How Political Polarization Has Ruined Social Exchanges

The political divide colors even our everyday relationships.

Posted Jun 05, 2017

I recently came across an article in The Atlantic that illustrated what Confederate General Robert E. Lee was really like.  The article relied on biographical information and cited Lee’s letters and newspaper articles.  The article suggested that Robert E. Lee was not the admirable character that history depicts.  He was instead a slave owner, who was particularly cruel to his slaves, and was equally cruel in his treatment of captured Union soldiers.  But this post isn’t about Robert E. Lee in particular.

A friend, who is devoted to the preservation of local history, and an amateur historian in her own right, posted on Facebook that she thought it was a tragedy for the City of New Orleans to remove Lee’s statue (along with other leaders of the Confederacy).   She felt that this was a “rewriting” of history, likely based on her possession of the historical image of Lee as a “noble warrior.”

In reply, I simply posted a link to the Atlantic article and suggested that Lee was not the hero that many believed him to be. Well, that ignited a flurry of comments that quickly suggested a politically-tinged polarization was occurring. 

Commenters suggested that this was my attempt to “rewrite history” and that the Civil War, despite its horrors, was a legitimate part of “our history.”  Although I understand their perspectives, I was surprised how this became very much like our current political discussions.  Commenters took sides, and the polarization began.  “They want to rewrite history.”  “You want to glorify racists.” And on it went.

As with much of politics, civil discourse and debate is set aside and the dreaded “we-they effect” takes over.  “We’re right, they’re wrong!”

As George W. Bush once said, “I believe what I believe, and I believe what I believe is right.”  People dig in their heels, hold tightly to their beliefs, there is no listening to the other side, and no civil discourse.  In many ways, this has become the new norm: we immediately decide whether a person is “with us or against us.”  We look for differences and magnify those, rather than focusing on the commonalities, and engaging in a civil exchange of points of view.

Have I got an antidote to this?  No magic bullet, but the way to fight the “we-they effect” is to focus on what people have in common.  To look, not at the differences, but to the similarities, and focus on how we can learn from each other, be empathic, and recognize our commonality.

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