Is Polarization Really a Recent, Digital Phenomenon?

The post is my initial contribution to the discussion in “Engagement in a Time of Polarization” pop-up MOOC.  Admittedly, I’m a little late to the party, but we’re starting Topic 2 on Understanding Polarization.  The key provocations to start discussions are Chris Gilliard’s excellent (as always) post on Power, Polarization, and Tech.  The other thought starter is  Dr. Natalie Delia Deckard’s  video intro to topic 2.  This is a quick post, so it’s likely not as well-thought out as I’d like. I’m mostly going on initial gut reactions.

I’ll admit. I had a very negative reaction to Natalie’s intro. She seemingly takes as accepted that polarization is much, much worse today than in her rose-colored memories of some period perhaps 20 years ago. She asserts that “back then” there was a massive common middle ground, a wide-spread shared perspective on just “what happened” and what “the” news was.  It was a time when she could go to the library to find out what the “scholarly consensus” was on any particular topic, a time when the few major news sources agreed on what the news was and what happened.

I’m old enough to remember those times well. I also remember the eighties, and seventies, and sixties, and the first hand accounts of those from the fifties.  There was no agreement, no unified mass central consensus in those days. There was the appearance of such because those with power, privilege, and authority could much better control the message, control the “news” as reported.  This is a point I think Chris and Tressie MacMillan Cottom make:

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s essay, “Finding Hope in a Loveless Place,” writes out loud the thing that we aren’t supposed to say about the election of Trump: “This was America and I knew it was because for me it always has been.”

For many, particularly black and brown women and men, and LGBTQ folks, polarization isn’t new: we’ve been here all along. The “digital” in polarization has made more visible what for so long was only able to be seen and understood if you believed the stories people have been telling since this country’s beginnings.

Polarization existed then too. It is not a product of the digital age.  The difference is that back then the different voices and perspectives had no voice, no platforms. Now in the digital age they do.  We now hear them.  Trust me. The extremes existed back then too, it’s that fewer could hear them.

As an economist with some particular focus on history of economic thought and institutional economics, I can assure you that the ability to get the expert in the library (a privilege that really was limited to a few) to tell you the “scholarly  consensus” has not been an unalloyed good thing.  Orthodox economic thought (we even called it the “Washington consensus”) came to dominate teaching, policy, and research, squelching the voices of those economists with a different perspective.  The real world consequences have not been pretty, except for the wealthy and powerful.

Ah, the wealthy and powerful! That brings me to Chris’s provocation.  I love his statement:

Polarization is by design, for profit. 

True.  I don’t disagree.  I would only add two nuances or twists.  First, we should be wary of attaching more intelligence, planning, or conspiratorial skills to the wealthy, powerful, and privileged than they have.  Often, the “design” is not conscious or based on advanced blueprint.  The “design” may only be apparent in the rearview mirror.  They may be making this up as they go.  The catch is, they are persistent and insistent. They, the rich, powerful, and privileged,  do a fantastic job of keeping their eyes on (their) prize.  The rich and powerful have a class consciousness that would make Marx drool.

Second, I would suggest that deliberate signal boosting of extreme views that effectively polarizes people is not the only mechanism.  Another tactic is that of pushing faux consensus while demonizing dissenting views as “polarizing”.  I see this in the way the “adult voices” in both major parties agree that “social security is headed for bankruptcy and we must trim benefits”.  No it isn’t. That is false. It is a deliberate attempt to foster a “consensus middle” that disempowers the truth.   A third tactic is for the rich, powerful, and privileged to foster a false polarization so that we avoid the real differences.  This is the dynamic where race, a false difference between people for the most part, is promoted as the key of polarization when in fact the real differences are class, wealth, and income.

I hate writing posts where I feel like all I’ve done is whine or criticize.  I much prefer to suggest, solve, and build.  But all I’ve got today is this.  Let’s use this digital world to include all voices and perspectives, because as His Holiness the Dalai Lama repeatedly observes: there are over 7 billion of us on the planet. We have to get there. All of us. Everyone.  Only compassion and communication will overcome the destructive aspects of polarization.   Let us remember that disagreement and division is not the same as polarization.


One thought on “Is Polarization Really a Recent, Digital Phenomenon?

  1. Thank you for this thought-provoking post (and I’m not one of those people who says one shouldn’t criticize if one doesn’t have suggested solutions. Noting problems is a required first step and solubtions need to be created collectively with lots of voices contributing.).

    I don’t have as good a memory, but it makes a lot of sense to me that polarization isn’t new. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I agree with you. And the consensus there may have seemed to be then was just the sound of the privileged voices, which were the ones most heard.

    I also agree that the powerful may not always design what ends up benefiting them. As someone who has studied Foucault’s work in depth, this rings true to me (he agrees that it’s often small tactics aimed at some specific goals that end up coalescing together into larger strategies that no one designed in advance). But one thing that struck me from Chris’s post was that it might actually be by design more often than we realize. Social media platforms as a case in point, and also anything else that makes a profit on our “engagement.” But you recognize this, of course—to me, that on-purpose polarization by design (not just digitally) was an eye-opener.

    I keep coming back to the question, when considering possible alternatives in the digital realm, of whether social media platforms that don’t profit off of continued attention might help address some of the on-purpose polarization on social media?

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