It’s tough to talk politics. Company policies and family requests often forbid it. Recent surveys suggest most people ignore such discussions, while some disenfranchise friendships. In December 1774, American revolutionaries argued over the best reaction, or no reaction, to the East Indian Company receiving a royal monopoly for tea deliveries, along with a special tax. In April 1995, Timothy McVeigh, Michael Fortier and Terry Nichols argued the ethics of exploding a massive bomb near a federal building in downtown Oklahoma City — leaving McVeigh to light the fuse alone, igniting the worst act of homegrown terrorism in the nation’s history. People around the world continue to argue the moralities behind the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, especially when the original premise was never proven true; the nation wasn’t harboring weapons of mass destruction. Today, political opinions are more polarized than any other point in the past 25 years, according to a review of surveys last month by Pew Research Center. What’s happening?
In my opinion, participatory media’s presence in day-to-day communications plays a significant role in our polarized society. People are having a hard time tolerating opposing political views because they’re actively branding their identities with their opinions. While updating Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and Pinterest boards, people often brand their identities with their political beliefs. We’re transferring our ideas and values into archived records of our thoughts. Every day, I see folks in my online social spheres post politically charged cartoons, quotes, editorials and videos. French philosopher Jacques Ellul said, “For action makes propaganda’s effect irreversible. He who acts in obedience to propaganda can never go back. He is now obliged to believe in the propaganda because of his past action.”
Lately, I’ve routinely contributed to political discourse by pointing out (what I perceive as) problems in today’s GOP presidential campaigns. In doing so, I’m not trying to air a complete disagreement with conservative politics, but I am displeased with GOP tactics and leaders. Republicans seem entirely too focused on exciting fears, relaying ambiguities and flat out citing false information. It’s my observation with an emphasis on my values. My Facebook “friends” can “like” it, disagree with it, dig deeper into the underlying issues, or just ignore it. However, when someone challenges another person’s political beliefs, as I often do with my far more conservative friends and family, it easily feels like an attack on their identity. Political statements are easily interpreted as personal attacks. The key issue isn’t in who’s right and who’s wrong; it’s the simple fact that such discussions typically lack definitive answers. By actively branding ourselves within a specific system of opinions, by calling ourselves a Republican or Democrat, we make it harder to accept new evidence, even when it’s overwhelmingly conclusive.
“By actively branding ourselves within a specific system of opinions, by calling ourselves a Republican or Democrat, we make it harder to accept new evidence, even when it’s overwhelmingly conclusive.”
Political and religious discussions cover what are arguably the two most emotionally charged topics in human communications. They involve claims that are softly supported. And that’s the problem. Nobody knows for sure if there is a kingdom in the clouds (faith-based assumption). Nobody knows if hardline conservative values are best for 21st century governments, just as its impossible to say for certain more liberal concepts are any better (also faith-based assumptions). In trying to solidify support for faith-based claims, people eagerly seek out others who’ll help prove their convictions and actions. On social-networking sites, most “friends” avoid commenting when they disagree about a political topic, according to a survey of adults early this year by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. While 66 percent said they usually ignore the posts, 38 percent have been surprised by their friend’s political positions. Ten percent of those surveyed had blocked, unfriended or hidden someone because that person constantly posted about political subjects; most cases involved a disagreement, many an argument. About half of the people who had severed an online connection were worried the person would offend their other friends.Political and religious discussions lend well to the famous is-ought problem in Hume’s philosophy. For example, “Our government is failing to approve a balanced budget; Congress ought to work with more compromise.” What? How do we know compromise will get the budget balanced? Ethical equations get even more tricky when there’s little tangible proof or concrete definitions in a premise, such as the existence of a supernatural power or deity, or eternal existence. Immoral activities by definition are wrong, but by who’s standards? Even when two people agree on the validity of the same holy book, worshippers frequently fight over who ought to interpret it. “Dustin, political and religious discussions get too heated; you ought to avoid them on Facebook.” Why? I might think more open discussions are needed to help everyone better understand opposing views. While we may agree on a definitive premise (is), we’ll probably disagree on the necessary actions (ought). An individual’s opinion is a byproduct of their unique set of education, experiences and personality.
People are motivated by even minimal cues of social connectedness, according to research published in March in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Building on that conclusion, Hume said, “No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own.” If we’re hardwired to quickly accept the goals and motivations of others, then our capacity to communicate without distraction about controversial topics must evolve during hyper-connected periods. Changes in our material culture have made us constant conversationalists, via cell phones, texts, emails, social media. Today, we’re able to connect with others more than at any other point in human history, so it seems logical that we’ll combine our ideas for an equally unprecedented level of cooperation. So, why are we so politically polarized? We’re constantly branding ourselves but our opinions are becoming decentralized.According to the Pew study that explained a heavily polarized America, the number of politically independent thinkers has grown significantly since 9/11, from 29 percent to 38. To suggest Internet-based discussion forums became popular during that time is a major understatement. After the terrorist attacks, people became increasingly comfortable with openly sharing hardships and searching for answers online. Friendster, the granddaddy of social networking sites, launched in March 2002. WordPress, the publishing platform that powers countless citizen journalism blogs, released its first version in May 2003, following the invasion of Iraq. MySpace took off in 2004, paving the way for the social giants Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. These initial surges in virtual interactions took place during extended and controversial conflicts, as well as historic upsets in global economies. People openly talked about these difficult times online, expanding their knowledge base.
Today, 91 percent of online American adults use social media — 98 percent of those between 18-24 — according to the 2011 Social Media Consumer Trend and Benchmark Report by Experian. More than 129 million Americans are using Web-based tools that power personal branding with metaphorical walls, streams, boards and albums of information, and leaving trails of contributions to endless discussion topics. At the same time, American culture is becoming more politically independent. Citing data from Gallup going back to 1939, Pew researchers believe there are more independents in 2012 than at any point in the last 75 years. While democrat affiliation has held steady since 2001, now at 32 percent, Republican support has plummeted from 29 to 24 percent. Americans are holding firmly to their political positions, amid personal branding campaigns, but we’re also inclined to form unique and unaffiliated opinions, as endless options unfold to discuss issues. For those who’re tired of bipartisan politics, rest well knowing the stubborn blue donkeys and immovable red elephants are losing relevancy.
To actually move beyond the useless bickering and hurt feelings associated with partisan-motivated personal branding, everyone ought to encourage more dialogue that allows changes in their personal narratives. But there’s that damn is-ought problem, again.