What's Driving Polarization?

Over the last few years, the hyper polarization of American society has gotten a lot of media attention, particularly in the form of hand-wringing from journalists predicting the downfall of civility.

Indeed, division in politics or even among various identity groups, is turning peers into adversaries demarcated by political, ethnic, religious, gender, and socioeconomic faultlines. Whether it's polarization or (re)tribalization, the right among groups in the United States to disagree on some issues and agree on others is slowly being replaced by an all-or-nothing dogmatic approach. Sadly, the ideological litmus tests that were once the trademark of the right are now becoming more common in the left, as writers such as Jonathan Chait note. Even President Obama has bemoaned this hyperpolarization, noting that "change requires more than just speaking out -- it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise."

While Chait and Obama are both stating the "what" when it comes to our state of discourse, and have noted that an overly dogmatic "P.C. culture" might be at least partly to blame, they only scratch the surface of what's driving this state of polarization. Nathan Heller's piece in the New Yorker takes a deeper dive into the how and why, noting that a generational shift has taken place in how millennials view their identities and their relationships with institutions. Identity politics, coupled with an outright rejection of multiculturalism (from both the left and right), is driving even deeper schisms among groups. Even as terms such as 'privilege' become more common in the mainstream, there's more of a reluctance - even among similarly-minded or driven communities - to engage in direct dialogue.

Indeed, there are major institutional obstacles that continue to be barriers for historically marginalized communities, whether in the form of racism, classism, genderism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, ageism, and discrimination against differently-able bodied Americans. But even when those barriers were arguably worse, different groups formed alliances, or worked out coalitions to build meaningful change. As my mentor and friend Charles Haynes of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum notes so often, dialogue is an essential part of civil society. It has to go beyond tolerance, but an acceptance of each other's views, even if there's disagreement.

But the breakdown in civil discourse, which is often amplified in politics, is more than just generational grievances, entitlement, or ideological purity. This breakdown in discourse - and the building of echo chambers - might be in large part due to something that was supposed to help break down communication barriers: social media.

Let me first set the record straight: social media by itself is not for polarization. Indeed, it has helped connect people in ways previously unimaginable. But for all of its democratizing potential, how people use social media has helped to reify walls between and among groups, and has turned Facebook threads, Twitter feeds, and Instagram posts into platforms for demonization. Social media has become the tool by which like-minded individuals can feed off one another. Sometimes, those forums can lead to positive coalition building and instantaneous support among diverse groups. However people feel about its long-term impact, #blacklivesmatter did create a space within the public sphere that allowed young African-Americans and others to express their frustrations with a hostile criminal justice system and the lack of accountability for law enforcement officers who injured or killed African-Americans.

Yet, as much as social media can draw people together on some common causes, it can more often than not serve as a tool for self-segregation, where ideas morph into loud echo chambers, where vitriol is maximized and dissent is non-existent. For years, the American right used different websites and online bulletin boards to vent and rant against the "liberal media" and propagate various conspiracy theories. Today, both the Right and the Left, and various identity groups, have turned social media into their own self-sustaining silos, where discourse is only pretense. Given that more and more Americans are now getting their news and worldviews directly from social media feeds, framing issues has become a matter of selectivity and self-filtration.

As such, those who become involved in social media driven groups and exchanges are now part of a generation that is increasingly hostile to ideas that challenge their self-constructed narratives. While this problem might be more acute on college campuses, it's transcending age groups and geographic borders, turning strangers into doctrinairian bedfellows of ideology and identity. What's worse is that it's making people less likely to talk unless they are assured that whoever they are talking to is in 100 percent agreement with them. Part of me feels that this wasn't one of the desired outcomes of the hyperconnected generation.

And yet here we are, inextricably connected to technology yet becoming more polarized and segregated by the very platforms through which we choose to communicate ourselves. We can't just blame political correctness, entitled college kids, or hyperbolic narratives of victimization for the collapse. We need to acknowledge that the very platforms we use to connect to the world are now sealing us from it, increasingly preventing the possibility of civil discourse and respect for diversity of opinions.