As an educator I believe that collaboration, problem solving, and civility are essential skills for students and should be nurtured by schools. Furthermore, I am sure that if students in schools behaved the way that many politicians and political pundits behave, they would be subjected to disciplinary actions. The lack of civility and accusatory speech that tends to dominate our public discourse, represents behavior far beneath the level of civility expected of students. I am convinced that this disconnect, between the current public discourse and schools’ expectations of civility, is problematic.
I cannot remember a time when Americans have been so divided on such a wide range of issues. Although this statement reflects my personal perceptions, there is little debate that the ideological divisions among Americans is significant. As such, it might be worthwhile to examine potential causes of this division and pursue remedies to address the negative discourse.
From my perspective there are three plausible causes for the divisive climate. The first is the exponential increase of information that most Americans are receiving. The technological advances of the past three decades, has made information more available than ever before. Not only the quantity of information, but also the speed in which is delivered and the variety of sources from which to obtain information. Technology allows anyone with internet access to become an information source irrespective of their intent, expertise, or intellectual capacity.
Prior to the internet, most news came through an edited or refereed source, with standards for fact-checking and avoiding sensationalism. But today anyone can publish without regard for accuracy or motives. Likewise, sensational or shocking stories tend to generate greater interest. Sensationalism adds viewers or followers and thereby creates advertising metrics that increase revenue. As such, news outlets are inclined to hyper-focus on sensational issues, which in turn magnifies the events significance for viewers.
One’s perceptions is how they interpret reality. Perceptions are shaped not only by the volume of information, but also by the source of information and its ideological underpinnings. It is generally understood that cable news networks, publishing companies, and online new sources, have ideological perspectives that shape commentary toward this perspective. It is not then just the volume of information that influences perceptions, but also the ideological perspectives of the sources from which one receives information.
One such example is the perception that many Americans have regarding violent crime in America. Despite the data clearly indicating that violent crime rates for the US have declined considerably over the past two decades, Americans have consistently polled as believing that crime rates are increasing. A plausible explanation of this disconnect is the increased quantity of information and sensationalizing of crime by the media. There are a variety of other issues that are similarly disconnected from the data, still they shape perceptions that drive the divisive nature of the debate.
A second plausible reason, for this unprecedented division, is the primary framework for public debates. It seems 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. This approach is modeled by many successful movies and television dramas, and is usually the format for political talk shows.
While an adversarial approach has tremendous merit and purpose in the Court of Law, especially in criminal trials, I believe that public debate should be more solution focused and less about “convicting” one of the positions. Moreover, in a court of law a judge serves as the referee of the debate, ensuring that the adversarial approach remains within the guidelines of decorum. I feel strongly 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 theologies and political ideologies. For many, theology and political ideology are inseparable. This has led to the polarization of faith communities in America like the overall division of the country. When one’s faith and politics are so intertwined, the fervor with which one holds fast to their ideological positions is intensified. As one with family, friends, and colleagues spanning the ideological continuum of faith and politics, I have witnessed firsthand well intentioned and good people, from both ends of this continuum, exhibit very high levels of intolerance for those with differing views.
To hold an ideological position not open to additional insight, implies that one believes they have achieved perfect understanding. It seems to me that this ideological rigidity comes precariously close to self-deification. Likewise, from my perspective, these deeply entrenched ideologies are usually resulting from one of two conditions; a faith perspective that demands unquestioning loyalty to a doctrine, or a sense of superior intellect. To me it seems a bit arrogant to believe that one who holds a differing position, has not achieved such a high level of faith or knowledge.
From my perspective, being open to new or different understandings is more closely aligned with faith. The nature of faith suggests that we believe in something without having complete understanding. Because it is impossible for a person to have complete understanding, there will always be ideological differences given how our varied experiences shape our ideologies. Healthy debate and discussion is possible if we do not allow our opinions and ideologies to become rigid and unchangeable.
Despite being disheartened at times, I have not lost hope that we can one day have productive conversations about difficult issues. But if we hope to have honest and productive dialogue, there must exist a space in which pejorative labels are not affixed to those who hold counter perceptions. These labels often cause well intentioned and thoughtful people to forgo the public discussion, for fear that simply raising a question will label them in negative and stereotypical ways. There exists a need for safe venues to voice concerns, differences, and beliefs without 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 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 and houses of worship in our society, the development of attitudes and skills necessary to perpetuate a positive global conversation should be one of the top priorities. Schools and houses of worship are formative spaces 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. 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.