A Polarized People

Posted by on Aug 12, 2009


I was eating breakfast with my dad last weekend, just sitting enjoying the beautiful Sunday morning meandering through the topics of our lives, when half way through my plate of banana nut pancakes the conversation turned to politics.  My father, never one to hold back an opinion, began to passionately engage the conversation.  He worked hard to prove his point, and when the “it’s a matter of fact”s came out, I knew all was lost for our peaceful breakfast.  But I noticed, more than I ever have in the past, that his matters of fact were, in fact, matters of assumption.  I raised the point with him.  He didn’t care much for the point.  And I realized there, in that moment, how bad things have really become.  Because we’ve pushed our assumptions of others to the point of assigning them the value of fact.  I fear that while that has likely always been present in human logic, it is becoming more prevalent.  And I realize…

We are a polarized people.

Let’s try an experiment.  See how bad it is.  Read both of the following observations.

The Obama Administration recently set up an email account the public can use to report misinformation they hear about the present health care reform initiative.  The White House blog explains that a great deal of erroneous information is being disseminated through “chain emails or casual conversation”.  The blog maintains that the White House can’t keep track of all this misinformation, so they would like for us to help and report anything we hear that “seems fishy” to the email account they have set up.  Because of the current laws with electronic communications and the requirement that all such records be held permanently, the White House will ultimately have a list of people who have reportedly disagreed with their policy.

The Bush Administration set up a list of suspected individuals who could potentially commit acts of terror against America.  The list was collected through various means, including phone taps and individuals who were reportedly observed engaging in suspicious activity.  Many of the individuals on the list were prohibited from flying within the United States.  The Bush Administration ultimately collected a list of people who they then monitored based on suspicion.  The ACLU maintains the list has grown to include over 1,000,000 names.

Consider your reaction to both stories at this moment.  I’m nearly certain you are currently forming an argument in your mind defending one of the two scenarios and finding fault with the other.  There’s a good chance you might even be working on your rationale to post below in the comments.  You might have even found yourself, at some point through your reading, uttering a “come on” in your mind or even aloud.

And that’s my point.  Think about it.  You are forming a position very likely based on the administration you believe in and support.  You might even find yourself irked at me for bringing up the scenario, or even in your estimation, misrepresenting one of the two sides.

The scenarios aren’t the point.  The point is how much we assume when we read them.  It seems we’ve become a polarized, perpetually skeptical people.  We believe in “our side” and view the other side with an air of uncertainty to the degree that we assume the worst of their intentions.  And we convince ourselves we’re right to do so.

I had the incredible pleasure of hearing Deborah Meier speak a month ago, and one of her most poignant points was that we’re failing to teach empathy in our pursuit of democracy.  I believe she’s absolutely correct.  We’re forgetting that there are multiple sides to a story.  We’re losing our perspective.  And it isn’t just happening in politics.

I see this mindset increasing from a trickle to a torrent in education.  Each interest group grows increasingly more skeptical of the others.  Teachers assume administrators are determined to fleece them at every opportunity.  Administrators assume teachers want to preserve only that which is in a teacher’s best interest.  Parents assume teachers want to take the easy route.  Teachers assume parents don’t respect teachers as professionals.  Technology administrators assume teachers won’t do what it takes to properly use available technology.  Teachers assume network administrators only want to lock down a network to make their job easier.  It goes on and on.

It’s quite sad, really.

Where is the empathy?  Where is the perspective?  Where is the consideration in our own position for those who maintain another?

I earnestly believe we have the capacity to change.  Quite honestly, I earnestly believe we have to.  We can’t continue to allow this state we’re in to perpetuate to the point of eventuality that it has started.

We have to start seeing both sides of the coin.  And I would hope we would feel compelled to allow this lesson to be learned by our students.  Because if we don’t, the polarization might well turn into sure schism.  It’s dangerously close here where we now stand.

We have the means to be better.  I hope we’ll exercise those means.

Thanks to jonr for the use of the Flickr image.


  1. Louise Maine
    August 13, 2009

    This is something that has bothered me as well though I know as part of the human condition we express lack of empathy somewhere in our lives. Living in a very rural area, I see this a lot. As a Biology teacher, I want to show students the multi-faceted sides to issues and different viewpoints while still being able to cover what I am supposed to do. I see not only adults, but students unable to listen to another side or even acknowledge that one exists. To me this is more important than the content I am supposed to teach.

  2. wmchamberlain
    August 13, 2009

    This post reminds me of the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”.

    Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
    What I was walling in or walling out,

    The poem would lead me to believe this isn’t a new problem, maybe you are just in a reflective enough place to notice it. Maybe it is just human nature to take sides, and maybe it is also part of human nature to be too lazy to actually know why we choose the side we do…

    To tell you the truth, both the scenarios written above really bother me. Maybe we are simply learning how to respond because of the modeling by our government ;>

  3. Matt Townsley
    August 13, 2009

    Great post, Ben. I believe that people should stand firm when their (limited) set of core values are being threatened, however many of the discussions we embark upon are focused on our “preferences” rather than these core values directly. As I read your post, I kept thinking to myself how often others (myself included) try to push our preferences as others as fact. Differentiating preferences vs. “best practices” (term used very loosely) is difficult to do. A really silly example would be me spouting off about how “visionless” leaders seem to be these days. How am I to know how much “vision” is present in your school or schools across the country? The leaders in my school may be visionless, but how does that make the leaders in your school visionless, too? When we try to turn preferences and personal experiences into probabilities, things can get ugly. Thanks again for a post that convicts us all…

  4. Clint Buhs
    August 13, 2009

    An excellent post that makes a strong point. I would object to your use of “perpetually skeptical”, though, as if that’s somehow a negative. Being skeptical means to question what we hold as true, or what we’re told is true, and evaluating its origin and accuracy. It’s precisely skepticality that could remedy this situation. If we were all more skeptical (disregarding assumption and bias in favor of objectivity), we’d be less polarized. There are certainly areas beyond politics that could use some good critical analysis in America, too. That’s another discussion.

    I’m a deeply skeptical person by nature, and it causes me unease to have to accept anything without further inquiry. I realize that I’m on one end of a belief spectrum, though, and that it’s not so easy or appealing to be skeptical to most people. We face a great challenge as a society.

  5. Todd I. Stark
    August 13, 2009

    Yes, we come to any important issue with different perspectives, and various psychological and cognitive factors contribute to maintaining and deepening the polarization effect. This is not just seen in politics, but even between academic fields that supposedly are each relying on well defined evidence bases that presumably reflect the same real world!

    The “preferences” vs. “core values” point is a big and important one. I would go a step farther and not call them “values” at all, since that word also implies that people “value” different things differently, and is nearly as divisive as “preferences.” I’d say there are also core virtues and basic needs that all human beings share, and which are not ideology-specific. It’s obviously not easy to get to them or hash out how they relate to current issues, but it may be the only path to common understanding.

  6. Deven Black
    August 23, 2009

    We are a polarized nation, but I don’t think that is news. Our nation was founded in polarities: between the patriots (Tories) and the traitors; between the Federalists and the state’s rights advocates; between the Union and the Confederacy; and so on.

    What’s different is the poverty of discourse, the shrillness, the unwillingness to listen, the instantaneous nature of communication, and the democratization of communication through the Internet, email, IM and Twitter.

    That people disagree strongly is not new, but our way of presenting our disagreement is. We have lost respect for each other and for ourselves. It wasn’t always this way.

    My grandfather was an inventor and manufacturer. He met his wife, my grandmother, when she recruited the workers at his company into the union. Needless to say, the political conversation at their table was lively, but it was always respectful. Both grandparents taught me that you learn more listening to someone who disagrees with you than
    with an acolyte.

    Polarization is not the problem; not knowing how to talk with and listen to each other is.

  7. Todd I. Stark
    August 23, 2009

    Deven makes a great point, the way we conduct dialog has changed. Not really that fundamentally perhaps. I’m sure there were always ways that people managed to ignore and disrespect each other. The Whigs and Tories probably hired thugs and hecklers to disrupt town hall meetings too. But the ways we can avoid really engaging each other and the ways we can distract ourselves from the issues have become more convenient. We can form local electronic communities now where we don’t have to listen to opposing viewpoints, and we can disrupt conversations anonymously without taking responsibility for our thinking. We can create more effective educational biases and de-legitimize just about any source by creating our own alternate center of legitimacy. The options for evading responsible citizenship and authentic dialog have increased dramatically. The generally agreed on solution seems to be to conduct propaganda wars to counter propaganda wars. Listening to each other is pretty much considered a foolish, wimpy thing to do in most places. That may not have changed much (I think Olliver Wendell Holmes referred to the “hydrostatic paradox of argument”) but our ability to enforce the conflict model has improved.


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