I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why opinions today have become so polarised. I’m not alone in this. On issues as diverse as the economy, education, and basic human rights, opinions seem to be increasingly simplified into two opposing camps. And, perhaps even more importantly, the divide appears to cleave exactly down the middle.
You either support immigration or you oppose it. You are pro-life or pro-choice. You fight for gun control or you fight for gun rights. What’s more, in most cases, this is further simplified to just two positions that define you on everything: right or left, conservative or progressive. And somehow the sides are always equally matched.
But where did this come from? Has it always been like this? Is it that people have lost the capacity for complexity or did it never develop in the first place?
It’s got what humans crave!
Maybe it’s not just computers that are binary; maybe humans are too. We fall into it without thinking. Black/white, rich/poor, and good/bad are just the most common dichotomies. North vs south, old vs new; it’s always Us vs Them and, Who’s side are you on? Sometimes it seems like we’re each of us just a long list of personality toggles: Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Are you a morning person or a night owl? Are you a do-er or a thinker? It’s grotesquely simplified yet enthusiastically embraced.
In sport, it’s always two sides playing against each other. Any more and it would be chaos along the lines of Where’s Wally’s The Great Ballgame.(1) In the movies, and on TV, it’s always the hero battling the villain, invaders against the resistance, good versus evil. The choice is always between cutting the red wire or the blue wire, between saving the girl or the city, between death or honour.(2)
Humans also like close finishes; there’s nothing more boring than a blowout. Obviously your 10yo daughter can run faster than your 6yo son, so she gives him a head start. Horses are made to carry weights, chess player forfeit pieces or moves, and golfers forfeit strokes, all in the name of a ‘competitive’ finish. Just watch your son celebrate when he ‘wins’! On TV, reality shows are edited to be tight contests. In movies, salvation always teeters on a razor’s edge. The battle is always close and the decisive stroke always comes at the last possible moment.
So is it any wonder that real-life issues play out the same way? We invent sides so we can take sides. We deify our leaders and demonise our opponents, then we set the stage for the ultimate showdown. It’s life imitating art imitating life, again. It’s the narrative we create because it’s the narrative we understand.
There are two sides to every story
Maybe it’s because as children we are taught to look at both sides of an issue.(3) We had to consider both cases for and against, discuss the pros and cons and debate opposing arguments. There were no marks for saying, ‘A’ is clearly right, period. Ordinarily this would be a solid foundation for good news reporting. Unfortunately, what sometimes happens is that we become so obsessed with a ‘balanced’ presentation that we end up manufacturing the balance ourselves.
On the morning news, the anchors interview one advocate for raising the minimum wage and one against. Covering elections, a journalist interviews 3 supporters for candidate A and 3 for candidate B. Hosting a panel discussion on vaccinations, one ‘expert’ is invited from each side of the controversy. In this abstracted form of debate, it becomes utterly irrelevant how strong each argument is (factually) or how many people support it.(4) This was wonderfully demonstrated by John Oliver at the conclusion of his climate change debate segment when he upended the one-on-one debate by adding to the panel two extra climate change deniers and 96 extra scientists who agree with the science on climate change.(5)
Let’s just agree to disagree
Maybe it’s because we let people say stupid things unchallenged. Unchallenged, mind! When I was a kid, I was taught not to argue with stupid people. Like the meme says, it’s like playing chess with a pigeon: no matter how good you are, the bird is gonna shit on the board and strut around like it won anyway.
Especially in America, it’s a faux pas to ask someone about politics, religion or money. The divides in the country run so deep through every family and social group that it would be virtually impossible to gather your neighbours around a barbecue or sit down to dinner with your family if we started asking about each other’s views on black people, Muslims, or the poor. Why talk about these important societal issues when we can all just get along?
These days, everyone’s ‘right’ doesn’t matter what they say, and everyone’s ‘great’ doesn’t matter that they suck. Confidence is more important than that other thing. How many times have you heard, ‘I like him because he’s not afraid to speak his mind’, or ‘I respect her for standing up for what she believes’, irrespective of what he is actually saying or what it is she believes? And so they give their opinions on Facebook or YouTube or Twitter, or in interviews or on talk shows or at rallies, and the MC just nods and says, We’d like to thank all of our guests, and see you after this commercial break!
But hey, everyone is entitled to their opinion (no matter how stupid that opinion is), so let’s just agree to disagree, okay?
Or maybe in the end it’s just about numbers and how our brains (fail to) process them.(6)
When we see a negative comment on Amazon, we automatically assume lots of other people also disliked the product. When someone posts a mean comment on social media, we immediately feel everyone is against us. When one shop assistant/customer is rude, it ruins our whole day.
Similarly, one hundred thousand people could march for equality and send their organiser to speak to the press. When this is paired with an interview with even just one critic, our natural inclination to extrapolate along with our socially-conditioned expectation of ‘fairness’ instantly conjures an invisible army of one hundred thousand detractors.
With today’s hyper-connectivity, it’s easy to forget that the world is not full of idiots, they just make the most noise. So next time you’re being trolled on social media, just remember: there aren’t actually that many idiots, but they’re all here!
(1) Racing in all its various forms can be seen more as everyone competing individually against the clock. With ‘card- and boardgames’, there’s more flexibility (example: RPGs). Still, the majority tend to pitch two teams against each other or have some form of linear structure more akin to a race. Of the traditional games, Chinese Checkers is a rare exception. In more modern times, my favourite is Hungry Hungry Hippos.
(2) To see what I mean, just google: ‘taking a third option’.
(3) Notice: ‘both’ sides, not ‘all’ sides.
(4) In fact, weaker arguments are at an advantage; complex problems rarely reduce well to soundbites. Which is another reason why presidential debates are such a joke.
(6) More on this in a separate post I’m currently working on.