What causes polarization in society?

If this seems like an intractably complex question, let’s approach it by asking why polarization surprises us in the first place. Since it’s easier to stoke enmity than empathy, easier to start a war than to end one, why shouldn’t polarization be the norm? Why shouldn’t all societies be divided all the time?

I suppose we shouldn’t be divided because we share the things that matter most. We share the same planet, the same home. We all “come from” the same place. We share the same basic physiology as humans: our hearts, brains, muscles, and veins are more alike than they are different. Our DNA is mostly the same. We share the same fundamental hopes and dreams: we want to be happy, we want to love and be loved. The stars that we see when we look into the night sky are the same stars.

I would go further and say that many people share an aspiration to “goodness.” It’s true that some individuals wake up each morning with a ferocious intention to lie, cheat, and steal. But many people – dare I say “most” people? – are trying their best at life… trying their best to be good in whatever ways they know how.

Goodness is a topic we could discuss forever – what does it mean and how can it be achieved? – but I’ll try to summarize my view in a few sentences. It means following the golden rule. It means treating others well, telling the truth, working hard, giving something back to society, and generally valuing love over fear.

I grew up with this assumption about the basic goodness of people – it’s something my parents taught me – and I maintain it to this day, though doubts arise. Why is human history littered with genocides – complex efforts that were only possible with the cooperation of thousands of perpetrators and the complicity of innumerable bystanders? If most people, in the course of our lives, generate more pollution than we clean up, if most of us take more from nature than we restore, and if increasing numbers of us understand that this behavior must result in doom for future generations, how can we – doing what we do, and knowing what we know – consider ourselves basically good? I’m going to skip over these questions for now.

If we move forward with the assumption that a majority of people want to be good, and if a majority of people believe that being good includes being good to others, why then do societies find themselves in conflict? In America, why is there a Left and a Right that hate each other? Why doesn’t goodness prevail if it’s indeed our common intent?

One way to conceive the origin of polarization is to examine gut reactions. It may be true that we’re all very much alike – we all experience the same “human condition” – but it’s also true that our instincts are differently calibrated – we feel different things in our gut when confronted with a sensitive or provocative topic. By definition, a gut reaction is outside our conscious control. It’s what we feel “deep down” without necessarily knowing why. It’s what we sense, after all our years on this planet, after all the experiences we’ve had and all the influences we’ve absorbed, as a matter of intuition that precedes thought.

Take two people who share a common goal of goodness, show them an image of something, anything – a smiling dog, perhaps – and in a split second, one person might relax because he loves dogs and the other might tense up because he was bitten by a dog as a child. A person’s gut reactions can’t indicate his or her moral character, because a gut reaction is involuntary. And yet we tend to trust people who share our own gut reactions – to give them the benefit of the doubt, to assume their hearts are in the right place. At the same time, we tend to distrust anyone whose gut reactions differ from our own – to assume their hearts are in the wrong place, their motivations are corrupt.

Let’s consider two characters, Jane and Jill. Both of them wake up each day hoping for a better world and wanting to succeed in being a “good” person.

When Jane sees a gay couple, she sees two humans in love, choosing their destiny together, breaking free from the repressive social expectations that would obstruct their happiness. When she thinks of love prevailing over prejudice, she feels good in her gut. When Jill sees the same couple, she sees a challenge to the traditions that she learned growing up. She wishes the couple no ill will, but she wishes they’d keep to themselves. She feels that their quest for public acceptance is a threat to the model of relationships that she understands as the foundation of virtue and stability and so it’s a bad thing. She feels bad in her gut.

When Jane thinks of abortion, she thinks of a woman’s right to control her own body, and thus her own life. While she feels no enthusiasm for the act of abortion, she feels deep-down that the right to choose it is an empowering thing. When she thinks of women empowered, she feels good in her gut. When Jill thinks of abortion, she thinks of murder. She thinks of souls interrupted. She thinks of God’s sadness at these murders and she fears his inevitable wrath. She feels deep-down that this is a bad thing and that she’s guilty if she doesn’t do something to stop it. She feels bad in her gut.

When Jane thinks of taxes, she thinks of citizens giving back to the society that made their lives possible: billionaires sacrificing some tiny portion of their wealth so we can all have working bridges and roads. She thinks of resources flowing from those with too much to those with too little. She feels good in her gut. When Jill thinks of taxes, she thinks of her own hard-earned money being pilfered by a wasteful government. She thinks of her salary, her husband’s salary, her daughter’s salary being funneled into poorly managed programs that benefit lazy people who abuse the system, while dutiful taxpayers struggle to make ends meet. She feels deep down that this is tyranny. She feels bad in her gut.

When Jane thinks of international relationships, treaties, and alliances, she thinks of different countries and cultures learning to get along and work in harmony to the betterment of all. She thinks of the stability of the post-WWII order. She feels good in her gut. When Jill thinks of the same, she thinks of other countries making demands on America and competing unfairly with American companies, accepting American generosity while undercutting American interests. She thinks that all these high-minded treaties are ultimately responsible for the fact that nothing is “Made in America” anymore. She feels bad in her gut.

When Jane thinks of immigrants, she thinks of their quest for a better life, the same quest that led to the founding of America. She thinks of the talents and hard work they bring to the country. She thinks of the debts America owes the world for the conflicts it has created and the resources it has taken. She thinks of the phrase “love thy neighbor.” She feels deep-down that offering a helping hand to immigrants is a godly thing, a good thing. She feels good in her gut. When Jill thinks of immigrants, her focus turns to Americans she knows who are out of work and suffering: “love thy neighbor.” She can’t imagine how a country that’s failing to take care of its own citizens could possibly accommodate more people entering the country – against the law – using resources and competing for jobs. She feels bad in her gut. For her, opposing immigration is an expression of love for fellow citizens struggling to find jobs in her own country. When she thinks of preventing immigration with something like a physical wall at the southern border, she feels good in her gut.

When Jane thinks of climate change, she thinks of science, and how it can be trusted because it gave us our phones and our computers and our planes and our bridges and our medicine. She thinks of nature, and how nature provides for us, and how we as a species are failing to protect nature in turn – our earth, our home, our mother. She feels deep down that this is an urgent, important thing. When Jill thinks of climate change she feels ambivalence because she wonders if she’s being manipulated. She thinks that the government is looking for an excuse to control her life and tell her that she shouldn’t drive her car or fly on a plane. She suspects that proponents of the climate change theory are trying to destroy the coal and gas industries that provide the livelihood of many people she knows, because they have vested interests in newfangled technologies. She notices that the winters are still cold and the summers are still hot as she’s known them all her life. She feels deep-down that the idea of climate change is a suspicious thing.

When Jane thinks of guns, she thinks of mass shootings. She thinks of violence and death. She thinks of the greed of the gun industry. She remarks that a gun has no purpose other than to kill. She feels bad in her gut. When Jill thinks of guns, she thinks of freedom. She considers the enforcement of the Second Amendment as an indicator of whether the country is still free. She remarks that the primary purpose of a gun is self-defense. She thinks of the skill, self-discipline, and responsibility it takes to handle a firearm. She thinks of the camaraderie of fellow gun owners. She feels good in her gut.

When Jane thinks of law enforcement, she thinks of police brutality motivated by racism. She thinks of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice… She thinks of the greed of the prison-industrial complex, the carceral state. She acknowledges the need for law enforcement while still feeling deep-down that law enforcement, in its current form in America, is a murderous thing, a bad thing. She feels bad in her gut. When Jill thinks of law enforcement, she thinks of safety and security. She’s confident that if she were ever attacked in her own home, she could call 911 and an officer in uniform would arrive, putting his or her own life on the line to rescue her. She remembers the police being courteous and helpful whenever she has interacted with them. She feels deep-down that this is an essential thing, a good thing. She feels good in her gut.

At this point, I would venture to guess, dear reader, that you think Jane is an asshole, or you think Jill is an asshole. You probably disagree with my initial statement that both people wake up each morning wanting to be good. If you’re more aligned with Jane, then you probably think that Jill is motivated by fear, hatred, bigotry, and racism. If she really wanted to be good, she could give those things up. If she took off the obscuring glasses of racism, for example, she’d see the horror of ICE’s separation of immigrant families and caging of immigrant children and she’d want to help these families, not make their situation worse.

If you’re more aligned with Jill, you probably think that Jane is motivated by a disgust for tradition, a strange decision to empathize with foreigners over American citizens, and an enthusiasm for the socialist expropriation of wealth. If she really wanted to be good, she could give those things up. If she gave up her stubborn and hypocritical preference for “the other,” she’d be appalled at the plight of so many working class Americans living at the poverty line and she’d want to help them before accepting more people into the country.

In either case, you probably think that the person you agree with is noble and brave while the person you disagree with is insecure and corrupt. Again, we all tend to give the benefit of the doubt to those who share our gut reactions while we doubt those who don’t.

In a sane world, if Jane and Jill met, perhaps they could temper each other’s view of the other side. Jane might come away from a conversation with Jill still firm in her support for reproductive rights but less convinced that anyone on the other side – anyone who opposes abortion – must be motivated by a craven desire to subjugate women. Jill might come away from the conversation still firm in her support for gun rights but less convinced that anyone on the other side – anyone who wants safety measures like background checks and restrictions on assault rifles – must have the tyrannical objective of “taking away our guns” or destroying the Second Amendment. But this conversation where ideas intermingle and mutual respect develops is unlikely to happen today.

Because each person has their own spectrum of gut reactions, each person will find different media sources more or less comfortable to consume. Jane might not agree with everything she hears on MSNBC, but because her gut reactions are confirmed there, she’ll keep watching MSNBC. Jill might not agree with everything she hears on FOX News, but because her gut reactions are confirmed there, she’ll keep watching FOX. As each one of them keeps watching the outlet that they experience as more agreeable, each one will find their views of the “other side” hardening, becoming more negative, because news networks – including informal groups on Facebook and Twitter – can generate more engagement and hence more revenue and power by presenting a clear enemy.

Jane will find it easier to be friends with people who believe in climate science and Jill will find it easier to be friends with people who own and love guns. They’ll have more to talk about and fewer opportunities to take offense. The fact that they’ve been brought up in like-minded communities makes it all the more likely that they’ll stay in their social comfort zones.

If a dozen viable political affiliations were on offer, perhaps Jane and Jill could find ones that match whatever nuances exist in their perspectives. If nothing else, the exposure to so many options and the process of considering them might encourage an expansion of perspective. But American society offers only two affiliations to choose from. Once Jane and Jill identify with a particular side of the political duality – a highly artificial duality at that – they become subject to clan thinking. Clan thinking goes like this:

Any time anyone attacks your clan’s position (whether rightly or wrongly) you take it as a personal insult. By attacking your clan, the other person becomes a bad actor in your mind and from then on they can only do wrong.

You’re willing to ignore or forgive your own clan’s shortcomings, while you maintain a diligent focus on the other clan’s failures and transgressions. You can instantly list every bad thing the other clan has ever done. You believe that their history of wrongdoing makes them irredeemable.

You support the leader of your clan no matter what he or she does. You take it as your mission to justify and defend that leader.

You consider any member of the opposing clan as a representative of that clan. You feel that the only way anyone could belong to the opposing clan is if they’re a terrible (i.e. insecure, corrupt, malicious) person. They may seem good individually but they can’t be trusted because in the end they will remain beholden to their clan. They’ll pretend to be reasonable but when push comes to shove, they’ll stick together and follow the orders of their leaders instead of thinking for themselves.

You feel that any enemy of the opposing clan is a friend of yours.

You feel that expressing any sympathy for the other clan makes you weaker and puts you at a disadvantage in the conflict. You declare that now is not a time for reaching out. Maybe later, once your clan’s position is secure, once you’ve won what you want to win, then it will be time for reconciliation.

As clan thinking takes hold, reason is distorted. Jane and Jill may both have powerful minds, but their mental capacity will be co-opted by clannishness. All of their ability to think and argue and question will be directed to supporting the interests of their own clan. All of their skills at observation, ideation, and deduction will be harnessed in defense of their clan’s worldview. How can someone believe a falsehood like 2+2=5? They can believe it because all of their friends are telling them it’s OK to believe it, and all of the vast capacity of their intellect is being dedicated towards trying to believe it, since not believing it would imply the unthinkable: separation, dissociation, excommunication from the clan.

What I’ve said so far amounts to this: Most of us begin with similar aspirations, to love and be loved, to be a good person, to live in a peaceful world. But the sum total of our physical makeup, our history of experience, and our social connections primes us to have different gut reactions to sensitive topics. As these reactions precede thought they can’t indicate our moral character: they are simply the reality of what we feel in the moment before we know why. Our gut reactions predispose us to find certain social networks and certain sources of news more comfortable than others. We tend to trust people who share and confirm our gut reactions and hold in suspicion those who don’t. As we participate in these networks and consume these news sources our views become more extreme and we feel more negative about the other side, because networks have an incentive to engage us through fear. While our views may be complex and multifaceted, the political scene offers only two viable identities and we feel forced to choose between them. As we assume one of these identities, clan thinking kicks in. At this point we may think we’re still reasoning logically and practicing common sense, but our mental powers are co-opted by the interests of the clan. What’s right is no longer what’s right but what’s best for the clan. Being a good person comes to mean supporting our clan no matter what, because our clan is full of the “good” people, and this means that we sometimes act as a bad person, especially in our dealings with anyone outside the clan.

It’s quite possible that two clans differ in their levels of unreason and in their levels of clannishness itself. For both sides in any conflict to always be equally right or even equally reasonable would be a coincidence that stretches belief. One clan might seek destruction while the other might seek peace. One clan might devolve into conspiratorial lunacy while the other might maintain its grip on reality. Clans are not equivalent, and “bothsidesism” is usually wrong. It may happen that both clans start out in possession of a similar number of shards of the truth, but they mangle those shards in different ways and to very different degrees. The fact remains that every person passionately believes they’re on the reasonable side and it’s the other one that’s bonkers, it’s the other side that’s slavishly beholden to their leader, it’s the other side that lies and cheats and won’t listen to a sensible argument and should be blamed for starting conflicts. 

The more we focus on the other side’s apparent insanity, coming to view them as an unfailing source of wrongness, the less we can perceive whatever shards of rightness there might be in their stance. We give up some of our capacity to understand them and hence the world we inhabit.  

The year 2020 has confirmed some obvious things and taught us others that may not have been obvious. On the obvious side: no amount of logical reasoning, and no recitation of facts will bring two clans out of conflict. No hope or prayer for unity – or for the disappearance of the other clan – will bring two clans out of conflict. No leader loved by one clan alone will bring two clans out of conflict, and it is nearly impossible that a leader could be loved by both. On the less obvious side: no natural disaster will turn disharmony into cooperation, no global pandemic will awaken lost kinship.

The way out of this dilemma is beyond our scope here, but I am sure that the only way out involves a reduction of clannishness. The next time you find yourself in a long conversation where everyone agrees on most every point, consider how your group could engage with someone who disagrees. The next time you find yourself on the Internet scrolling through post after post that awakens your deepest fears, consider logging off the Internet. In anything you do, try to notice whether it increases or decreases your attachment to clan. Vote. Vote like your country depends on it. But once you’ve done that, try to make friends with someone who voted a different way. I don’t have the answer to the country’s problems here, but it can’t hurt to remember that the stars that we see when we look into the night sky are the same stars, and most everyone finds them beautiful. ■

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