American politics is currently beset by a problem. Well, many, but for right now we’re going to focus on just one: polarization. There’s a perception, with some evidence, that American politics is currently more polarized than at any other point in recent memory—certainly since the 1960s. And this is a problem, because polarization leads to gridlock, to civil unrest, to social breakdowns, and even, in extreme cases, to civil war. Religious polarization in Christian Europe led to a series of conflicts known as the Wars of Religion—the most famous being the 30 Years War, in which more than 8 million people died. Polarization over slavery and trade issues between Northern and Southern states led to the American Civil War in the 1860s. Most of us can agree that polarization is, in general, a bad thing for a society. The question, though, is what to do about it. And to answer that, first we have to look at what polarization is and what it is not. Only then can we start to identify potential routes to solve the problem.
Let’s start with what it is not. Polarization is not merely a particularly widespread and vehement disagreement. Disagreement just means that different people have drawn different conclusions. This, by itself, is healthy. Societies without disagreement drive headlong into madness, fueled by groupthink and demagoguery. Fascist and totalitarian societies suppress dissent because it slows or stops their efforts to achieve their perfect visions. Disagreement arises naturally—highly intelligent people, even those with a shared culture, can look at the same evidence, in the exact same context, and come to radically different conclusions because they weight different cultural values more highly than others, because they prioritize different goals over others, because they have different life experiences with which to color their judgements. That’s healthy. The discussions and debates arising from such disagreements are how groups and societies figure out how best to proceed in a manner that supports the goals and values of the group as a whole.
So if polarization isn’t just disagreement, what is it? Polarization is a state of affairs where the fact other groups disagree with your group becomes more important than the source of that disagreement. Essentially, polarization is where disagreeing groups are no longer willing to discuss and debate their disagreements and come to a compromise that accounts for everyone’s concerns, but instead everyone draws their line in the sand and refuses to budge. Polarization is what occurs when we stop recognizing that disagreement is a natural and healthy aspect of a diverse society, and we start treating our viewpoints as dogma rather than platforms. Platforms can be adjusted in the face of new evidence and reasonable arguments. People who ascribe to a platform can compromise with people who ascribe to other platforms, for the mutual good of all involved. But dogma is immutable and unchangeable. People who ascribe to dogma cannot compromise, no matter what evidence or arguments they encounter. Their minds are made up, and they will not be swayed.
Polarization occurs when dogma sets in. Because when your beliefs are dogmatic, anyone who disagrees is no longer a fellow intelligent human being who just happens to have slightly different values and experiences coloring their beliefs. When your beliefs are dogmatic, anyone who disagrees is at best an idiot who just doesn’t understand, and at worst a heretic who must be purged for the safety of your dogma. When your beliefs are dogmatic, there’s no longer any value hearing what the other side has to say, and instead you turn to echo chambers that do nothing but reinforce the dogma you already believe.
Where does dogma come from? Why do people ascribe to dogmatic beliefs when there is so much information available in the modern world? It’s largely because critical thinking is difficult. It’s not that people are stupid, but rather that when there IS so much information available, it’s hard to process it and tell the wheat from the chaff without a filter. And dogmatic beliefs, distilled to simple talking points by those echo chambers like media sources and groups of friends and family, provide just such a filter with which people can try to understand a highly complex world by fitting it to their worldviews. Dogma is comfortable. Dogma makes sense. Dogma tells us why we’re right, why our values are the right values and our beliefs are the right beliefs. And that’s not to mention the draw of being part of the in-group: choosing and ascribing to a dogma lets you fit in with a crowd and gain respect at the low, low cost of merely repeating the same soundbites over and over again. It’s self-reinforcing, especially in the world of modern 24 hour news networks, a thousand “news” websites to cater to any given belief system, and social media networks that let us surround ourselves with comfortable consensus and block those who might question our beliefs. It’s no real mystery why people are drawn to dogmatic beliefs—the very things that could show them the error of their ways are the reasons they prefer their heads in the sand.
But most people would agree that dogma is bad, that critical thinking is good, even when they’re manifestly dogmatic themselves. How can they be comfortable with that cognitive dissonance? Well, quite simply, because they don’t even recognize it. It’s much easier to identify dogmatic beliefs in others than in ourselves. We all like to think we’ve thought through our positions and come to the right conclusions through logic and evidence, even when we quite clearly haven’t. Hence the phenomenon of conservatives referring to “dumbocrats” and “libtards,” and liberals responding with “republican’ts” and “fascists.” I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen conservatives assert liberalism is a mental disorder, and liberals say the exact same about conservatism, both sides laughing from their supposed superior mental position. Self-reflection is actually incredibly difficult. It takes a lot of effort. It’s uncomfortable. So we don’t do it.
Now that we’ve established what dogma is, where it comes from, and why people ascribe to it despite professing otherwise, in the next post in this series we’ll look at what we can do about it.