Vail Daily column: Moving to extremes
December 11, 2015
"Why do they hate us?"
Author and Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein attempted to answer that question. Sunstein's multifaceted explanation of the conditions conducive for terrorism to emerge focused on the concept of group polarization. Polarization occurs when people with similar beliefs congregate and their beliefs intensify as a result. Alarmingly, as their beliefs become more radical, their actions may also. People already prone to risky behavior when congregated with like-minded people take even greater risks. Terror leaders know this. They recruit the vulnerable and exploit shared humiliation fueling anger, anger blossoms into rage and rage manifests itself in violence.
In a distressing parallel, something analogous is happening in America. Initially, the Internet ushered in an era of unprecedented access to information. However, it became a place where people connected with like-minded individuals professing a dizzying array of philosophies and like diseases long thought dormant and some toxic credos have re-emerged. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks hate groups operating in the United States. Membership in the KKK and other white supremacist groups surged after the election of President Obama. But even before that, hate groups were on the rise aided in part by the ability to reach millions online.
Writer Elif Shafak observed, "Communities of the like-minded are one of the greatest dangers of today's globalized world." While many of these communities are benign, attracted by shared interests such as craft brewing or Scottish genealogy, still others are based on more volatile similarities. Once comfortably ensconced in a community, members easily generalize and stereotype members of other communities.
Shafak relates an anecdote that, as a child, the mirrors in her grandmother's house were covered, due to the belief that it was detrimental for people to stare at their own reflection too much. By clustering with those who look and think like ourselves we are effectively gazing into a mirror. Although the vast majority of Americans have no intention of joining hate groups, due to the propensity for group polarization we are in danger of becoming more extreme in our views. This is fueled in part by websites, talk radio and cable news that broadcast only a narrow range of opinions.
The Pew Research Center found that political polarization in America is greater than it has been in decades. Pew found that, "People with down-the-line ideological positions — especially conservatives — are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views." Bias is most pronounced in those who are the most politically active. Precisely the fertile ground for polarization Sunstein referenced.
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In high school we had a remedy for this — the debate team. Participating in debate required that students prepare equally strong affirmative and negative cases for the issue being debated. Each round, a coin toss determined which side the debater defended. Preparing debate cases forces the debater to look at both sides of an issue.
Sunstein's original essay was intended to debunk the notion that terrorism is peculiar to Islam, stressing that under the right conditions it could happen to other groups. Noam Chomsky's observation challenges the notion it could never happen here, "Germany was a leading center of the sciences, the arts and literature, humanistic scholarship … In the mid-1930s, Germany was driven within a few years to a level of barbarism that has few historical counterparts."
The point of this column is not to suggest that political partisanship will lead to Democrat and Republican terror groups. However, in our current political climate we do exhibit the signs of group polarization. Several presidential candidates are feeding this division by using fear to manipulate voters. They are pitting one group, America, against another, Muslims. Ben Carson does not think a Muslim should be president. Jeb Bush only wants to allow Christian refugees into the country. Ted Cruz introduced the State Refugee Security Act of 2015 that would empower governors to reject refugees. The most unapologetic promoter of fear and divisiveness is Donald Trump. Since kicking off his campaign he has insulted or attacked Mexicans, women, the disabled and Muslims.
Initially Trump's invective was met with predictions of his campaign's demise, but that has not happened; instead, the rhetoric grows more extreme. Diffusing this climate requires recognition of a problem. Pitting group against group is a primal political ploy to create cohesiveness in one group through fear of another. Relying on news from a limited number of biased media outlets is listening to only one side of the debate. Hate is easy. Knowledge requires a bit more effort.
Claire Noble is the author of "State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure." She can be found online at clairenoble.org or follow her on Twitter @byClaireNoble.
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