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We have met the enemy and he is us

| Tuesday, February 10, 2015

“A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values and principles and facts, rather than ‘gotcha’ moments or trivial gaffes or fake controversies.”

For most, this quotation from President Obama’s State of the Union prompted identical responses that could not be more different. “Exactly, if only the other side agreed,” members of both political parties said. By nearly every quantitative measure, and even a casual glance at the daily news, the United States is more polarized than ever. The last few months in particular seem to highlight a broken political system characterized by fundamental disagreement and resentment as well as a bitterly divided populace.

Of the many explanations for increased polarization, one I recently came across and think is worthy of discussion and reflection comes from social psychology. In “Attitudes, Advocacy and Polarization,” Roger Conner and Patricia Jordan argue that “strong, negative attitudes, once attached to an ‘attitude object’ such as the ‘other side’ in a policy conflict, will operate subconsciously to distort cognition in ways that generate extreme and polarized thinking.” They go on to describe that there has been dramatic growth in the number of people involved in policy advocacy and that conversations increasingly occur within advocacy coalitions, which they define as “vast, superficially diverse networks of people and groups with similar world views and policy beliefs.”

Conner and Jordan argue that a psychological connection between attitudes and beliefs strengthens and reinforces attitudes and beliefs. What this means is that when we attach an attitude (I like Paul Ryan/Barack Obama) to a belief (I agree/disagree with raising taxes), this connection serves to increase both (Paul Ryan is a corporate monkey who hates poor people/Barack Obama is a socialist who rewards the lazy).

Furthermore, increased exposure to those who share similar attitudes and beliefs, as well as increased access to complimentary information, serves to fortify and exacerbate the connection between the two. Once this process takes hold, we develop an increasingly hostile understanding of those attitudes and beliefs that contradict our own and become profoundly biased in our understanding of relevant information and experiences. As John F. Kennedy once said, “We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

An oversaturated information market compels us toward sources we agree with, providing seemingly irrefutable evidence for our political ideology. This process has become so easy that we barely even bother to understand our position on a given topic anymore, toeing the party line on a given conclusion and entrusting allies to fill in the body paragraphs. This occurs under the false assumption that such allies did their homework in an objective, level-headed fashion. Mark Twain echoed this sentiment when he wrote, “In politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners.”

This tendency, supplemented by instantaneous access to infinite information, makes it easy for us to so completely immerse ourselves in our own viewpoint that we begin to recognize any disagreement as utterly false and even immoral or evil. When we actually engage those on the opposite end of the political spectrum, we are so deeply entrenched in our own philosophical underpinnings, assumptions and conclusions that we can’t even understand what the other person is saying. This is particularly dangerous when some argue that a certain group characteristic prevents or inherently undermines what one member of the group says on a particular topic. This argument sounds something like, “You possess category x and therefore cannot participate in this discussion and/or have a fundamentally biased viewpoint.” There is perhaps no line of thinking more toxic to political discourse than this sentiment.

This method of information gathering and communication has also transformed complex and ambiguous public policy debates into two-sided, zero sum discussions. This in turn discourages compromise and further feeds the beast.

The reason I decided to write on this topic was not to accuse or lecture, as I find myself guilty of all the charges levied above, but to hopefully encourage some sort of self-reflection in regards to the role we play in what we universally agree is a failure to communicate. This column includes one too many “we all do this” claims and is more pessimistic than usual, which I recognize and admit. But I hope that as a result, it provokes individual effort and reflection on a topic I would argue we blame on everyone but ourselves.

As political columnist George Will has pointed out, it is nice to be pessimistic because you are either proven right or pleasantly surprised. My hope is that when we are confronted with political and social challenges that require difficult thinking and conversation, I will be pleasantly surprised by the Notre Dame community’s ability to foster a constructive and effective political dialogue.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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