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The Parallels of Polarized Discourse

By December 3, 2015December 20th, 2015No Comments

What if the medium is the message is the zietgiest?

There may be no odder quirk of fate – or sign of the times – than the fact that both the Movement Conservatives on the right and the student activist movement on the left are demanding safe spaces in which they need not be confronted by opposing views.

This is not to conflate the two movements, or suggest they are fundamentally the same – but the trend of ideological polarization that demographers have been noting in America for decades (Blue States get bluer, Red States get redder, and people of identical incomes are increasingly clustered) is having an impact on the way debate is conceptualized in this country.

Given both increasing demographic segregation, and the increasing segmentation of the (social) media into targeted niches, should it really be a surprise that the nature of debate has gone from trying to win arguments to demanding freedom from the existence of opposing arguments?


The current generation of student activists are infamous (sometimes cartoonishly so) for not wanting to be confronted by opposing views – much in the way that their faculty are (and compelling research sadly backs this up) overwhelmingly opposed to including views outside of what can realistically be termed liberal-mainstream-academia.

It’s reached the point where anything that might be challenging in a classroom must be labeled (if it can be included at all), and anything that might be challenging in a social environment needs to be shamed.  Students rush to embrace victimhood not only when confronted with very real institutional racism and discrimination (which absolutely exists, and which they are right to challenge) but when forced to share intellectual space with people with whom they might disagree … very much a case of demanding that the rules of real discussion and debate conform to the customizability of a Facebook feed:  if I don’t like what you’re saying I should be able to opt out and never confront it.

The act of disagreeing itself is seen as an act of bad faith.

Movement Conservatism  is deservedly famous for its epistemic closure – its presidential candidates demand not to be asked tough questions, FOX News is an epistemological bubble that exists to repeat talking points, and the very act of someone believing in climate science,  racism, evolution, or tax increases is seen as a threat to all that is decent.  There is an obsession with being a “real American,” which is an explicit line against not only racial and cultural diversity but epistemological diversity as well:  once we have identified who “those people” (the “not real Americans”) are, everything they are must be rejected in order to keep ourselves pure.  If the excesses of the liberal side lend themselves to an oppressive regimen of academically jargoned political correctness, the conservative excesses do indeed begin to quickly sound like the march of fascism.

Some people have always been polarized, of course – that’s not new.  What is new is that the terms of debate itself, modeling after the 24-hour cable news cycle and self-segregating internet communities during a period when real communities are more and more likely to be homogeneous, now hold that even knowing what your opponent thinks and why is too much ground to give.

Instead we find ways of wishing differences of opinion away:  there’s a whole genre in the liberal blogosphere in which neuroscience is used to “explain” conservative views – which has a cloak of rigor but is in fact every bit as superstitious as the way FOX News reduces liberalism of any kind to a character flaw.

This is, again, not to suggest that liberalism and conservatism are the same thing (there’s actually quite a big of difference within these categories, let alone between them) or that they are both “equally right.”  Of course not.  The point is that both have adopted their own justifications for what is ultimately the same style of debate – which is to deny that there should be any debate at all.

Even the side explicitly in favor of pluralism in the 21st century is demanding safe spaces to be homogeneous.   In this, both our major political movement have failed us utterly.  Believing that one has an unassailable grasp of reality is the pinnacle of intellectual laziness.