Why Politics Are So Divisive

Ask your neighbor, your friend, your co-worker, or your kid what America’s biggest problem is, and you’ll hear that politics have become too divisive.

The exacerbation of this division is a recent development; though stark political divisions have always been around, these divisions have never been so pervasive, in every conversation from politics, to education, to mass-shootings: never have the adherents of opposing political opinions been so intransigent, emotional, prejudiced, irrational…

This modern political division probably began in the late-1960’s when ABC ran a series of debates between William Buckley and Gore Vidal, two ideologues on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Their arguing made for great television, and the networks realized the money potential of giving ideologues screen time. (The documentary, Best Of Enemies, about the Buckley-Vidal debates and the impact the debates have had on political discourse, is on Netflix.)

Maybe I can argue that these ideological divisions were tense before these debates, that this is why the debates were so successful, because these divisions were already in the heads of the public. Or, that the Buckley-Vidal debates didn’t have as large of an impact as the documentary suggests, that current political divisions parallel the growth of the Federal Government – as population size grows so does the number of opinions, and with stakes being higher at the national level, the major parties (or factions within them) cling to ideological fundamentals to resist broad changes at the national level.

Regardless the inception of the division, the division is here, and it is pervasive. Even if someone sabotaged Fox News and MSNBC and both these Manipulators of Opinion were excised from existence, we’d still have headlines like:

“Bernie Sanders’ Fiction-filled Campaign” – Washington Post

“Watch Tommy Chong’s Pro-Sanders Video” – The LA Times

“Ted Cruz’s New Anti-Choice Group Is Headed By a Guy Who Thinks Abortion Caused the Drought” – Mother Jones

“For Hillary Clinton, Feminism Means ‘Blame Men First’, and to Disagree is ‘Misogyny'” – The National Review

 

Even if we disregard the blatantly-subjective headlines, major media still front-page stories catered to specific sets of opinions:

“US Warships Sail Close to Island Claimed by China” – The Wall Street Journal

“Labor Leaders Fear Trump’s Appeal With Rank and File” – The NY Times

It seems reasonable to think that without the Buckley-Vidal debates, chances are our politics and media would be just as divisive, as an inevitable outcome of mass-communication technology: everybody loves to hear their own opinions being affirmed (Confirmation Bias), and with so many media outlets now able to reach millions, media are more able to cater to specific opinions without alienating their readerships.

Viewed this way, divisive political discourse wouldn’t disappear by castrating talking-heads, demagogues, and party-fringes, because… The Internet – we choose to have our biases confirmed, and it’s easy for us to do so.

 

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Why I Dislike Television and the Internet

Listen to an interview with someone who’s highly accomplished in anything, anything at all. Anybody. Watch a dozen of these interviews and the same exchange is going to come up at least a few times:

Interviewer: How do you find time to get so much done?

Interviewee: Well, for starters, I don’t watch The Television.

TV’s the great reducer of life’s possibilities, but that’s an old complaint and isn’t my sticking point.

If I need to write I have to avoid TV and my laptop. I’ve found that if I browser-surf or channel-flick and then try to write, I can’t get a clear sentence out, and several hours are spent trying to bring a flow back through my head.

Watch too much TV or stay on the laptop too long and your head gets foggy slow. I read somewhere that the rates at which screens flash (or the glow of the screens) cause the brain to slip into Alpha waves, which normally only happens when the person is about to fall asleep, or has just fallen asleep. But I think there’s more to it.

When you’re watching TV you’re perceiving visuals and audio. Scenes and voices move quickly, and all you can do is passively absorb – you observe, with little time to understand at a level deeper than This Is What’s Happening Right At This Moment. It is a constant stream of information you can only absorb without time to process.

The same applies for the internet, observing memes, videos, GIFs, ads, pics. Even if you’re reading an article on the astrophysical import of the Higgs Boson, chances are your mind is still passively absorbing ads, links, pictures… endless information inundating your brain from the peripheries of the article.

Passive observation of screens is cognitively different than reading a book (Hey, I write fiction, let me defend, man). When you read literature you don’t observe the information on the page, and you do much more than absorb the information – you process the information. You absorb the page’s information at a pace that allows you time to process and to actively imagine the sights, sounds, voices, and to understand the contexts, metaphors, themes, meanings.

Compared to cinema and GIF-ery, literature engages a much deeper part of the brain because it requires the reader to do far more than observe and absorb. Literature, even The Notebook and Twilight, requires the reader to think.

I think it’s much more difficult to process the information we get from TV’s and webpages because we are being given so much information, quickly and all at once – the always-moving images and voices on TV or the plethora of ads and links and pictures on a webpage. TV and the internet inundate people with information they have no time to process at a level any deeper than passive observation.

And that’s why I can’t watch How I Met Your Mother or get lost on Tumblr – it shuts off the deeper parts of the brain that produce creativity and higher thought.

 

Further thought: If the information age has brought about information overload, where we are constantly bombarded with information to absorb, what does this mean about our ability to process information, to sit down and take time to ponder? Do we have time to ponder? Can we sit and think when the flow of information never ceases?

Put down Heidegger (who?), your buddy just posted selfies with Kim Kardashian’s ass at a Patriot’s game.