A Theory About Political Divisiveness

It is an exceptionally divisive time globally, but especially in the United States, where there are many conflicting ideas about which direction the country should head in. Yet, concerningly, few people are willing to open their minds to these opposing ideas. It would seem that part of the solution should be opening dialogue, but political echo chambers are becoming increasingly common as interest in debate is waning. Even when discussions do take place, they rarely address any of the fundamental ideas and assumptions that political philosophies are built from.

A post related to this topic came up recently on /r/ChangeMyView, and it generated a lot of debate. But there was one popular viewpoint in particular that I was concerned to see–the idea that it is appropriate to perceive political opposition as enemies for promoting policies you consider harmful.

I fear this position is ultimately dehumanizing as it assumes malice when most people, regardless of the party they affiliate with, genuinely want society to improve and for people’s lives to be better. Of course there is a lot of disagreement about how to do that, and about what ideals should be focused upon, but if we assume our opposition is hateful or vengeful, it becomes extremely difficult to have conversations and change minds. This position also assumes that they do not have rationale for their beliefs, and therefore cannot be reasoned with. But without reasoning, productive discussion becomes impossible. So if meaningful conversation is desired, it is necessary to take a more considerate approach.

By humanizing others in debate, it becomes easier to understand arguments and why they are made. Sometimes they are based on facts or valid philosophies, other times they are based on misinformation or false assumptions. Regardless of how the reasoning is arrived at, just being aware of the argument helps significantly in understanding alternate viewpoints. This information can be used to strengthen your own ideas and add nuance to your views. Taking a considerate approach to discussion also diminishes the chances of defensive responses, which results in more civil discussion where emphasis is placed on considering new ideas rather than being accurate.

But what is causing this defensive approach to be so pervasive? And what, if anything, can be done about it? I’ve given it some consideration because of the recent conversation I had on the related /r/ChangeMyView post, and while I don’t necessarily have the answer, I do have a theory:

I believe this damaging approach to discussion partially stems from individualism, which is pervasive within American society, government, culture, and history. It is a highly independent ideology that opposes external interference, instead prioritizing “live and let live” and “agree to disagree” attitudes. The resulting society is one that prefers to ignore opposing viewpoints instead of embracing or addressing them. In cases when discourse happens (especially publicly) it is typical for each party to be more concerned with winning shallow arguments than discussing or considering fundamental concepts.

All major political parties are guilty of this defensive behavior to some extent, and it has resulted in politically interested citizens who are unsure of where they stand philosophically, and who are unaware of the philosophies of other political parties. This lack of understanding, mixed with America’s individualistic attitudes, has led many to assume that opposing parties must be ill-intentioned, which has caused resentment toward differing political ideologies and a genuine disinterest in understanding them. So the resulting debates are centered around policy-based arguments instead of the philosophical foundations of those policies. Put simply, we are skipping straight to debating about what we want for the country before fully understanding why.

Fortunately, we can improve the situation substantially by approaching politics from the opposite direction. That is, by first considering philosophies and then extrapolating them into practical policy. To illustrate this process, we can look at two sides of a philosophical question that is particularly important in American politics: Does free will exist?

Some claim that it does, assuming and asserting that a divine creator is responsible for this free will and that faith should be put in said creator. Others, known as determinists, argue that free will does not exist, assuming and asserting that our scientific understanding, which currently leaves no room for metaphysical will, is accurate and that faith should be put in it regardless of whether or not there is a divine creator.

For most, these ideas (Free Will vs. Determinism) are considered genuinely incompatible, so a vast majority will fall on one side or the other. And the implications are radically different depending on which view is taken. For example, a believer in free will might argue that bad circumstances can be overcome through one’s agency, and that an individual has the ultimate power in determining the outcome of their life. This leads to the idea that good people will make good choices which will tend toward good outcomes. Because of this, the concept of having the liberty to choose is very important for those that believe in free will. This way of thinking prioritizes individuals over society, often leading to advocates of decreased taxes, regulations, and government. Conversely, determinists might argue that the circumstances of one’s life are causal, so the outcome of one’s life can potentially be accounted for. This leads to the idea that social programs can be a powerful tool in improving lives. So as a philosophy it tends to prioritize society over individuals, leading to advocates of increased taxes, regulations, and government.

All of these ideas and their corresponding policy positions can be abstracted just from understanding which side of a single philosophical question one stands on. And there are many other philosophical questions like this one, all with major policy implications. That is why political discussions should be centered around discussing them. But in order to adopt this approach, an open and curious mind is needed. The aim isn’t necessarily to compromise, but to arrive at informed stances with a receptive attitude. Find out where you stand and remain flexible in the views you hold. Make educated assumptions, and then challenge those assumptions. By taking this approach it becomes much easier to understand and embrace differing viewpoints and subjective ideas. Arguments become discussions where it’s no longer about being right or winning, but instead about learning and growing. If there is hope for a less divided society, and I believe there is, being willing to change your view is an important first step.

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