Polarization is certainly not limited just to the United States. Political and religious leaders in India, in Poland, and in Turkey, by way of examples, have relentlessly inflamed national divisions by demonizing their opponents and curtailing democratic processes. But the United States is polarizing much faster than other democracies.
The contemporary USA is a deeply divided country. The extreme U.S. religious and political polarization leads us to ask very basic questions. What long-term effects will polarized politics and religion have on U.S. society and democracy? Is there a tipping point beyond which polarization passes a point of no return? Journalist, Tom McTague, pointedly observed in the August 8th Atlantic “Yet everywhere you turn, there is a sense that the U.S. is in some form of terminal decline; too divided, incoherent, violent, and dysfunctional to sustain its Pax Americana.” The November 2022 midterm elections will be a very significant indicator of where we are going. Some of my European friends asked me recently if the U.S. is headed for another civil war. The country is certainly much more polarized than at the time of the nineteenth century Civil War (April 12, 1861 – April 9, 1865).
There is no need for me today to repeat accounts of religious and political polarization. It is in the news everyday. Reactions to the August 8th FBI investigative raid on the former US president’s Mar-a-Lago residence is a good example. As an older Catholic, I am still thinking about the Jesuit middle school in Worcester, Massachusetts, that had its Catholic status revoked by the local bishop who was angry that the school defied his order to stop flying flags supporting LGBTQ pride and Black Lives Matter. Stop flying flags that support discriminated people?
What is missing in so much of today’s polarized religious and political rhetoric is a focus on basic moral values: Treating each other with civility and respect. Listening to the other side. Telling the truth. Being honest. Loving neighbors as ourselves. Welcoming the worn out, the lonely, and the downtrodden. And recognizing that all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, have innate dignity and deserve to be treated with kindness, affirmation, and respect.
A big problem is what social scientists call “affective polarization.” We see it when people have strong FEELINGS about people based on political, ideological, racial, religious, or gender issues. They don’t just disagree but detest, distrust, and strive to eliminate them. Often with hatred and violence. They find support in contemporary mass media which is better at stimulating feelings than passing-on objective facts. The emotional language used to galvanize one side directly antagonizes the other.
In far-right political propaganda today, what really matters is spin. Not facts or history or justice. Interestingly Ezra Klein, the young U.S. journalist and political analyst, observed that the introduction of Fox News appears roughly consistent with the acceleration of the growth in affective polarization during the 1990s. (Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized, was published by Simon & Schuster in January 2020. His perspective is that over the past fifty years in the United States, partisan identities have merged with racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities. These merged identities are tearing apart the bonds that hold the country together.)
History shows that highly charged affective polarization not only divides societies but leads to social chaos. Today the “I’m right, you’re wrong and evil” thinking is pervasive. When partisanship becomes equated with patriotism, and destroying the other side becomes the ultimate goal, democracies fall apart.
Authoritarian “leaders” take advantage of social chaos and respond to it by taking control to re-establish “good order.” But the authoritarian institution or government maintains good order by demanding strict discipline and unquestioned submission and obedience. Authoritarian regimes require, as well, a beguiling leader who has absolute authority. This is the concept of the Führerprinzip, “the leadership principle” in German. There are ample contemporary examples of such beguiling leaders in religions and civil society. The leaders insist of course that it is disloyal to criticize the leader. People who refuse to submit to authoritarian leaders are ostracized or simply eliminated. Usually some form of physical violence is necessary to suppress anyone who stands outside the approved and obedient group.
So what do we do?
Here are my brief suggestions for combating polarization. You may have your own suggestions.
- Being good listeners.
- Most people do not listen well. They only passively listen while thinking about something unrelated. Or they listen only long enough to plan what they want to say. But we need to truly listen to understand a person’s reasons for thinking other than we do. We need to ask non-judgmental and open-ended questions. Understanding breeds empathy and even respect. It may not always be easy. But we have to work at building bridges.
- Not using denigrating language.
- This becomes especially important, for example, when telling jokes. Many jokes use violent or dehumanizing rhetoric by suggesting that certain people are stupid or inferior. Denigrating people is not funny. The dumb blond jokes? The Jewish jokes? The Polish Jokes? Or the Stupid Republican jokes? Or the Subversive Democrat jokes?
- Examine and question feelings of superiority over other people.
- This can happen in parish or neighborhood discussion groups. A U.S. Catholic priest friend, by way of example, set up a Lenten discussion program for his parish titled “Listening to the Other.” He had a different presenter each week. Among those whom he invited were: a Lutheran minister, a Catholic woman priest, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, and a representative from DignityUSA the Catholic organization that works for respect and justice for LGBTQ people. The final “Listening to the Other” event was a prayer service in which all of the presenters had key roles.
- Decide to be part of the solution.
- We really do have to decide to be part of the solution. When questioned, we can explain why we think the way we do and respectfully ask others why they think the way they do. We need to be open-minded and admit that we too can be wrong or mistaken. Sometimes we may have to agree to disagree. But one can disagree respectfully without bashing the other. We do have an obligation to collaborate and build bridges for the common good. The destructive consequences of polarization are too great.
- Using social media wisely.
- Considering the contemporary revolution in communication technology, social media may have done more to promote taking sides than seeing the world through the eyes of another. If we use social media, we can work to promote a kinder and more honest social media. We can encourage Facebook friends, for example, to remove inaccurate information or denigrating or hateful images. Just “unfollowing” or “unfriending” someone is no solution. We need to discuss our objections and then decide how to deal with them in a constructive way.
- Focus on facts not feelings.
- Polarization is often more emotional than factual. Feelings are a poor source for factual information. For example, the ramifications of the historic megadrought happening in the U.S. right now are getting increasingly serious. Research published in the February 14, 2022 issue of the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that the past two decades in the U.S. Southwest have been the driest period in 1,200 years. And France today is experiencing its most severe drought in its recorded history. Nevertheless, too many people still FEEL that climate change is just a temporary phenomenon and that global warming is a leftist hoax. Polarized people tend to have distorted feelings as well about who makes up the other party or the other religious group. They support and believe untruthful stereotypes about “the other.” Are all Republicans stupid? All Democrats dangerous leftists? All Mexicans drug dealers? All Catholic priests pedophiles?
- Check perspectives and judgmental thinking about others.
- Helping people to look at a disliked person or group in an empathetic way can reduce malicious beliefs about them. Perspective is important. Jesus of Nazareth, for example, was not a white European but a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Hebrew. His disciples were young men AND women most probably under the age of eighteen. Jesus said nothing about someone being gay. I remember a fellow, who was strongly anti-gay and said at a parish council meeting that gays who “came out” should not receive communion and should not be welcomed in the parish. He said “Gays are immoral and unclean. We don’t want them!” Well, a couple weeks after he had said that, his eighteen-year-old son told him that he was gay. The father came to me, teary-eyed and said “He used to be such a fine young man.” I said “Your son still is a fine young man. Don’t you love your son?” He said “Of course!” Then I said “Tell him you love him. Be supportive. Gay people are not defective. Some people are gay. Some people are straight. They all deserve love and respect. Human sexuality is complex.”
- Be truth seekers.
- It is absolutely essential to remember that no one has all the truth. No political party. No church. No theological group. No particular religion. Not even the Catholic Church. No particular country or nation. We are all truth seekers. We need to listen to the other. We need to be collaborative learners. We have to search along with “the other” as we build bridges across religious, ideological, and political divisions.
The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978) was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. She explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. A broken femur that has healed, Mead said, is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.
May we be civilized in our polarized world. We don’t tear-down the house. We renovate. We renew. If necessary we rebuild. Together we make constructive change happen.