Fixing the Depolarization Movement

If we exclude the Civil War, Suffrage Movement, Vietnam War, Red Scare, Jim Crow, and myriad other conflicts, we might be tempted to note that as a nation, we’re more divided than ever.

While polarization is nothing new, today we’re facing considerable appeals to address a still significant and growing problem. Today’s depolarization movement calls for reviving civility, healing wounds, increasing empathy, and preventing secession. It is well-intentioned, of course, but it’s focused on the wrong issue in the incorrect manner. I offer this critique to my colleagues and partners in good faith: The depolarization movement is plagued with naivety, paradoxy, and a demand for uniformity. Sadly, it not only misses the mark, but likely exacerbates the problem it intends to solve.

To begin with the obvious, the movement seems to value centrist and moderate politics over what they regard as “extreme” positions. It’s often implied that “extremists” are uniquely a result of brainwashing, ideology or pathology — as though the only way a person could believe that is if they’ve been programmed, indoctrinated, or suffer from some illness of mind. In this way, they regard their own position as superior to the savage others. Which, of course, so does everyone else.

But we need to recognize that extremism is relative. The word doesn’t indicate a fixed ideological or political position, but merely distance between people on either side of an issue. Although it isn’t difficult to find something wrong with an extreme position, the fault is not that the position is extreme. American Anabaptists such as the Amish and Mennonite, for example, are clearly extremists in this sense, and are intolerable insofar as extremism is a problem.

Another issue with the depolarization movement is that their locus of concern is arbitrarily at the level of the American Nation, as though because 330 million people share a system of government, they must be prevented from disagreeing too much. But if you’re from West Virginia, a Californian might as well be a Canadian (and vice versa). Different American regions are practically foreign nations, with different values, culture, and practices.

And yet, in a piece titled “Hold America Together,” Braver Angels president David Blankenhorn’s concern remains at the national level, writing that we must heal America and “help our country in its time of need.” We see a similar appeal from the One America Movement, which advocates for the “millions of Americans [who] want a stronger, more united country.” But why does the depolarization movement focus so much on the nation, and not the neighborhood, continent, or world? Difference seems to be tolerable across some borders but not others.

Indeed, the core problem of the current depolarization movement is the demand for national uniformity. While depolarization organizations are ostensibly concerned with toleration, they impose a narrow window of acceptable difference. With vague and alarming words such as “toxic” and “extreme,” they demarcate the bounds of acceptable difference: We ought to be accepting and tolerant of all ideas and lifestyles so long as we’re all moderate Americans at the end of the day. When the apparent problem is with these “toxic” extremes, the implicit solution is to bring the extremes back towards the moderate center. Which, unfortunately, is to make the nation more uniform and less politically and culturally diverse. Ironically, this is deeply illiberal as well as intolerant of those who wish to live away from the mainstream.

But this illiberal contradiction is not the only inconsistency within the movement. The first major paradox is a social one: Trying to depolarize through national unity raises the stakes of the center, creating a “king of the hill” political environment, which increases mutual animosity. “If there can be only one winner,” the thinking goes, “we’re really going to have to fight.” The path to consensus is more likely to be conquest than compromise.

The second is a psychological paradox: By focusing our attention towards those we disagree with, we care more about their actions and beliefs, which, being very different from our own, makes them stand out as moral violators — people we don’t like. As the poet Wendell Berry wrote, “If you care what they think, how will you not hate them, and so become a monster of the opposite kind?”

Polarization is not the problem. Social animosity is the problem. That is, it’s not an issue that Protestants and Catholics have significant social and doctrinal disagreements. The problem is when they start bombing each other. It is when we start conceiving others as part of our moral universe that we become more prone to violence and coercion.

Contrary to some organizations' concerns with “affective” polarization, dislike of another’s actions or beliefs does not necessarily constitute intolerance. In fact, it’s indicative of one's own moral framework, as having a value requires disdain of its violations. If we don’t get upset when our values and morality are violated, then we don’t have values or morality at all. And so while the depolarization movement is worried about dislike, it should be more concerned with real-world violence and coercion, and understanding what predicates it.

And what often predicates real world violence is raising the stakes of the center, fearfully obsessing over difference, and demanding uniformity.

The solution for social animosity is something like apathy: the benevolent, respectful disengagement on fundamental disagreements. This is not a strategy of involved, concerning love, but a strategy of disregard and forgiveness — turning the ‘ugh’ into a shrug. Or as Berry writes, “Forgiven, they go free of you, and you of them.”

The well-intentioned depolarization movement is attempting to correct fundamental difference with a monistic framework. While I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for Braver Angels and others in the movement, division does not always require sutures. We should instead be attempting to mitigate social animosity by understanding and tolerating difference with a pluralistic framework.

Pluralism — the idea that there’s more than one way to live the good life, that difference is not a problem, and that my way of life does not necessarily invalidate yours — is the path towards more peaceful societies. We must permit difference, try to forgive those we disagree with, and direct our focus not up towards a unified, monocultural nation, but down towards a multiplicity of lifestyles, cultures, and moralities.

“You must not think of them again, except as monsters like yourself, pitiable because unforgiving.” — Wendell Berry, 1997

Originally published on Blogchain.