Polarization Perils

Thinking Things Over

The thinker imago
Hold on, I have to think about that.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Media soundbites are not stopping people from thinking carefully about issues that matter.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • In the past, commentators weighed both sides of an issue and offered insights and opinions; today the preference is for soundbites.
    • Political standoffs between President Barack Obama and the Republican Party have paralyzed legislative activity in the U.S.
    • Germans are lucky to have a government that prefers to govern by considering issues instead of posturing for TV ratings. 
  • Audio

    Audio

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In the past, readers following great writers in their favorite newspaper might say with pride, “That’s right! That’s my newspaper.” Even if they disagreed with some of the arguments, they felt the newspaper’s contents reflected their viewpoint and their needs.

One of those legendary commentators might have written about the growing number of xenophobic demonstrations. 

They would have clearly said that the gross generalizations of the slogans heard at these gatherings do not reflect reality and damage Germany’s global image. This is not acceptable, something must be done about it, but the demonstrations are political reality, like it or not, they might write.

The commentator might add that the demonstrations cannot be ignored as this would open the way for xenophobia. Demonstrators should ask themselves how they can help integrate immigrants and asylum seekers, the commentator would write.

They might have added that efforts in refugee centers, schools and suburbs have lead many people to support the principle of hospitality for persecuted foreigners, though in some cases, there have been abuses.

In the digital age, all knowledge is made up of zeros and ones.

Without wanting to overly romanticize those old-school commentators, they had the ability to see two sides to every question and, often, a third or a fourth.

They didn’t hold with just thinking one way; they considered the issue from different angles, even if these were sometimes contradictory.

The writer was aware that there are contradictions in life and that things don’t always work out the way they should.

Today, that kind of thinking is all too rare.

Somewhere, we became modern. We might spend time in the “clouds” on our tablets but we also want a clear point of view, a clear line and clear edges.

We no longer patiently seek truth in the no man’s land between ‘for and against,” but rather “either or.” We have to be either for or against an issue, there’s no middle ground.

In these times, single-issue political parties and single-issue experts abound. They win spots on talk shows because they have one point of view and a good way with words.

Nowadays people think it’s a weakness to weigh up matters carefully or concede the other side has a point.

It’s leading to a worrying kind of intellectual radicalization. In the digital age, all knowledge is made up of zeros and ones. We learn to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, but ignore complexities.

We feel we misunderstood and no longer understand ourselves and our own arguments.

These troubling developments already are well underway in the U.S., where polarization is no longer a path to knowledge but rather an end to itself for America’s politicians.

They rip the masks off each other’s faces, but sometimes it’s not a mask but the face, leaving wounds.

People might like President Barack Obama or they might not. He gives a highly touted speech, purportedly an “address to the nation,” but primarily lashes out at the Republicans even as he closes with an appeal for common ground.

The Republicans retaliate by inviting Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress, not out of any interest in finding solutions to the Middle Eastern conflicts, but to grab the next headline.

It’s almost unbelievable. Suddenly, world policy – on highly critical issues – is used in a domestic tug-of-war.

It’s the same among Republicans. They sense that part of their base is no longer following them, but rather than fine-tuning their proposals, they beat the drum to drown out their own doubts.

Mr. Obama seems to be passing up the chance of creating forward looking policies based on consensus as his period of office comes to an end. 

In the past, visitors to the U.S. left the land of limited impossibilities feeling like when push came to shove, this great democracy would take sensible action – now, this confidence is evaporating.

But let’s look closer to home.

Most people feel comfortable with the ruling coalition, but they don’t understand why Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice chancellor and minister for economic affairs and energy, is asked at every turn about his “prospects of gaining power.”

If he let himself get drawn into this discussion each time, he wouldn’t have any chance to actually do the business of governing.

Speculation about different political coalitions are counterproductive and a waste of time.

When the coalition is successful, the junior partner has to share in that success.

Chancellor Angela Merkel understands this and plainly makes it known, even in the face of grumbling from own camp. Does anyone believe things would be better if she and her party governed alone?

Germany has experienced worse than a government that stays cool and offers constructive proposals in a difficult and divided world.

Should we be ashamed of fighting pseudo-polarization? It doesn’t make sense to disagree about words. We should focus on concrete policies and proposals like those who want to upgrade the military and alter diplomacy.

People are smart.

They may have fun watching boastful posturing and hyped-up controversies on late-night TV. But the next day, they’re also glad things aren’t as bad as they seem.

When someone grabs them by the lapels and shouts an opinion in their face, they don’t shout, “Great! A clear standpoint at last!” They’re still holding out for a clear and balanced opinion.

 

To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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