206. Reducing polarization, demonization, and the lack of civility in America, part 1

In his inaugural speech (read it here) on November 7, 2020 President Biden stated, “It’s time for America to unite. And to heal.” And throughout his speech he made various calls to unity such as “I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify, “To make America respected around the world again and to unite us here at home,” and “A nation united.” These calls were well-received by many who watched or heard his speech as this poll shows:

But there was a subsequent deluge of criticism marked by headlines such as “Biden’s call for unity: a pipe dream” (Baltimore Sun), “Democrats’ hypocrisy is clear with call for unity” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), “Talk of “Unity” Is Both Hypocritical and Delusional” (Mises Institute), and “The Divisive Double Standard in Joe Biden’s ‘Unity’ Speech” (Newsweek). Many of these claims, and plenty others like them, came from republicans. Democrats responded accordingly: “Republicans Want Impunity, Not Unity” (The New Republic), “So now Republicans want to heal? Seriously?” (The Day), “Republicans meet violent insurrection with calls for unity instead of punishment for Trump” (The Boston Globe), and “How can Biden heal America when Trump doesn’t want it healed?” (The Guardian).

But what is so problematic about Biden’s calls to unity? To answer this question we need to understand what he means by unity and, unfortunately, there is no one, straightforward meaning to be found in the speech. However, I think his claims can be roughly organized into three categories:

(1) The first is calling for unity of purpose that will come from fighting our “common enemies” such as

  • COVID-19
  • Unemployment
  • Systemic racism
  • Attacks on our democracy 
  • Attacks on the truth
  • Growing inequity
  • A climate in crisis
  • Lack of healthcare
  • Lawlessness
  • Extremism

(2) The second is calling for unity by focusing on “common objects of our love” such as

  • Opportunity
  • Security 
  • Dignity 
  • Respect 
  • Honor
  • Truth

(3) And the third is calling for unity through actions such as

  • Seeing others as neighbors 
  • Treating others with dignity  
  • Being more tolerant
  • Being more civil
  • Being sympathetic 
  • Showing some humility

At first glance the points in the first two categories may not seem controversial. But they are: many on the right see those on the left as lawless extremists whose ideas, proposals, and actions regarding COVID-19, unemployment, healthcare, racism, and global warming are false and capable of undermining their conceptions of democracy, truth, security, opportunity, and personal/national dignity, respect, and honor. Many think the invitation to be unified is really nothing more than an insulting invitation to embrace positions with which they whole-heartedly disagree.

And, of course, many on the left will accuse those on the right of the same thing. As result, the hope to have unity through the actions listed in the third category is undermined. After all, it is hard to be tolerant, civil, sympathetic, and neighborly towards those you think are undermining what you take to be the good life and the means to securing it.

Now, you might think that these descriptions, while applicable to some extremists, are inapplicable to most people. After all, Americans have always been divided on important issues and have been able to work together in the past. But research is showing that civility, sympathy, and tolerance is indeed being undermined due to a relatively recent and disturbing fact: an increasing number of people see those with whom they disagree as immoral, ignorant, untrustworthy, unpatriotic, fanatical, close minded, evil, and so on. For example, here is a Pew Research Center study that shows a significant rise in “partisan antipathy” since 2016:

Here is another Pew poll that shows an increasing number of people seeing members of the opposite party as close-minded, immoral, lazy, and unintelligent:

And in an important article entitled “Political Sectarianism in America” (Science, Vol. 370, October 2020; go here for the issue) we read: “For decades, scholars have studied polarization as an ideological matter—how strongly Democrats and Republicans diverge vis-à-vis political ideals and policy goals. Such competition among groups in the marketplace of ideas is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. But more recently, researchers have identified a second type of polarization, one focusing less on triumphs of ideas than on dominating the abhorrent supporters of the opposing party.”

But why are these facts so disturbing? Well, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his book On Liberty (1859), claimed

“The worst offence…which can be committed by a polemic [an intense verbal or written attack on someone’s ideas] is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.”    

Here we see Mill rightly prescribing that we avoid fallacious or irrational ad hominem (“against the man”) attacks which attack the person arguing rather than his or her argument. In particular, we should try and avoid poisoning the well which occurs when someone attacks a person in order to cast doubt on their contributions in general (“don’t listen to him at all, he is crazy.”). Mill claims that many things in our heated exchanges with others – for example, the misrepresenting of people’s views, lack of facts, emphasis on inflammatory rhetoric, and so on – are problematic but practically unavoidable. But we must do everything we can to avoid claiming those with whom we disagree are bad people. For once we do that, we undermine all efforts at shared inquiry that might help us forge new forms of unity, gain new truths, break out of political deadlock, and so on.

John Stuart Mill

But Americans are committing Mill’s “worst offense” more and more. But why? How did we get to this culture of character assassinations? Obviously, there are multiple and complex causes at work and I don’t presume to offer a convincing account. But here is just a sketch of what I take to be a very plausible and well-received explanation among philosophers and political scientists:

(1) Our culture has become more and more widely politicized: food, coffee, cars, music, clothes, religion, education, sports, stores, and so on signal political allegiances and ways of life (a good account of how this came to be is given by Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort; for a helpful video overview, go here).

(2) To feel at home amongst this ubiquitous signaling of our allegiances, people seek out and select, both on and off line, like-minded groups which leads to the well-known and verified psychological phenomenon called group polarization or the tendency of people to adopt more extreme versions of their beliefs after discussion in like-minded groups (a good account of this process in the context of modern politics is given by Cass Sunstein in his book Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide; for a short video of Sunstein explaining his ideas go here).

(3) People with extreme views accordingly exaggerate their opponent’s views and demonize them as immoral extremists not deserving of an equal say in our democracy.

(4) This then facilitates political deadlock in the government and an uncivil culture full of hatred.

And, of course, once we reach (4) then we return to (1) but with more intensity: the lack of civility facilitates even more hyper politicization which intensifies an already vicious cycle that threatens the integrity of our personal, local, state, and national relationships.

What can be done about this cycle which appears to be undermining our efforts to cultivate various forms of unity? How can we reduce some of the polarization, demonization, and the lack of civility in America? Well, a quick search of the web reveals many economic, political, educational, and religious prescriptions. But they are often quite controversial and presuppose we can have dialogue and debate about certain issues in order to make progress. But this is something we cannot assume – indeed, widespread communication breakdown is exactly the issue that needs to be addressed. So in the next post I will offer three philosophical strategies that might help us regain the capacity to have dialogue with each other. The hope is that, once this capacity is regained to an extent, some of the pressing issues we face can at least be genuinely discussed with some mutual good will.

Please go here for part 2.

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