There is one contender in the Democratic presidential race who made a recent statement that struck me as important. I do not support his candidacy, nor am I suggesting that his manifesto is deserving of better reception by American voters. That is not the purview here – the statement [shown below] rather serves as an introduction to the theme I will be covering in this last post of this series.
“Let’s stop tearing each other down, let’s stop drawing artificial lines. I’m tired in this election of hearing some people say, ‘Well if this person gets elected, I can’t support them,’ and then other people say, ‘If this person gets elected, I can’t support them.’ Are you kidding me?” – Cory Booker
What Cory said pertains to political discourse, but that’s not the only discourse that has become prone to such polarization. Having grown up in Pakistan, I noticed that a political take on the United States often diverges from the Republican view [which is seen as antagonistic to our country]. However, back in 2011-2012, I had the remarkable opportunity of going on an exchange program where I spent a year with an American conservative family. My host brother John, whom I first met at school before moving into his room, held strong libertarian views about government and society.
Almost seven and a half years later, this personal experience makes me realize the value of learning how to [a] understand perspectives that differ from your own, and [b] factor in this understanding to make yourself a more nuanced person who does not strike down other people for what they have to say. It would suffice to say that we should all be worried about a crisis of not listening, except when residing comfortably inside our filter bubbles made up of homophily & our own narcissism. A term from the literature which encapsulates this tendency well is echo chambers; we shout, and we want to hear people shout back the same things we said (Andreassen et al., 2017; Colleoni et al., 2014).
A prime consideration in the context of political discourse, which I’m focusing on for this post, is the relocation of debate from interpersonal to digital means. The Pew Research Center has previously measured that 62% of U.S. adults rely on social media platforms as a source of news (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016). In their study of homophily on Twitter, Colleoni et al. found that usage of the platform revealed different styles of denoting political leanings for Republicans & Democrats – but both had high levels of homophily [0.94 and 0.88, respectively] (2017, pp. 326-327). Such reinforcement can not just inhibit, but rather eradicate, the possibility of opposing perspectives to be heard. Does such polarized political discourse percolate into what we see on our TVs, or rather generally in real life? That’s a question we definitely need to be asking ourselves.
I conclude by touching upon a couple of considerations that may be construed as either causes or implications of polarization at large. The first is that the design of platforms, for example Twitter [a micro-blogging site with a character limit of 140 per tweet], may be exacerbating the problem at hand by encouraging and [because of the scale] normalizing simple, impulsive and uncivil speech (Ott, 2017). And the second is whether the positive association between higher use of social media and higher levels of narcissism (Andreassen et al., 2014) further compounds the likelihood that we continue to reside in our bubbles. Food for thought, perhaps?