Sunday, September 30, 2012

How Fear Drives Polarization

Why is it that liberals don’t watch Fox News and conservatives don’t watch MSNBC?  Why do people prefer to talk politics with their like-minded friends rather than with those with differing opinions?  How is it that discussions between liberals and conservatives often end up as argument?  Without attaining too much depth on the matter, one should be able to discover that the answers to these questions are the same as why political issues are expressed as dichotomies, why campaign ads feature personal attacks of opponents, and why news media tends toward the sensationalist rather than the relevant (not that the two are mutually exclusive).Of the many ways in which people do choose to answer these questions, I believe that they can be boiled down to two factors: pride and insecurity, both of which are derived from fear.
            As is often the case, an individual’s beliefs are more than just their beliefs.  They become part of an identity, part of how someone perceives the world, and as a result, an attack on a set of beliefs can become a personal threat.  Now there will always be people who are so set in their ways that they refuse to acknowledge the relative epistemological frailty of the human capacity.  However, I believe that the majority of people realize that most beliefs, regardless of the conviction with which they are held, are not waterproof.  It is the coupling of this vulnerability with the personal nature of one’s assurances that leads to fear and hence polarization.
Having established this base, let’s return to one of the questions from the opening paragraph.  The greatest reason why people are reluctant to enter into discussion with those of differing views is not because they don’t approve of confrontation or because they don’t feel validated in their opinions.  It’s because that very feeling of validation is, in large, reinforced by the stereotype that the other is deficient in some sense, be it in morality, reason or common sense.  When people attempt to justify themselves, they do so by seeking positive reinforcement for their belief system.  However, they also do so by seeking reasons why the alternative is an unacceptable worldview.  In a truly honest discussion, what might then happen?  You might find that you and your opponent might in fact share ground on some issues.  You might find that he/she makes a valid point that’s worth considering.  You might also find that your opponent is not at all morally deficient, but in fact shows several admirable qualities.  More importantly, you might find that you need to reconsider your stance or even admit that you were wrong. 
This can be a terrifying prospect: terrifying enough to make discussions of the kind described above a rare phenomenon.  Rather than accept compromise or defeat, more often than not a discussion will simply devolve into an argument, terrifying enough so that people blockade themselves off with their media and community of choice and terrifying enough to make the national demographic a divergent one.
Chris Duerschner

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