Friday, October 5, 2012

Living in the Age of Anger: Politics replaced by Vitriol.

Angry people
 As some of you know, I sometimes write for a website called Policymic. A couple of days before  first presidential debate the editors contacted me and asked me to write something. Because Romney was the expected loser, I decided I would write a piece about him. I chose a photo to accompany the article that would draw readers. This is the photo I chose:

Romney punching Obama
Photo by Alison Jackson http://www.alisonjackson.com/tampa-tampa/_mg_6682_mrhead6726ret_v2_flat_julenemorgan_carlospatino/
 




I thought it was funny photo. I didn't take it too seriously. And it seems to have worked as my article had well in excess of a thousand views by the end of the day.

But ponder the photo for a moment. It seems strangely appropriate given the current political culture, doesn't it?Why is it that two men boxing is an apt analogy for modern political discourse? Wasn't politics originally a much more cerebral and intellectual endeavor?And now, days after the first debate, we aren't really talking about the issues. All we can can talk about is that "Romney won." As if winning were the point.

One of the more disturbing features of this years election cycle is how deeply entrenched each side is. Republicans against Democrats, liberals against conservatives. And no one can seem  to see any good in the other side.

Disagreement is natural and avoidable. Demonization is not. People of goodwill can disagree on heated issues without denying the humanity or integrity of the other. But it seems to me that something very strange and dangerous has taken place in American discourse such that civility and mutual respect  has been replaced by partisanship and rivalry.

I have been noticing this for some time now. A write-up about  moral psychologist  Jonathan Haidt in The Chronicle Review  really helped to elucidate what I had been feeling. Haidt describes our political anger and vitriol as tribalism. According to Marc Perry of the Review, Haidt thinks that "Humans are 90-percent chimp, but also 10-percent bee—evolved to bind together for the good of the hive." In America, our hives are our political identities. And we appear to be be viciously set against all the other hives, or as Haidt would say, tribes. On this understanding of political discourse, truth takes a back seat to protecting the tribe and destroying outside threats.That seems to be what's happening.

Being troubled by this, I e-mailed Dr. Haidt and asked him if he thought things were getting better. He responded, simply saying " I think it's getting much worse, and will continue to do so for a few years." He sent em a link to an article he recently wrote for a New York Times blog entitled "Look How Far We've Come Apart."

In the article, Haidt relates that "America is not united and it is getting less and less unitable with each passing decade" and that " it’s not just politicians who are moving further apart; it’s us – the public – as well."

I finally understand why more and more people are ambivalent to political discussion. Asking people to get involved in political life is like asking them to jump in a sea filled with hungry sharks.

Something is seriously wrong with our political culture. If we don't fix it, if we don't fix our attitudes, things are only going to get more hostile and common good will be abandoned to a quest for more and more power.

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