United States of America, we are more divided as a nation than at any time in recent history.
While I wasn’t personally alive during the Civil War (despite what small children might think regarding my ancient status), my knowledge of it makes me conclude that the deep ideological and political divisions were also largely geographical. That is the north vs the south. So people were living in areas that were removed from political opponents.
Not so today.
We now get to rub elbows with those who hold opposite views on political and cultural matters. We aren’t separated geographically.
So what are we to do, and how are we to behave in light of this?
How did we get to this level of political division?
I consider three of many culprits in the rapid destruction of civil discourse and the rise of political incivility in America to be:
- 24-hour cable news
- Social media
- Shrinking critical thinking
Like it or not, items 1 and 2 play a major role not only in the sheer volume of information we take in but in how that information is presented to us.
In the case of cable news, the networks have to fill air time around the clock. No easy task. Somewhere since CNN first launched in 1980 as the first cable news network, to today, the options have multiplied and slowly but surely shaken off the veneer of objectivity for which journalists used to strive.
As observant people will readily tell you, each cable news network has a distinct political leaning. CNN, which started out as more objective, has now positioned itself firmly to the left. MSNBC also leans left, and Fox News is where you go to get conservative takes on the news. (Update as of 2023: Fox News is where you used to go for conservative news. I think they’re sellouts these days.)
The sources and their sourness
With cable news, we can tune into the network that shares our ideology, and get a never-ending stream of news coverage and commentary that is presented in a way that advances a particular agenda while ignoring, belittling or even demonizing opposing viewpoints.
With social media, we customize our feeds to follow people, news sources and organizations who give us the content we want. We digest the viewpoints of thought leaders we champion, cheer on their hot takes, and disparage those they do.
We can fine-tune our media consumption to take in only that which supports our pre-conceived ideas about how the world works or should work. To put it bluntly, it is far too easy for us to passively take in an overflow of information – much of which is biased – and not stop to think about what we are taking in or critically analyze anything.
That is not a healthy or productive way to exist, in my opinion.
The impact of political division
Just as children that are over-parented and protected from every germ, injury or trauma they might experience in their formative years can be subject to crippled coping skills in the real world, young adults and beyond that are shielded from opposing viewpoints are left with a dangerously incomplete understanding of life and the human experience.
The result? At best, stunted interpersonal and potentially damaged relationships. Complicating this is when we only receive caricatures of the other side’s view, which can be slanted or inaccurate.
Compounding the problem further is what seems to be a rapid disappearance of critical thinking skills and an increased absence of fact-based reasoning, in favor of emoting or “thinking with feelings” at the expense of logical evaluation. That is the subject of another post or series of posts.
This is the set up to the situation at hand. With that, I’ll introduce …
My thesis: what if things aren’t as bad as they are being portrayed?
Here is my thesis, stated as a question: What if the state of the national discourse is not as bad as we think? That is, what if it is not as divisive as the news media would like us to believe it is? What is the possibility that we are all getting played?
My answers are: it might not be, and it is quite likely.
I don’t spend much brain power ruminating on conspiracy theories, but I do have a reasonable belief that the individuals who run media companies have an agenda. Most people do, so why would a media CEO and his or her board of directors be any different? Furthermore, I find it reasonable to conclude that those who own platforms have a real and vested interest in using them to further their agenda, whatever that may be.
Playing into the equation is the fact that humans are easily influenced by what they see, read and hear. That is neither good nor bad, it just is. The observation has been made that we are like sheep (which are not particularly bright animals), looking for a shepherd. We are looking for a voice to guide us; a source of inspiration and leadership. When we find one that resonates with us, we are likely to follow it.
The fight for objectivity
Then things can get complicated. Once we’ve found an influence we admire, we have a tendency to cling to it loyally and put aside objective reasoning. I think often we do so without even realizing it. I know I do sometimes. We eat up the words of our favorite pundit, retweet and share without stopping to critically analyze the truth factor in what they say or do a quick search to back up their claims.
All those aforementioned things in play, in my observation, work together to drive a divide between us that may be artificial; certainly not as deep as we may think it is.
To demonstrate my theory, let’s take a real-life scenario. Pretend with me that you wake up late one day. Running behind, you don’t take the time to check your phone, fire up your home computer, or turn on the TV. In other words, you don’t let media intrude into your world.
As you stop at the coffee shop and chat with the barista, or step into a store or restaurant to grab something for breakfast, do you randomly pick a political fight with those you encounter? If you answered yes, I’m sorry.
I’m hoping and assuming the answer is no for the majority of readers.
The point? We are not naturally prone to argue with strangers over our differences. Apart from the influence of media, we are apt to engage with one another as humans, not as political enemies.
That person I enchanged friendly banter with as I walked past them on the street, could very well be someone whose ideology diminishes my hope for the world. They might think the same about me if they saw what I tweet about.
My plea for moving past political division
My eternal optimism sees that each of us, beyond our ideologies, is someone who needs to be loved, wants to belong, and craves acceptance and community. To get spiritual (because that is what I do), we are all made in God’s image. As we read in James 3, it is contrary to God’s intent for us to tear one another down, while at the same time giving lip service to honoring our Creator.
Here is my plea: let us act like humans toward one another, not like caricatures of what we believe our political enemies are.
How can we do that?
Here are a few ideas:
- Identify someone who has opposite viewpoints from you, and ask them questions honestly. No ax to grind, no judgment. Find out what they believe and why. Perhaps you’ll find that their motives are better than you thought.
- Make an active practice of looking people in the eyes and smiling at them – especially people you wouldn’t normally talk to.
- Assume that you can learn something from everyone. You can’t truly know what the other side believes until you talk to enough people and understand where they are coming from well enough to articulate their viewpoint fairly to someone else, without putting a biased spin on it.
- What would you add to this list?
I know many people whom I respect who have radically different political leanings than I do. I can sense that we aren’t as close in an era when political grievances get aired publicly on social media. Or maybe it is a perception on my part only. Regardless, I still value them as people and should take my own advice above.
Call me an optimist, or an idealist. I believe that our common humanity, when emphasized, can lead to greater unity, in the real world and out from behind screens. What do you think?
Thank you for reading!