Thursday, October 16, 2008

Homogeneity and Extremism

There is a growing and important conversation about the risks inherent in homogeneity, political homogeneity in particular. It begins with the “red state, blue state” phenomenon: increasingly we resemble two nations with significantly different perspectives on everything from hot-button social issues (abortion and homosexuality) to foreign policy, leaving a few swing states to determine the outcome of national elections. But even within local communities we tend to associate less and less with people who hold views different from our own. Churches, for example, used to be one of many settings in which conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, prayed, worked and broke bread with one another. Churches have now become far more politically and culturally homogenous: liberals attend liberal churches and conservatives attend conservative churches, where our existing views are reinforced. We increasingly make friendships and form social circles only with like-minded people. Not only are we less likely to have our views challenged, but we no longer feel constrained from expressing our views in strong terms because of the risk of causing offense to others.

Studies demonstrate that this growing homogeneity is responsible for greater extremism, intolerance, and the demonization of those who hold view different from our own. Perhaps the most disturbing example occurred at the McCain rally where a woman got directly in Mr. McCain’s face and told him he had to defeat Obama because Obama was a Muslim. The look on Mr. McCain’s face was amazing: he was clearly knocked for a loop and deeply troubled. McCain corrected her and said that Obama was a “decent family man” – how odd that only the man she was relying upon to “defeat the demon” had the opportunity to challenge her narrow views. McCain had no opportunity to address her unstated but clear conviction that Muslims are inherently evil: it would be fair to assume she has never met a Muslim herself.

Attack ads and negative campaigning reinforce this extremism and intolerance: folks who have already demonized the opposing candidate become more rabid with each new attack. Attack ads are not designed to change opinions. Rather, their purpose is to create discouragement and doubt in the minds of those who support the person being attacked while “firing up the base” for their own candidate. Increasingly we are a society that does not so much vote for a candidate as we vote against one. My hunch is that such ugly attack ads would not be nearly as effective if more of us moved in circles that were politically, culturally and religiously mixed and were forced to interact with people whose candidate or party had just been demonized by our own candidate.

There was a time when friends supporting opposing political candidates could rib one another in a light-hearted manner and remain good friends. Now we simply do not speak about politics with friends whose views differ from our own because it is almost impossible to maintain a light-hearted spirit.

Last month I was chatting with an elderly woman about all this. “Do you know who you are going to vote for?” I asked her. “I’m waiting to see who has the meanest, ugliest ad, then I’m going to vote for the other guy.” I think she may be onto something.

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