Finding Love, Space, and Grace in Our Politically Polarized Climate

We live in an increasingly polarized political climate. Over the past 10 years, polarization has increased dramatically, as this graphic from Pew demonstrates:

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According to Pew, as Americans, we are more ideologically divided and hold more extreme political positions than we’ve seen in generations. Somewhere around 40% of Democrats and Republicans hold very unfavorable perspectives of the opposing party—and the vast majority of people who hold these views not only say that they disagree with the opposition, but that the opposition actually poses a threat to the nation’s wellbeing.

One other finding from Pew’s research stood out to me as being particularly important: ideological silos have arisen not only in politics but in our communities. 63% of consistent conservatives and 49% of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views.

This is one of the side effects of living in an increasingly connected world where content (like this very blog post) is being produced at exponential rates. This means that you can choose books, radio programs, websites, even entire television stations dedicated to reinforcing your existing worldview. On social media, the same thing happens: as you like, comment, and interact with posts, you tell the social networks what you’re interested in. And the networks get better and better at serving you more of what you want to hear.

It’s a real problem.

Fifteen years ago, the phrase “30-second soundbyte culture” was used to describe the media’s tendency to neglect depth, context, and nuance in favor of quick but compelling stories that are misleading in their superficiality.  Today, internet culture has reduced 30 seconds of engagement to a mere glance. We flick by on our phones, consuming story after story in rapid succession, jumping to conclusions based on memes and headlines that reinforce our existing biases.

In other words: we’re living in an echo chamber.

And inside the echo chamber, things can get ugly.

We demonize and objectify people who see things differently.  We listen to them less, interact with them less, and create overly simplistic, unbalanced narratives to justify our animosity. The other day on Facebook, I saw a conservative acquaintance post that “progressivism has risen directly from the depths of hell.” I’ve seen progressive friends make broad, sweeping generalizations about conservatives’ lack of education and even intelligence. As a result, both sides feel threatened and defensive, and the divide deepens.

What if there’s another way?

A couple of months ago, I went to a lecture with Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s program on faith and meaning, On Being.  She talked about how, so often in important conversations, we look for common ground—places where we agree—when perhaps we ought to be exploring our particularity.  She suggested that we might make a practice of releasing the expectation that we’ll somehow agree or come to consensus.  When we don’t have this pressure looming over us, we can be curious about our differences, live into them, embody them; and in so doing, make new discoveries.

This is a heart-level shift takes patience, kindness, open-heartedness, grace, and a willingness to really try to understand another perspective.  As Christians, we can call on the resources of our faith to root us in our relationship with Christ so that we can let go of the need to “be right” and “win arguments.” Becoming reconciled in our differences takes love—the very love that Jesus so freely lavishes on us to hold us all as we are and redeem us through grace.  

Please don’t misunderstand me: differences really matter. They matter because our politics spring from our most deeply held beliefs about meaning, community, goodness, and even God.  The stakes are high in political conversations, and differences have real, tangible impacts on the way we live our lives.  That’s why it’s so important to learn to engage these conversations in love.

Political differences are important. But perhaps more important is how we go about discussing these differences.  

And that’s going to require more than a quick glance at a passing meme.

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