As I look around me, the conclusion seems inevitable – we are all becoming extremists. In prior years, politics were able to function based on the ability of our representatives to reach a compromise regarding important issues. No one got exactly what they wanted, but each side was willing to give up something in order to reach a manageable consensus. With the rise of identity politics, such compromise no longer seems possible. As we have become convinced that our views represent the absolute right perspective on any given issue, we are no longer willing to tolerate anyone who deviates from our orthodoxy. We charge those who we elect that if they don’t completely support the litmus test of our beliefs, we will punish them by ensuring their defeat in any future election. We thereby hobble the ability of our democracy to function as it was intended throughout its prior history.
We not only bind our legislators to strict ideology, but also our friends and those we date. Twenty years ago, only about 15% of people surveyed indicated that the choice of a potential partner in a relationship was strongly influenced by that person’s political beliefs. That number has now skyrocketed to over 75%. We have become increasingly intolerant of anyone who doesn’t share our viewpoints regarding political parties, race, abortion, religion, education – you name it. Families are unable to come together and listen to one of their members express a position in opposition to their own. It’s no surprise that these same people are incapable of listening to a dissenting viewpoint from anyone else.
How did we reach this social quagmire in which we currently exist? I offer several possibilities for your consideration, and encourage you to comment on any or all of them; even better, add any of your own you feel I omitted. First, we have lost access to reliable sources of information from the media. In prior years, though none were completely unbiased, most media outlets attempted, based on tradition as well as FTC legislation at the time, to present at least a semblance of a balanced view. Fact checkers had to vet reporter’s stories prior to publication, and we lacked the concentration of ownership of media outlets as they exist today. News reporting had not yet devolved into entertainment, with content influenced primarily by ratings. Now we have networks and newspapers so clearly biased that their depiction of any given event bears no resemblance to each other. We become increasingly fragmented as our own prejudices and viewpoints become reinforced by the chorus of like-minded believers, and we are offered no inkling of information that might support opposing beliefs. Second, in the past, we didn’t have the pervasive and corrosive effects of social media, which has become the source of information for an increasing majority of our population. On the Internet, anyone can post anything, and the cult of celebrity along with media influencers determine how many views each post generates. Conspiracy theories abound, and are supported and magnified by an incredibly large number of gullible followers. For one, I have been struck by the number of people willing to believe that we never landed a man on the Moon, that it was all part of a large government hoax! Third, many people have lost their belief in our traditional institutions, be they governmental bodies, the scientific establishment, churches, the medical profession, or the entire scientific process. You can’t have a discussion when people are not willing to agree on the criteria for the validity of facts. Fourth, we have a proliferation of both political and media demagogues whose influence depends on fear, anger, and hatred among their followers. The poison of their words has infiltrated our subconscious, as we increasingly view those expressing opinions contrary to our own as threatening our very existence. We are driven to form our allegiances based on emotion rather than reason, and ally our personal identities with the labels which we affiliate. Becoming so heavily invested in a label, we become immediately hostile and aggressive at any attempt to challenge beliefs attached to our position. “I can’t fathom how anyone could possibly believe….” You fill in the blank. “If you don’t believe as I do, you are either a moron who is completely deluded, or a subversive.” Fifth, our growing lack of education in formal rhetoric, our inability to recognize fallacies in data and the conclusions drawn from them has made us easy prey for erroneous arguments by those seeking to influence us.
How do we get out of this swamp we have created, or have allowed to develop? We can start by actually looking at the arguments behind the opinions with which we disagree. More importantly, we need to avoid demonizing those whose opinion differs from our own. We may never convince them to see the world as we do, but by showing them that we are willing to engage them in discussion with an open mind, without labeling them with pejorative terms, we can establish a dialogue. We need to show we still respect them as people, and attempt to understand the world from their point of view. Lastly, we need to seek out those whose views contradict our own, and both find and maintain common grounds for friendship and relationship, as well as learn from them. None of us have an exclusive on all that is right in the world. As always, I welcome your comments and opinions.