As an educator I believe that collaboration, problem solving, and civility are essential skills for students that should be nurtured by schools. Likewise, I believe that if students in our schools behaved the way that many politicians and political pundits behave, they would be subjected to the school’s disciplinary policy. The lack of civility and accusatory speech that has come to dominate our public discourse model behaviors far below the level of civility expected of students. For me this disconnect, between the current state of public discourse and American schools’ curriculum, is very problematic.
I have no memory of a time when Americans have seemed so divided on such a wide range of issues. I recognize that this statement reflects my perceptions and it is a conclusion that is somewhat subjective, however, there is little debate that the magnitude and scope of the ideological divisions among Americans is significant. If my perception is reality, it is worthwhile to examine potential causes of the divisions and to pursue changes that will help us find more common ground. In this blog I would like to propose three plausible reasons for this divisive environment. I also hope to lay some ground work for future conversations or explorations around possible solutions.
From my perspective, the first cause of the current divisiveness is the exponential increase in information that most Americans receive. Because of the technological advances of the past three decades, for most people information is exponentially more available than ever before. This includes not only the amount and speed of information delivery but also the number of sources from which to obtain information. Technology now allows anyone with internet access to become a news or media source, regardless of their intents, expertise, or intellectual capacity.
Before the Internet, the vast majority of information came through an edited or refereed source, with standards for fact-checking and avoiding sensationalism. However, today anyone can publish virtually anything whether it is true or supported by the data or facts. Likewise, as one might expect, the more sensational or shocking the story or information, the greater the interest. Sensationalism tends to add viewers or followers and generates metrics that increase revenue. When a tragedy occurs somewhere in the world, it is not uncommon for news outlets to hyper focus its coverage on it, which in turn increases awareness of the event in the minds of the viewers.
From a behavioral perspective, one’s perceptions create their reality. Perceptions can be skewed not only by the volume of information but also by the source of information and the ideological underpinnings of the source. It is generally understood that the major news networks, as well as print and online publications, have particular ideological perspectives that seem to weigh the commentaries more heavily toward this perspective. Therefore it is not just the volume of information that influences perceptions, but also the ideological positions of the sources from which they receive their information that shapes perceptions and therefore the public debates in America.
There are many good examples for this point, and one rather good example is with the perceptions that Americans have on the state of violent crime. In spite of the data being clear that violent crime rates in the US have declined drastically over the past 20 years, Americans have consistently responded in polls that they believe crime rates are increasing. I suggest that a very plausible explanation of this disconnect is related to the increased volume of information. There are a variety of other topics that are similarly disconnected from the data yet it is often the perceptions that are uniformed or informed by bad data that dominate the public debate and provide the most sensational appeals for followers.
A second plausible reason, for this unprecedented division, is the primary framework for public debates. It seems to me that most public and political debates in America have been overwhelmingly shaped by the adversarial system of law widely embraced in the American legal system, an approach modeled by many successful movies and television dramas and demonstrated on political talk shows. While an adversarial system approach has tremendous merit and purpose in the Court of Law, especially in criminal trials, I believe that most public debate should be more solution focused and less about “convicting” one of the positions. Moreover, in a court of law there is a judge who serves as a referee of the debate, ensuring that the adversarial approach remains within the guidelines of decorum. I strongly believe that the intellectual tension created by vigorous debate is valuable as a means of parsing out details and scenarios, yet we must ensure that the debate is working toward solutions and not entrenching differences.
When such an adversarial approach is used to debate issues on social media, news talk shows, or in political campaigns, the debate almost always digresses to a state of labeling those who hold a different perspective as evil or uninformed. As a staunch defender of a free press as essential for our democracy, I am very discouraged at the degree to which adversarial tactics are used by both right and left leaning news outlets to generate loyal followers and ratings. Although those involved in this level of adversarial journalism would likely object to my commentary, I am confident that few outside of the industry would do so.
The third plausible reason we are such a divided nation is the marriage between various theological perspectives and political ideologies. For many, theology and political ideology are essentially the same. The polarization of the Christian community in America is likely as stark as the division of the country as a whole. Sadly, today it is not uncommon for leaders of faith-based organizations to actively participate in the promotion of political ideologies, even when by virtually any reading, they conflict with their holy scripture. I have many family, friends, and colleagues that make up the entire political ideological continuum. As such, I have witnessed that both sides of the ideological divide have a tendency to judge others and to label them in negative ways.
To hold an ideological position that is not open for discussion implies that one has achieved a perfect understanding and this is likely something that comes precariously close to self-deification. A common manipulative tactic used by many faith leaders is to suggest that if one questions the premise of doctrine they espouse, it is evidence of a lack of faith in God. I contend that remaining open to a new or different understanding is more closely aligned with the definition of faith, for the very nature of faith suggests that we believe in something without having a complete understanding. Simply because it is impossible for a person to have complete understanding does not mean that we should allow our pursuit of understanding to become arrested and rigid.
It is from a rigid position that many people of faith launch assaults on others, often from the same faith tradition. Certainly all of the issues that currently polarize Americans are not based on political ideologies, however, one cannot separate the impact of political ideology as it is reinforced through theological interpretation. The intertwining of faith-based beliefs with political ideology tends to intensify one’s personal position and often generates an unhealthy religious fervor in its defense.
In spite of being very disheartened at times, I have not lost hope that we can one day have productive conversations about difficult issues. However, if we hope to have honest and productive dialogue there must exist a space in which labels are not affixed immediately to those who hold counter perceptions. These labels often have such negative consequences that many well intentioned and thoughtful people forgo the public discussion for fear that to simply raise a question about the efficacy of an argument will get them labeled in some negative and stereotypical way. There is a need for safe venues to voice concerns, differences, and beliefs without the fear of being labeled or derided.
For serious and productive debate to occur we must allow the conversation to be framed in a more constructive manner. Moreover, it seems from my vantage point that there is a growing will among Americans to engage in the conversations that our serious challenges require. Furthermore, when we consider the role of schools in our society, the development of attitudes and skills necessary to perpetuate a positive global conversation within students should be one of the top priorities. Schools are a formative space for envisioning a brighter future and the teaching of civility, therefore, they are likely the most appropriate place to teach and practice the techniques of dealing with difficult topics. It is from appropriate education and structuring of the conversation, that open minded and open hearted individuals will have the clarity necessary to influence lasting and positive change in our nation and world.
Today in America, discussions on very important issues continue to digress into labels of winners and losers, while contrasting differing views as either right or wrong. In order to facilitate serious dialogue and debate on the important issues that Americans face, we must commit to creating a safe space to explore our problems and imagine possibilities. Only then can we come close to achieving a common understanding, or perhaps even completely resolve some of the more difficult issues of our time.