CENTRAL OREGONIAN OPINION: We are not as divided as we're led to believe
Have you heard? This country is more polarized than it has ever been. We are more politically divided than any point in our history. Civil discourse is dead and replaced with toxic internet exchanges and opinion-driven hot-take media. Conservatives and liberals are no longer willing nor able to find common ground â€“ they probably don't even want to agree on anything.
But maybe that isn't as true as it seems. Perhaps this division, this polarization from which we seemingly have no escape is not as real as the spin doctors would have us believe. What if we aren't that much different and mass media and social media platforms are stirring the pot while they laugh all the way to the bank?
It's not as farfetched as you might think. Consider for a moment those conversations that many of us have in small group settings â€“ maybe a handful of people or even one-on-one. Perhaps an issue is raised â€“ let's say for instance that someone brings up the pandemic and bemoans the ongoing need to mask up or avoid enjoyable events with large crowds. Do they get shouted down by another person who is more supportive of the health safety measures? Do they single out that person with demeaning labels or utter disdain? Do they get attacked? Probably not. Instead, a person with a different viewpoint would remain civil â€“ after all, they are a fellow community member, or an acquaintance or even a friend â€“ and give their point of view, backed by well-reasoned facts and personal experiences. People involved in the conversation would know that everyone has the same basic goal â€“ they are tired of living through a pandemic and want the darn thing to go away. They just see different ways to get there.
Not only do cooler heads tend to prevail in these settings, people are more likely to encounter the gray shades of nuance that don't often emerge in large group settings. Politically charged television shows, social media memes and other large groups will often paint a large issue in black or white, good or evil terms. On one side, people say gun control is the only way to stop mass shootings, and on the other side, they say gun control is an infringement on our rights and will not stop shootings. The focus should be on mental health.
But is that issue or any other politically charged issue really that simple? Are there only two options for something so complex? Of course not, but depending on your chosen cable news channel or content from larger groups, the black and white options are the only ones discussed. And as a result, people believe they are far apart â€“ you either support gun control or you don't â€“ when in reality, people have personal views that might land somewhere in between. Perhaps someone loves to hunt or visit the shooting range and doesn't want to lose access to their firearms or ammunition. But that same person might concede there are certain weapons that members of the general public should not possess. Or maybe a gun control advocate would concede that hunters should not face an overly cumbersome process to enjoy a hobby.
Instead of saying, "I'm right and you're wrong," people find themselves saying, "I understand your point, but…" See the difference?
We are not as polarized as it seems. We each have our opinions, our political views and our core values that we hold dear, but we have not lost the ability to have civil debates. We haven't forgotten how to disagree and not disown. Instead, we are falling victim to a mob mentality machine. Fox News, CNN, Facebook and Twitter and others did not grow into the juggernauts they have become because they presented nuanced, measured points of view on complex issues. They exploded because they pull people into one camp or the other â€“ black or white, good or bad, right or wrong.
Politicians feed the same machine. Gone are the days when elected officials could be trusted to seek common ground and focus on getting good work done. Many now oversimplify complex issues and embrace the polarizing media environment to improve standing within their political parties and gain more votes. Instead of bringing people in this country together, they play a role in pushing people apart, while blaming the division on their political rivals.
Don't believe the hype. We are more alike than it seems. Take the time to talk with people and find out what they really believe and why they feel the way they do. With all the forces pushing us apart, we need it now more than ever.
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