The Impact of Polorization

I’ve put off doing this post for a while, as I was not sure how to do it exactly, and had the impression that it was a serious topic and I didn’t want it to come off as shallow or ill-considered, let alone crazy, and motivated by conspiracy theory thinking.

I’ve thought for some time that it is very curious that, depending on the news source, the reporting is slanted either one way or the other. For example, you can’t find any measured reporting on climate change. It’s pretty much always– this is the end of life on this planet as we know it, or it’s ridiculous, it’s all fake news. I haven’t run across any articles that say, yeah, it seems to be a problem, we should probably keep our eye on it, but we’re not totally sure of our metrics, and lets not assume everything is hunky dory, either.

Or take the reporting on E-cigarettes. They are either the latest scourge to bedevil and enslave our teenagers, or they are god’s gift to smokers in their seemingly never ending battle to avoid lifelong addiction to cigarettes. Name me one writer who has said, look, they are not perfect, they probably are still not that good for you, but evidence shows they aren’t as bad as cigarettes, and maybe we should embrace something that gives smokers a VIABLE alternative to cigarettes that is more likely to produce results than nicotine patches. Or even to say, this is not a great long term solution, but it should be an available option until we have a better way to help smokers change their lives.

There are numerous examples of this polarized reporting; It’s either: How dare you decry our founding fathers?! Or–Our Founding Fathers were racists! No articles saying, Our founding fathers were flawed human beings, and we should not defend or condone all their actions, but given the temper and character of their times, they managed to do some remarkable things that could not have been easy, and paved the way for the modern world, and for a country, that for all its mistakes, has actually been the one place in the world that offers opportunity and freedom, maybe not in equal measure, but to a greater degree than most of the planet.

Another Example: Police are much maligned servants who are being scapegoated for isolated incidents, or they are part of “systemic racism” that must be rooted out, replaced, defunded, completely redefined, etc.

The list goes on and on:

“Our country has made a lot of progress toward eliminating racial and class distinctions”, –or– “things are worse than ever and we’re all in denial.”

“We are a country of immigrants and should have open borders and if anyone is here without documentation, we should be understanding and pave the way for them to become citizens.” –Versus: “We need to build a wall to keep unwanted immigrants out, and if anyone is here w/o documentation, they are ILLEGAL, and we need to kick them out.”

Do you get what I’m saying? It’s all or nothing, and this kind of reporting and opining infests our media in the early 21st century. I didn’t even mention the Covid-19 Pandemic or the Trump-Biden insult hurling that is a stand-in for actual political discourse. You get the picture.

I’ve thought long and hard about why this is, and I’ve come up with 2 theories:

Theory 1: People who report the news, and pundits both in and out of the media, essentially are not invested in purveying comprehensive coverage of a news story or issue. RATHER, they are interested in protecting the relationship they have with their consumers. If CNN knows their viewership is mostly liberal, why would they want to do stories in any way, even partially sympathetic to a conservative point of view? They don’t want to distress their liberal viewers, and in some way cause them to flip to another channel. If FOX news is aware, and they surely are, that conservatives make up at least 90% of their audience, does it make sense for them to offer cogent arguments for a liberal take on an issue?

Now you might say, reasonably, why don’t they (or someone) try to provide balanced coverage, and thereby have a chance to capture a large share of both liberals and conservatives as consumers of their “media products”?

I think the answer to that is pretty much “a bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush”. Once this pattern was set, and it got set pretty much in the latter part of the 20th century, following the Nixon debacle, positions have become more and more polarized. Much of the younger population have never seen respectful political discourse and would hardly recognize it if they did. No one who is a purveyor of news and opinion wants to risk their current audience, and so, it is easier just to continue to pander to the segment of the population that has become “comfortable” with the positions that they take.

Let’s face a fact of human nature: Most people are uncomfortable with uncertainty. And we want someone we can trust, to tell us what’s going on. If we grow accustomed to a particular thread of reasoning, we may be consoled, even if others see things differently, by the impression that a person we trust is imparting the information. And as I say, we don’t want to be uncomfortable, we want confidence in what we believe and that includes confidence in the people we trust to give us information.

Admitting that another point of view could have validity erodes are sense of confort and replaces it with uncertainty. Then, we not only don’t know what the truth is, but we no longer know who to trust. For many of us, that is an intolerable position, and we will switch channels (or radio stations) to avoid this unpleasant cognitive dissonance.

Which brings us to theory # 2 (the one that may paint me as a conspiracy theorist, but it can’t be helped): There is a malevolent group of people (okay, so maybe they don’t THINK of themselves a malevolent) that is PERFECTLY HAPPY to see the larger populace at odds with each other.

To any clear thinking individual, it should be obvious that most of us share many of the same values, regardless of whether we are so-called “conservatives, liberals, leftists, Democrats, Republicans, Right wingers, centrists, defenseman, shortstops, or Goaltenders”. We want a safe neighborhood to live in. We’d like good schooling for our children, and to have food on the table, and a roof over our head. We’d like the opportunity to better ourselves, and to be given a fair shake by others. We’d like laws to protect us, and brave, honorable policemen to enforce those laws when necessary. We want to be compassionate to our neighbors, help out those truly in need, whether it be materially, or thru education, counseling or medical care. We want to be part of a country that makes us proud and to do whatever we can to defend that country while making it possible for well-meaning and well-intentioned immigrants to join in the American story. And if America can be an example and sometimes even a defender of liberty around the world, most of us would say, at least in principle, that ought to be our goal. Again, I could go on and on, but the point should be clear enough: If you shut off the news, and muzzled the talking heads, and gathered any random group of people together, what you would find is that there is a lot more that unites us than divides us.

But, as I say, my belief is that there are people, some of them quite powerful, that have an agenda that CAN’T ALLOW that kind of consensus. Rather, it is important that we are divided into 2 roughly equal groups that are engaged in a (I hate this term) “culture war”. I will be so bold as to say that it serves their purpose nicely as a distraction to the somewhat covert effort to break America up, so that, in their minds, they can rebuild it the way they view that it “ought to be”. You can argue, if you like, that this is a legitimate effort, but what I have realized is that most people have no idea that this is even happening. I firmly believe that this effort to divide us is not something that these people would be anxious to admit, insofar as, if they did, many people would see more clearly how they are being manipulated, and would reevaluate, not only their own positions on issues, but others, too. But I think, Joe McCarthy comparisons aside, we are fools if we fail to recognize that America has always been an enemy of the enemies of freedom, and if you don’t think there are powerful forces in the world that are happy to see this “bickering chaos”, you’re either someone who has never studied history or you prefer to see the world through rose colored glasses.

If you did want to infiltrate American culture and poison it with contrived conflict and hostility, it wouldn’t be hard to do, would it? All you have to do is put out a message, any message, and let it circulate. There’s no Iron Curtain in America and there never has been one. So our openness CAN be a source of vulnerability. But not if we are paying attention! It’s ironic, isn’t it, that Thomas Jefferson is now under attack along with many of our other founding fathers, which is convenient, since it means some might miss the wisdom of these words: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. Jefferson was reminding us that we shouldn’t get too comfortable with having the blessings of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. He knew from personal experience of the world that he lived in, that there would always be forces determined to take those blessings away from us, either out of some misguided belief that we don’t know what’s best for us, or just a malevolent desire to control power for the sake of power alone.

Okay, I warned you that this would seem like a conspiracy theory. But consider this– if someone did want to create unrest and divisiveness for the purpose of turning America against itself, could they possibly have done a better job? Isn’t this exactly what it would look like? Is it possible that we need to wise up, and take more of what we hear in the news, the paper, and the internet with “a grain of salt”? A bit of skepticism might replace comfort with uncertainty, but would it be worth it, if it meant that we are not willing accomplices in our country’s demise?

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