Story by Yesenia Gonzalez
The holiday season is synonymous with things like overpriced pumpkin spice beverages, holiday gift shopping and spending time with loved ones. Conversation topics around the holiday dinner table can range from a mundane discussion about the weather to full-fledged conversations about political topics. A wide range of opinions comes with sharing a meal with family and friends who come from different walks of life.
Political polarization refers to how much of an ideological overlap or gap exists among different political parties. According to the Pew Research Center, a 2018 survey revealed that nearly 8 in 10 Republican and Democratic voters cannot agree on basic facts surrounding key issues. The research also found a sharp divide between the younger population, aged 18-29, and people 65 years or older. Sixty-nine percent of younger voters think Democrat and Republican voters disagree on basic facts in addition to various policy issues while 83 percent of older adults think the same thing to be true.
Various factors contribute to a person’s political perspective. According to Sociology Professor Tara Hall, family plays the largest role in a person’s development of their world view. Education level, peer groups and media follow in descending order of importance. Undoubtedly, a person’s political beliefs form an integral part of their identity and how they relate to the world.
A 2016 study from the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, Hard-wired: the brain’s circuitry for political belief, studied the human brain through MRI scans when presented with information that challenged political and non-political beliefs. Of the 40 participants, the ones who showed high brain activity in the amygdalae, the area of the brain involved in emotion and decision-making, were the most resistant to changing their minds.
Birds of a feather flock together, and that expression is not solely applicable to the avian realm. Humans are susceptible to forming groups because of their natural socialization tendencies. The environment a person grows up in influences how they view themselves and to which groups they can relate to. Contention begins when a person or group feels attacked by another entity with a different ideology. Since political beliefs contribute to an individual’s sense of self, any opposing or challenging viewpoint triggers a knee-jerk reaction because the differing viewpoint is perceived as a personal attack, according to Professor of Philosophy Dr. Guy Crain.
“There’s something about attachment to [our own beliefs] that’s associated with our deep sense of safety and security, which means, again, right, that it’s not really about the issue itself so much is it about me feeling secure and my group is clearly doing a lot of work in making that happen and my expression of those beliefs is somehow solidifying that security. And so, when people question those beliefs, it’s not so much about guns or evolution so much that it’s ‘I feel under attack’,” Crain said.
So then, fear is at the root of political polarization. Since a person’s identity hinges on being validated by others in their group, defending it is a natural, emotionally-driven response.
According to Crain, emotion is not an inherently bad reason to support a cause, since emotions are an unavoidable part of human nature and can drive a group to do better work and motivate the group to devote resources to the cause. On the contrary, emotionally driven arguments can be void of real substance. Instead, the opportunity could arise for an opponent to implement the ad hominem fallacy. Ad hominem is Latin for “against the man” and describes a type of logical fallacy where an argument about a person’s personal flaws ensues rather than a critical conversation about the topic at hand.
Even within similarly-minded groups, there are differences and subgroups, which can lead to disagreements among members.
“Well, I think one of our problems as groups and as a society, as a whole, is that we assume since everybody falls into group A, B or C is that they’re alike … Now the problem is, when we’re fighting for rights, or we’re looking at social justice issues or whatever it may be, we often forget that those other people might’ve had those different experiences,” Hall said. “And we kind of assume that our experience is everybody else’s and that that’s the natural experience. So we have in-groups and out-groups and, from a sociological perspective, if I’m in an in-group, I naturally don’t understand those others in the out-group. I’ve got a bias towards them because there’s something I don’t connect with, I don’t understand and I don’t recognize.”
Hall had advice for those potentially difficult moments at the holiday dinner table.
“When somebody believes differently than you, stand firm and believe in what you do but show them the same amount of respect you would want for your opinions and thoughts … If you’re gonna make an argument or take a stance, know what you’re talking about, have something to back yourself up instead of making these large, [overall assumptions; have some facts],” Hall said.
Crain also offered advice. “There are some times when it is just more important to value and relate to the person in front of me than it is to be worried about who wins and who loses and that, in my view, the loss of those relationships or openness to them, is probably more tragic than me losing some sort of [competition],” he said.
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