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'Us' vs. 'Them' Polarization Is Crippling Our Nation

How our differences can bind us together into groups that seek victory, not the truth.

I recently watched an interview on www.BillMoyers.com with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt about his new book, "The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion." I was throughly impressed with this man’s work and his findings.

In the book and interview, Haidt explains how our differences can “bind us together into groups that seek victory, not truth, and blind us to our own predispositions.” I find Haidt’s material incredibly interesting because of my work and study as a Life Coach. I’m always wondering about why people do what they do and think the way they think. It is at the very core of my work. Very often, I find that people can’t accomplish their goals precisely because they can’t see past or even recognize their predispositions.

Also, as a columnist for Patch, I often encounter readers that couldn’t just say in the comments that they disagree with me, but rather that I was ”bad,” “insane,” “evil” or actually trying to “destroy our nation.” and I got a lot of nasty comments back on that one. I guess they missed the point. Interestingly enough, this typically happens more with articles that either express political viewpoints or with articles where some readers think I’m expressing some kind of political viewpoint. Haidt’s findings are clearly at work here.

In another of my articles, the comment stream totaled more than 140 comments, and they weren’t even talking about the subject matter of my article directly. Someone mentioned a particular point of view about a related topic and other readers came out of the woodwork to inform this person how wrong, nuts and misguided they were. Truthfully, both sides of that discussion were trying to get the other to see where they were coming from. But as Haidt said, people are so stuck in their worldviews, they can’t even hear what the other side is trying to say. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

As a culture, it no longer seems enough to simply say “I don’t agree with you.” People seek not only to make another's viewpoint wrong, but to demonize the person as well. Haidt’s book explains how this has come to pass.

His basic premise is that, as a society, we have placed ourselves into groups that only meet and work with people of like mind, we only watch television shows and channels of a particular ideological bent, and we only read materials that agree with our point of view. We have gone from a society where we were exposed to varying ideas and concepts on a daily basis, into one where we have put on "blinders" when it comes to alternate opinions. This situation is clearly disastrous when it comes to trying to get people to work together — Congress or otherwise.

The word "compromise" has become a dirty word because all "sides" have come to focus merely on "winning." The process of give and take, of thrashing things out, has become a lost art. To compromise would mean to accept, at least in part, another’s views on the world and for people stuck one particular worldview, this cannot be. So we end up with “my side is right and your side is wrong,” instead of “I see it differently from you.”

Haidt says, “The first step that we all need to take is to understand that the other side is not crazy. They're not holding their position just because they've been bribed or because they're racist or whatever evil motives you want to attribute (to them).”

In writing about this topic, I hope to spread Jonathan Haidt’s concepts, because I think they can go a long way to softening the “us vs. them” polarity that is gripping our nation. I also hope that people will take the time to read Jonathan Haidt’s book or at least watch Haidt’s interview with Bill Moyers, and think over their own behaviors when dealing with “alternate viewpoints,” so that, as Haidt puts it, when we hear something from "the other side" (whichever side that is for you), instead of saying “See, this shows how evil they are,” you say, “Oh, okay, I see why they're saying that — it’s just a difference of opinion.”

Spiff April 27, 2012 at 07:28 PM
Mr. W, you must have misunderstood my comment. I've never suggested that Paul or Santorum aren't conservative, just that they are too extreme. That's all! I recognize that both of these politicians are very conservative, just not representative of the party overall, and that is why they will not get the nomination. As for the "super liberals" who are leading the Democratic party, are you telling me that Pelosi, Reed, Obama and Malloy aren't super liberal? They may not be "run of the mill" Democrats, but they are the leaders of the Democratic party, and there is no debating that.
Spiff April 27, 2012 at 07:31 PM
Bill, you're kiddin' me, aren't you? Come-on, we're not talking about the Iraqi political environment, we're discussing politics within the U.S.
Bill W April 27, 2012 at 07:48 PM
Yes. I’m suggesting that. For one, Harry Reid (not Reed) is a Mormon convert who is against abortion except in the most extreme cases. I can’t understand why people call our president “liberal.” It’s used as an insult but it holds no water. He’s centrist at best. He continued torture and Guantanamo. He propped up Wall Street. His cabinet is filled with Wall Streeters. He caters to the very banks who bankrupted us. He increased war efforts abroad (before “ending” the War in Iraq – holding up a Bush dictum). He expanded gun rights. He continued the Patriot Act. He continued the Bush Tax cuts and extended the payroll tax holiday. He signed the NDAA which states that American citizens arrested in the US can face either indefinite detention or military tribunals. I ask you, what in the world has this president done that wasn’t, until perhaps very recently, a GOP platform issue? (Note: let’s dispense with “Obamacare.” Why? For one, his opposition candidate implemented the same rules in Massachusetts but more importantly, the big bugaboo that may doom it in the SCOTUS and what most conservatives take issue with – the individual mandates – has ALWAYS been a conservative cornerstone. Until Obama adopted it. If Obamacare was a single-payer system then yes, you’d have a point. But it’s not… Not even close. So again, what has Obama done or heavily supported that is liberal/socialist/ruining the country, etc?
Bill W May 03, 2012 at 07:10 PM
Being new to the way Patch works, I don't want to be a jerk here - but I asked a question that almost all anti-Obama folks say is easy to answer- but didn't get an answer. In fact, this has always been the case when I ask this same question. It's amazing.

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