Understanding our polarization and how to view media

I didn’t intend to immediately write another post about the media following my last one, but the disdain I continue to see people fling at it convinced me otherwise. I think there’s more to say about how to understand what the media is and how to smartly sift through it. But before getting to that, we also need a better understanding of ourselves.

We all readily recognize that we have become more polarized overall as a country, but we don’t really understand why, and subsequently we don’t understand how the media responds to our polarization out of necessity and in doing so feeds into and increases that polarization. I’m going to quote at length portions of Ezra Klein’s book “Why We’re Polarized” because it’s quite prescient and applicable to much of our misunderstanding of ourselves and media. Really you should just read his book, but some of the relevant high points follow.

I’ve said this many times in many places, but I need to keep saying it because either it isn’t getting through or people aren’t reading me (or both) – we keep placing our identities in the wrong things. Whatever things we attach our identity to become objects of fierce protection on our part, even fierce subconscious protection. Latching on to some form of a political identity is a prime example:

“We are so locked into our political identities that there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition, that can force us to change our minds. We will justify almost anything or anyone so long as it helps our side, and the result is a politics devoid of guardrails, standards, persuasion, or accountability.”

Yeah, sounds about right.

“A core argument of this book is that everyone engaged in American politics is engaged in identity politics. This is not an insult, and it’s not controversial: we form and fold identities constantly, naturally…There is no way to read the literature on how humans form and protect their personal and group identities…and believe any of us is immune. It runs so deep in our psyches, is activated so easily by even weak cues and distant threats, that it is impossible to speak seriously about how we engage with one another without discussing how our identities shape that engagement.

“…The most powerful identities in modern politics are our political identities, which have come, in recent decades, to encompass and amplify a range of other central identities as well. Over the past fifty years, our partisan identities have merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities. Those merged identities have attained a weight that is breaking our institutions and tearing at the bonds that hold this country together.”

Bingo. We have enmeshed our political “identities” so thoroughly with every other way we identify ourselves that we’re no longer able to separate it. That’s why talking to so many people about politics is like talking to a brick wall – we just aren’t able to process information that runs contrary to our own opinions because we’ve so completely internalized a form of politics as part of “who I am.” And most of this is subconscious.

A prime example? A generation ago, the discovery of tapes proving Republican President Richard Nixon was complicit in Watergate immediately led to his fellow Republicans calling for and supporting his stepping down from the presidency. It was a time when partisanship was vastly removed from more important aspects of how we identified ourselves.

In contrast, literally a handful of days ago, one of the exact same journalists who broke the Watergate scandal produced tapes of Donald Trump plainly stating he understood how deadly the coronavirus was in early February and not only did not immediately act to enforce a strict shutdown, encourage wearing masks and social distancing, and enact the Defense Production Act to distribute desperately short medical supplies, but did the exact opposite – assured the nation there was no real threat, everything would be fine, go about life as normal, because he “didn’t want to create a panic.” Regardless of his actual intentions, this was a criminal dereliction of leadership duties that has literally resulted in the deaths of thousands upon thousands (potentially hundreds of thousands) more people than would be the case had he promptly and strongly led the nation courageously like any other president has in the face of a crisis (and no, the death numbers are not inflated according to multiple sources). The Republican response? Silence.

Partisanship is killing us. Our inability to set aside our political beliefs – to realize they aren’t truly part of our core identity and are something that can be renounced within certain situations – is killing us.

And our political beliefs are shaped by forces other than ideas, as Klein notes when quoting Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler from “Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide”:

“‘Of the many factors that make up your worldview, one is more fundamental than any other in determining which side of the divide you gravitate toward: your perception of how dangerous the world is. Fear is perhaps our most primal instinct, after all, so it’s only logical that people’s level of fearfulness informs their outlook on life.’

“Different studies categorize people in different ways, but the common thread is that openness to experience – and the basic optimism that drives it – is associated with liberalism, while conscientiousness, a preference for order and tradition that breeds a skepticism toward disruptive change, connects to conservatism.”

Fear is something else I’ve written about ad nauseam over the years, but again something we just aren’t appreciating – particularly for those of us with a conservative bent, much of our thought is absolutely controlled by subconscious fear. And that is a bad thing, because, even as Master Yoda pointed out, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Which is not to say that every single conservative has a fear problem, but I bet most of us do.

Many conservative concerns, when you drill down to the roots, come from fear: the fear of losing religious liberties; the fear of being told what to do by the government; the fear of what immigration will do to our culture or our jobs; the fear of what rapid cultural change will mean to our own values. If Christian conservatives put their money where their mouth is and fully trusted God, then the fear would disappear – would we then be able to focus more on our true identity in Christ? And let our political “identity” go? But we clutch at our feelings, including fear, because while we like to think we’re rational creatures, the truth is we’re often slaves to our emotions.

“The post-Enlightenment view of humanity is that we are rational individuals whose actions may be inflamed by instinct but are ultimately governed by calculation. But what if it was the other way around? What if our loyalties and prejudices are governed by instinct and merely rationalized as calculation?

“…the instinct to view our own with favor and outsiders with hostility is so deeply learned that it operates independent of any reason to treat social relations as a competition. We do not need to hate or fear members of an out-group to turn on them. We do not need to have anything material to gain by turning on them. Once we have classified them as, well, ‘them,’ that is enough – we will find ourselves inclined to treat them skeptically, even hostilely, because that is what we are used to doing with anyone we see as a ‘them.’

“…we [are] so tuned to sort the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ that we…do so based on the lightest of cues…once we [have] sorted the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ we…act with favor toward our group and discriminate against the out-group – even in the absence of any reason to do so.”

This is undeniably true, even among the best of us. Recognizing it allows us to limit the negative impacts our group sorting tendencies will have. My foundational identity is as a Christian, and by consciously understanding that this means at least in part that I will unintentionally group people according to “fellow Christian” and “non-Christian,” it means I can work toward not allowing prejudices to form inside me regarding non-Christians.

As a further example, the people in my church are largely very loving and good. Even still, I’ve been made uncomfortable by the tone I sense among several when talking about liberals (both theologically and politically) because it feels like there is still quite a bit of that subconscious prejudice at work. We can still disagree with people – as I often do with liberal theologians – and talk about them in ways that don’t drip with (or even have subtle) disdain and contempt; and that is what we have to do, eradicate that disdain and contempt, which we do by recognizing their subconscious presence.

We’re also allowing our political “identity” to contaminate all aspects of our lives:

“Football fandom used to be an identity that cut across politics. Democrats liked the sport. Republicans liked the sport…But when the NFL came into contact with politics, it became part of politics. Rather than a shared love of football pulling our political identities toward compromise, our political identities polarized our love of football…”

I can’t tell you how many memes I see conservative friends post on social media railing against professional athletes and their political stances, and the thought I keep coming back to is: why the hell do you care so much? It’s for the exact reason Klein notes above: they’re letting their political “identity” polarize how they view sports. Which makes no sense to me, because I’m fine with people expressing whatever their beliefs are and, maybe if I’m doing this thing right, my political “identity” isn’t wrapped up in every single aspect of my life, so I’m not offended at the drop of a hat.

Another myth we like to buy into in America is that we are our own person, yet one more thing I’ve written about before (there’s a theme here – if you’ve been reading me consistently, you’d be a more balanced person; I’m good for your mental and spiritual health) – worshiping at the altar of the individual. It’s even entered into our churches – we centralize the need to have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” which is interesting because that’s not something ever talked about in scripture or taught throughout Church tradition. That’s because the idea of having something completely by yourself and not in connection with a group of people – either family, friends, town, or church community – didn’t exist until, arguably, around the time of the Protestant Reformation. Maybe we ought to begin reorienting how we, too, think about such things, because turns out it’s not true that you can think and exist outside of a community, even if that community only exists with those you would associate with in your mind.

“‘The central flaw in the concept of reason that animated the eighteenth-century Enlightenment is that it is entirely individualistic,’ writes philosopher Joseph Heath. But decades of research has proven that ‘reason is both decentralized and dispersed across multiple individuals. It is not possible to be rational all by yourself; rationality is inherently a collective project.’

“…Perhaps humans reason for purposes other than finding the truth – purposes like increasing their standing in their community or ensuring they don’t find themselves exiled by the leaders of their tribe.

“…if our search is motivated by aims other than accuracy, more information can mislead us – or, more precisely, help us mislead ourselves. There’s a difference between searching for the best evidence and searching for the best evidence that proves us right.

“…[Yale law professor Dan] Kahan calls this theory ‘identity-protective cognition’: ‘As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.’ Elsewhere, he puts it even more pithily: ‘What we believe about the facts,’ he writes, ‘tells us who we are.’ And the most important psychological imperative most of us have in a given day is protecting our idea of who we are and our relationships with the people we trust and love. Anyone who has ever found themselves in an angry argument with their political or social circle will know how threatening it feels.”

Exactly. We too often interpret information through the walls we’ve built up to protect our beliefs and keep us in lock-step with our chosen communities instead of doing our best to let the information speak to us and guide us to the truest answers independent of our biases. This is particularly important within our current social context:

[Yale law professor Amy Chua writes] “‘Today, no group in America feels comfortably dominant. Every group feels attacked, pitted against other groups not just for jobs and spoils but for the right to define the nation’s identity. In these conditions, democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition – pure political tribalism.’

“…cultural power runs a decade or more ahead of demography, with brands and television networks chasing younger, more urban, more diverse consumers…But most people live in the culture rather than profiting from it, and they experience the changing mores reflected in ads and movie casts as a shift in power that either excites or unnerves them. The result is that the Left feels a cultural and demographic power that it can only occasionally translate into political power, and the Right wields political power but feels increasingly dismissed and offended culturally.”

Now, how do we fit the media into this paradigm? To understand why the media is the way it is, you have to track with our changes in society. In the early and mid-Twentieth Century, media fit into limited forms in our more-highly structured lives: it was confined to print, which costs money to produce, and to specific time slots on radio and television. As a result, there were far fewer media organizations whose target audience was, well, every single human – print forms would want to maximize profit by appealing to as many people as possible, and broadcast forms would likewise be motivated to be relevant and attractive to all people routinely tuning in to the afternoon or evening segments. Consequently, media targeted a broad audience with its message, and thus was driven to take a big tent approach that was as neutral as possible so as to not offend anyone.

Jump to today. The Internet, cable, and streaming services have utterly revolutionized everything about the culture we consume. No longer are we limited to just newspaper and magazine print or a few TV networks and radio stations broadcasting: print and networks are fighting obsolescence by the sheer magnitude of entertainment and information sources and options available – not at set times of the day – but 24/7, at our demand, when we want it, where we want it. This very blog is something that couldn’t have existed 30 years ago – if I’d wanted to get my written opinions out, I either would have had to write and mail a print newsletter to a select group of people or been an opinion writer for a newspaper or magazine. Now, for free, I can write whatever I want and potentially disseminate my ideas to as many people who have Internet access as I successfully can. And this opportunity is, of course, open to absolutely anyone who is interested in doing the same thing.

So now, appealing to a general and broad audience does media absolutely no good, because our current environment is one where all broadcasters are fighting for our attention. When there are so many options available for entertainment and for acquiring information, you have to have something special about your approach to get people to pay attention to you so that you can make money to run your organization.

“We talk a lot about the left-right polarization in the political news. We don’t talk enough about the divide that precedes it: the chasm separating the interested from the uninterested…The competition for audience, and the threat to journalistic business models, has become much more intense…And all of this has changed both how political news is produced and how it’s consumed.

“In an age of choice, political journalism is a business that serves people interested in political news and that tries to create more people interested in political news.

“…If the strategy of the monopolistic business model was to be enough things to all people, the strategy of the digital business model is to be the most appealing thing to some people. So the question becomes: What makes people interested in political news? It’s that they are rooting for a side, for a set of outcomes.

“…In today’s media sphere, where the explosion of choices has made it possible to get the political media you really want, it’s expressed itself in polarized media that attaches to political identity, conflict, and celebrity. That is to say, it expresses itself in journalism and commentary that is more directly about the question of why your side should win and the other side should lose.”

The unfortunate side effect of our present situation, though, is “…the more interested in politics people [are], the more political media they [consume], the more mistaken they [are] about the other party…This is a damning result: the more political media you consume, the more warped your perspective of the other side becomes. But it makes sense if you think about the incentives driving media outlets. Fox News doesn’t get Facebook shares by reporting on some banal comments made by Bob Casey, the understated Democratic senator from Pennsylvania. It focuses on Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, a liberal, confrontational Muslim American who wears a hijab and speaks with a soft, Somalian accent. Similar dynamics hold on MSNBC and, honestly, everywhere in the media.

“…The old line on local reporting was: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ For political reporting, the principle is: ‘If it outrages, it leads.’ And outrage is deeply connected to identity – we are outraged when members of other groups threaten our group and violate our values. As such, polarized media doesn’t emphasize commonalities, it weaponizes differences; it doesn’t focus on the best of the other side, it threatens you with the worst.”

Despite this, the media shouldn’t be belittled like it often is – it’s just adapting to the times, trying to make an honest buck like it always has. Unfortunately, by doing so, it also is complicit in reinforcing our polarization. So what can we do?

This is where my previous post comes into play, and perhaps you should refer back to it. There are still media sources (the AP, Reuters, NPR, and a handful like them) that do a pretty darn good job of remaining neutral despite all this cultural and economic change. And on top of that, we need to understand that just because a news agency may be biased, it doesn’t mean that they are lying – showing a bias and lying are two incredibly distinct things that our current president and his war on “fake news” confuses because it serves his purposes to make you think the opposite.

Facts are still facts, and even biased reporting from a reputable news source provides accurate facts. That hasn’t changed. Unless they’ve made a rare mistake, a fact reported by MSNBC; reported by Fox; reported by CNN; reported by the Wall Street Journal is still a bare fact. But, of course, facts don’t just exist in a vacuum: they only mean something when we interpret them within a context, and it’s that – the context in which the facts are presented – that a biased media presentation can distort.

Case in point. I had a face-to-face political conversation with someone the other day that upset me a whole lot. I wasn’t upset that we disagreed, but that the guy I was talking to had fundamental misunderstandings about what we’ve been discussing here: how to understand facts and context. Because he misunderstood those things, he misinterpreted facts and concluded they meant the complete opposite of what they actually mean.

Start out with a fact. He was making an argument about how President Trump is better than President Obama, and one of the points he chose to support that argument with is that Trump works a lot harder at his job than Obama did. I laughed at that (not the most courteous move on my part, but, I mean, of all the arguments to choose to support that premise, sheesh…) and said something along the lines of, “That’s interesting considering how much more time Trump spends golfing than Obama did, something he used to routinely criticize Obama about.”

To which he showed genuine surprise. “No he doesn’t. Where did you get that idea?”

“Um…through the plain fact that he has spent more hours and days golfing during his presidency than Obama did through his own.”

Where did that data come from? he asked. Through any news agency, you name it, I said. I pulled out my smart phone and searched in Google. The first hit I found I listed as CNN, to which the immediate response was “fake news” (once more, for the love of God: a fact is never fake news, it either happened or it didn’t, and none of the news agencies – from CNN to Fox to MSNBC to OAN – routinely report untrue facts; what they may be guilty of is ignoring truly important news stories or spinning facts to create a false narrative, but more on that soon), then I listed several others including Business Insider, a conservative-leaning magazine.

The data according to what Business Insider reported as of July 2020: Trump has spent approximately 266 days of his presidency at one of his golf clubs compared to 98 days by Obama in his first term (if you don’t believe me, see for yourself).

OK, well, then. Now an example of a true fact being taken out of context. His retort to that was, “Well, even [Nancy] Pelosi said he works too hard and needs to get more sleep.”

I said something along the lines of “What in God’s name are you talking about?” At which point we both turned to our smart phones and Google once more.

Turns out he was mostly correct about a fact, but not entirely: indeed, in 2017 during an episode of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Pelosi stated she told the president, “What I have advised him to do – go to sleep. Bring yourself to a place where there’s synapses [that] are working. I think there’s something not – more sleep might be a solution for him.” The difference in this telling of the fact and with my cohort’s telling of it is that Pelosi made no mention of the sleep being needed in connection with the president’s work ethic.

The immediate context of what she said is that Trump called her at midnight to inform her of a missile launch into Syria. She was irritated by the hour of the call. “It was like midnight. It was well after it was all finished. He was going on and on. It was like midnight and I said, ‘Why don’t you get some sleep?’”

The broader context, of course, is the relationship between Trump and Pelosi, which is most politely put as one of mutual disdain. Added to that context is the notoriety Trump has gained for a flurry of late-night / early-morning Tweets he likes to send, and his own statements claiming he doesn’t sleep very much. Ergo, given this fuller context, the best way to understand Pelosi’s “advice” for Trump to get more sleep is as a personal dig akin to something like, “Maybe if you got some more sleep you wouldn’t be such an idiot.” At the absolute least, there’s zero reason to suspect Pelosi’s comments came from a legitimate place of concern for Trump because she thought he was working too hard.

Those are two personal examples of how we as people can misunderstand facts and how media could potentially report true facts within a context that changes the meaning of the facts away from the truth. So what can we do in response?

Personally, I don’t watch much television. I do find that oversaturating myself with too much of any one medium – no matter who that medium is – influences my thoughts way more than I’m comfortable. Maybe if we all collectively decided to ignore our most biased news agencies and focused our attention to the most neutral we would motivate with our dollars media’s return to increased neutrality. When I do listen to something, it’s usually NPR. They’re very slightly left-leaning, but not much, and overall one of the best in broadcast media.

My social media feeds are likewise geared towards attracting the interest of the most reputable and generally neutral organizations: I only “like” and “follow” groups like NPR, the Associated Press, Reuters, and Axios. The furthest afield I go are Vox, the Atlantic Monthly, and Dan Rather’s News and Guts – which indeed lean liberal – and the Wall Street Journal, which leans conservative. Otherwise, I ignore media, because by paying attention to the more extreme news sources, the algorithms that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms operate by will send biased news my way, and as I interact with that biased news, the algorithms will send increasingly more biased news to me, and if I interact with that, the loop gets increasingly more biased until I’m receiving “news” from groups like Communism Rox or Fascist Fanatics, which is the true fake news: organizations pretending to be news media but in reality are spewing legitimate lies and propaganda.

Lastly, when you read or hear a news story or hear gossip about something happening, check multiple news sources. Don’t rely on just one. Google is your friend in this regard: look up the topic and select from a variety of media reports to see how they’re each reporting things.

If we all work towards truly understanding where our actual identity lies; facing our biases and prejudices as we become aware of them; being open to listen to, empathize with, and learn from those who are different from and/or disagree with us; and do our best to stay away from extreme partisanship while supporting those who are most moderate and neutral in their reporting, then I believe slowly we will collectively begin to walk back from this precipice of division we’ve been speeding ever so closer to.

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