Sunday, May 20, 2007

Uniting Our "Divided" Nation

Dark sarcasm in the classroom? No spank you!

I would like to continue the theme discussed in two of the last posts (by CapeTown and Virginia) and their comments about America as a "divided nation."

The topic has been familiar discussion on this blog and also among politicians, the media, and undoubtedly many of our everyday conversations. Some interesting questions are the following: How divided are we, really, as a nation, among conservatives and liberals? To the extent that we are divided, how did this come about? Are these divisions the inevitable result of human nature? Or are divisions in opinion artificially created? Is the division healthy or harmful? If it is harmful is there anything we can do about it?

The issue begins with human nature (of course who am I to say what human nature is but here is my take on it). Many philosophers, perhaps most notably Hegel, have written about our innate desires to be "recognized" by our fellow humans. This "recognition" can take the form of something like mutual respect, agreement, understanding, friendship, or love. To achieve happiness we need this recognition and we actively seek its fulfillment in various ways. When we fulfill this desire by making connections and achieve mutual recognition, this makes us happier and more secure, whereas if this desire goes unfulfilled we will be more insecure. One way we fulfill this desire is through one-on-one relationships with people, and of course, another is through belonging to some group.

One example of this is sports teams. If you think about it, it's pretty arbitrary how people develop passionate allegiances to their teams, but I think that taking on a sports allegiance is one way where humans satisfy some innate desire to be recognized by other humans, in this case by belonging to a group. Listen to people talk about their team and often they call the team "we" like they are actually on the roster! Allegiances can also be pretty irrational, for example we think the players are on our favorite teams are great people in their personal lives, and we think the players on other teams are jerks (I bet more Lakers fans thought Kobe was innocent than fans of rival teams). Although I don't think it's necessary, one thing that makes the "belonging to a group" feeling stronger, is when the group defines part of its identity as simply being not some rival, other group. So for example part of what makes a Yankees fan a Yankees fan is the fact that they're not a Red Sox fan. So a way to assert your identity as part of a group, and your group solidarity is through being different from some other, rival group. So if you are a Sox fan and you see a random person on the street in a Sox jersey, you automatically fell a connection, and someone in a Yankees jersey you automatically feel some kind of animosity, whether stong of very slight. There is the issue that this might be more of a male thing (being a sports fan) but I don't want to get too off track. The point is I think that this is an innate human desire since so many people all over the world do this, and since I don't see it explained through any "rational" explanation.

Now just like you can be Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan you can be a a Democrat or a Republican. Sports are not exactly like politics, some would say politics are much more important, although in our day to day lives many of us are much more affected (at least emotionally) by sports. But there are competitions (elections) and people rally behind either side much like with sports.

Of course, when you think about it, it just doesn't seem to make sense, or feel "right" that we should treat politics like sports. As opposed to sports, where adopting an allegiance to a team is a pretty arbitrary act that makes something entertaining much much more entertaining, adopting a political party is supposed to be something different. We aren't supposed to just like whatever a candidate says or does the way we convince ourselves that our sports heroes are cool and good people, but it seems like that shouldn't work for politics - we are supposed to listen to what these people say, agree with some of it, and maybe disagree or not be sure about some of it, not just agree with a candidate or a whole party of hundreds of politicians on all of their views.

So then why, if it doesn't seem to make sense, do so many people line up behind a party on everything, agreeing with nearly everything their party says and disagreeing with nearly everything the other party says? Wel as I said I think it is part human nature, and part our conditioning from society. Part of it is that Americans (maybe humans in general because of the above reasons) in general live in a competitive and contentious culture. Our court system and our economy could both be looked at as more cutthroat than in other countries.

Looking specifically in the realm of politics, though, it is pretty easy to see how politicians and the media alike feed the "sports-like" culture of democrats versus republicans, thus exagerating perceived and actual divisions at the same time. Not only are most pundits on television and on the radio partisan ideologues who agree with everything in the party platform like robots, but they have actually created shows that pit one side against the other, like Crossfire and Hannity & Colmes that explicitly pit one side against the other, in addition to the shows that are just one partisan doing the show solo (ex: O'Reilly). Politicians? Some are more guilty than others of playing up party divisions, but I'm sure we can all think of numerous examples.

So why all of this divisive, partisan rhetoric from the media and politicians? Well it's simply a tactic used to maximize their audience and their attention. The media is just a bunch of corporations competing for viewers, while politicians just want attention and votes. Of course, one way to get attention is through civilized discourse where you respectfully consider all sides of a debate and maybe don't arrive at a conclusion since there is no clear answer to some of these complex issues. But not everyone wants to waste their time listening to a newscaster or a politician admitting that these are complex issues and there is no right answer, or at least we are not used to that, so many of us are not so drawn to that type of thing.

Instead, the way it works is that media and politicians have become very good at exploiting this inner human desire to derive happiness and security from being part of a group, a feeling that is strengthened when the identity of the group consists largely of simple the fact that they are not the "other" group. It is just like with sports - surely there are many Yankees and Red Sox fans who have billions of things in common and one of their comparatively much fewer differences in personality is the fact that they happened to one day decide that they like different baseball teams. But rivalries and the feeling of "belonging" to the team we like is one of the reasons people love sports so much, why they are so entertained and impassiond by it all, and the media and politicians have harnessed the same psychological effect and attached it to politics, which is good for them, because it means many more viewers of their programs and listeners to their speeches and contributors to their campaigns. So the media and the politicians really benefit from this, and thus they have a lot of incentive to fan the fire and perpetuate the divisive culture. Whether the image is real or meaningful, an explanation of how Americans are divided along party lines will sell you a lot of books.

But do Americans benefit from it? Does our country as a whole? I would say definitely not, for many, many obvious reasons. One big reason is that these divisive debates don't ever get anywhere. The conversations on the big news shows are pointless, they don't accomplish anything except getting people who disagreed before the discussion to disagree more passionately afterwards because the discussion was done in an aggressive, contentious, and often very disrespectful way. Everyone has witnessed the phenomena where if you try to convince someone of something disrespectfully, you will just cement their original position - the person will not even want to listen to you or consider your opinion if you address them aggressively and disrespectfully. But this is how a great many media pundits and politicians talk, and I think that when they do this they waste all of our time and accomplish nothing useful, and do much harm.

I think it was Socrates that said that there are two kinds of debate. Truth-seeking debate, and victory-seeking debate. Truth-seeking is where people admit that they don't know the answers, and they might not even know what they think about certain issues, and the point of the discussion is to learn more about what you and the other people think, to consider different views on something, and arrive at the best possible conclusion. Victory-seeking on the other hand is an attempt to convince someone of your pre-decided opinion, to "win" the argument. Often there is no way to prove the argument, so "winning" is often thought of as shooting down someone or making a point they can't respond to or shoot down themselves. This of course makes for much better entertainment, which means more people paying attention, and this has become the object of the media and politicians, as opposed to figuring out what is best for this country.

Well maybe that is a bleak picture, it is definitely a generalization and is not true for all journalists and politicians, but I think we can agree that there is too much of this sort of thing going on. The good news is that with blogs, anyone can be a pundit and join in the debate, but with blogs we face the same danger of falling victim to the great temptation of making our blogs entertaining and boost viewers (say something anti-one party and watch the members of your party pour in to comment and check back to read future posts). Thus the phenomena of people self-selecting and only reading blogs of their party.

Despite this danger, blogs have the potential to be a really positive and productive force for our country. If we can overcome the temptation and the emotional satisfaction of responding to a republican statement with a disrespectful jab at how wrong they are and visa versa, if we can instead respectfully consider each other's opinions, admit that there are perhaps no issues more complicated than the ones we undertake to discuss and thus there is probably no clear and obvious right or wrong answer (Iraq?), if we can overcome our impulses and our adrenaline and our emotions and resist arrogantly assuming that we know all of the answers, blogs can really be something amazingly helpful for the country. By having respectful, truth-seeking debate, we can not only get closer to understanding each other and understanding these complex issues and all of the people in the US and the world that they affect, but we can also change the divisive, victory-seeking debate culture that dominates our news and our politics. I believe we can change it becuase I believe that people are tired of it, and we want a change. Our impulses and our emotions may sometimes cause us to take the bait when media and politicians dangle the partisan hook (sorry I got carried away hook line and sinker with that metaphor), but deep down inside I think we all know that the divisive culture is not helping at all and in fact doing real damage, and we also know deep down inside that no one agrees with everything every politician from one party believes. So we are ready for this change, and I think that this change can only come from the blogs, since the media and the politicians all benefit from the increase in attention they get from keeping the divisive atmosphere alive. Of course maybe single journalists and candidates can do something to reverse the trend, but it will be tough because their competitors, of which there will be more, will continue the same old divisive tactics, so I think that this is up to us. I think, potentially, we can change things and we can help this country enormously, and I don't think it will even be that hard, although it could take a long time. All we have to do is control our impulses and emotions, be calm and patient and respectful, and seek the truth as opposed to victory (or the appearance of victory). I don't see why anyone would want to do it otherwise given how much these issues affect our country and our world, and how important it is for us to reach those answers that we can most strongly agree on.

So let's see what we can do. Now I am off to the Red Sox game.


Ishvara said...

Well said. Very well said.

CapeTownDissentator said...

Amen. Your point about sports teams and political parties is right on. As far as I'm concerned, you can call me a Sox fan no problem, but recently someone just said, "Yeah, well you're a Democrat," and it irked me. Political partie, as you pointed out, are fluid. Lincoln was a Republican, Johnson was a pro-war Democrat, Eisenhower and Grant (both former generals) were not belligerent. So, how can a person identify themselves within a political party for life, when the party is bound to change every 10 years or so?