The recent discussions of Ilhan Omar and antisemitism have reignited the debates of racism and divides in this country. On the Democratic side there is the push to condemn antisemitism while not offending those who either disagree with the behavior of the Israeli government, or to include other racist attacks. On the Republican side, there is the push to condemn antisemitism while ignoring similar behavior within the Republican party. But the truth is, despicable behavior and intolerance — racial, political, and other — exists on both sides.
The Atlantic had an interesting article recently exploring this. The Atlantic asked PredictWise, a polling and analytics firm, to create a ranking of counties in the U.S. based on partisan prejudice (or what researchers call “affective polarization”). The result was surprising in several ways. First, while virtually all Americans have been exposed to hyper-partisan politicians, social-media echo chambers, and clickbait headlines, we found significant variations in Americans’ political ill will from place to place, regardless of party. The maps show that affective polarization occurs on both sides of the aisle: there is intense political hatred and bias occurring in both Red and Blue areas. A NY Times opinion piece refers to this as the culture of contempt:
Political scientists have found that our nation is more polarized than it has been at any time since the Civil War. One in six Americans has stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election. Millions of people organize their social lives and their news exposure along ideological lines to avoid people with opposing viewpoints. What’s our problem?
I know I’ve fallen into this. I’ve begun to block memes from the side I disagree with: I find them annoying, but it is pointless to comment on them and point out the errors because the other side won’t listen anyway. Why won’t they listen? Another article I found explores this quite well, detailing 24 cognative biases that shape our thinking. These are flaws in human reasoning that political machines can exploit to make our biases stronger. You can combat them to some extent if you know what they are (just as you can filter out the bias from news sources if you know it), but you will never succeed completely.
These biases and prejudices and hatred and contempt are playing out in many discussions we see in the news today. But it isn’t just the news. Racism and hatred can be anywhere, including your local knitting store. Online bots can take racism and hatred, and amplify it. The best way to combat it? First, educate yourself to recognize it. Second, speak out and don’t let it go unchallenged. Third, engage as much as you can. There is a balance between those who cannot be redeemed, and those whom you can educate about their bias. Don’t expect to change minds immediately; but do work to plant the seeds.