2012

7 March 2012: Opposing views don’t sit well with some

Opposing views don’t sit well with some

Final installment of a three-part series on the polarization of American political parties

In his interview with Bill Moyers, University of Virginia professor of social psychology Jonathan Haidt comes across as a cerebral type, not given to baseless claims or emotional outbursts. His research and analysis of it will be published this month in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Haidt’s premise for the reason our two main political parties have become polarized rests on three events or developments. I addressed the first two, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the replacement of the Greatest Generation by their children, the Baby Boomers, in my two previous columns.

Haidt’s third strand is the homogenization of our communities.

Since World War II, says Haidt, we have become “a nation of lifestyle enclaves, where people chose to self-segregate.”

The term “self-segregate” brings to mind racially segregated neighborhoods, which were fostered, thus imposed, in large part by realtors who manipulated the housing market to insure racial separation. Lorraine Hansberry explores that theme in her 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Hansberry took the title from a 1951 poem by Langston Hughes, “A Dream Deferred,” in which Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”

“White flight” was a correlating social phenomenon of that period, resulting in abandonment of older, inner-city communities and in creation of look-alike/think-alike communities—suburbia and exurbia—hence, homogenized.

Haidt broadens then the concept of segregated neighborhoods beyond racial to cultural and economic “enclaves” where people hold similar if not identical values and outlooks. The outcome has been the same, nevertheless: a parochial, sterile landscape where little or no differentiation is tolerated.

“If people are concentrating just with people who are like them,” Haidt argues, “then they’re not exposed to the ideas from the other side, from people that they can actually like and respect.”

Besides living in an echo chamber, the correlating danger is that one is unable to really get to know others who think and believe differently. Haidt suggests that’s one of the root causes of the obsession to demonize people, which loops back to the points I made last week vis-à-vis Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

“If you get all your ideas about the other side from the Internet, where there’s no human connection, it’s just so easy, and automatic to reject it, and demonize it. So once we’ve sorted ourselves into homogeneous moral communities, it becomes a lot harder to work together.”

Haidt has a valid point in context of a traditional, geographic community. With the growth or modern media from cable TV and talk radio to the Internet however, virtual communities have evolved. Their bounds can be global.

If one walks a given Boulder neighborhood and surveys residents, it’s probable he/she will garner fairly liberal responses to issues. Likewise, in a given Colorado Springs neighborhood, more conservative themes will be expressed.

That comes as no surprise when one considers the focal points of those two communities: Boulder – University of Colorado; Colorado Springs – the Air Force Academy and Focus on the Family.

People find the mountains alluring for a wide-range of reasons, from escape to opportunity and the environment. As such and in that regard, I don’t consider Clear Creek a “self-segregated community,” like, say, Highlands Ranch.

On the question of what to do about I-70, we tend to find community-wide consensus. On the questions of land use, economic development, and historical and environmental preservation, we see a more divided community, but not necessarily along political party lines. The latest brouhaha about off-road vehicles use of roads leading from Empire might be an example of that.

When it comes to the great issues reaching beyond the boundary of Clear Creek though, old associations and prescriptions break down.

Increasingly, Americans disconnect from their actual communities and connect with virtual communities of similar-minded people via TV’s and computers. It saves one from performing the arduous task of thinking critically, which a real live exchange might and ought to induce. The result, however, is corrosive.

That’s the deeper implication of Hughes’ poem and Hansberry’s play. The writers put the moral lesson in context of a dream, the American dream, which shrivels and dies if not acted upon, but the notion is applicable to our aspirations as a people.

What’s the difference between a divided community and a diverse one?

Like a dream deferred, a segregated community, no matter the reason, dries up like a raisin in the sun.

The result: tribalism, group-think and a polarized political process.

Let’s not lay the blame entirely on politicians, however. After all, they’ve not fallen from the sky. They merely reflect communities from which they come.

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