Jessica Gorski – June 27, 2017
Everyone in Severna Park knows if you attend any social function, you will most likely know the intimate details of the host’s kitchen backsplash remodel, everyone’s vacation plans, and where to find a sale for those earrings or shoes your friends were wearing. What won’t be discussed by anyone who desires to remain on the invite list is politics, money or religion. While we can talk the pants off a subject about nothing, we avoid anything that borders on controversial.
It’s becoming very difficult to avoid these topics with the explosion of social media and 24-hour news cycles constantly bombarding us with information and unsolicited opinions, and our political parties are in the center of it. Our current political climate is more polarized than ever. This is not conjecture but fact. According to an article by John Gramlich and published by the Pew Research Center in November 2016, ideological political polarization has continued to grow along with a substantial increase in partisan animosity.
These divisions are not new; in April 2016, the Pew Research Center published a report citing political polarization and how ideological divisions are greater now than they ever were during the past two decades. This makes it difficult to have a conversation about anything we feel is important due to the reaction it solicits in others, and frankly, also in ourselves, as we were all taught that if you do not have anything nice to say, do not say anything at all. So we continue to stand with our cocktails amongst friends, neighbors, colleagues, staring at one another while not making any progress on that which divides us.
I often question if the saturation of social media is to blame for this increase in division. In a March 2017 U.S. News and World Report article, Peter Young noted research compiled by Stanford and Brown University profiling internet and social media usage. Their findings suggested that older generations using the least amount of social media avenues and more personalized mainstream media sources displayed the largest recent upswing in ideological extremism. This opposed to younger generations, who use multiple avenues of social media and fewer mainstream sources, displaying the least increase in polarization. Young went on to cite Cass Sunstein, a Harvard professor and author of “Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media,” who discusses the role social media has in allowing us to create personalized feeds that provide self-insulation from some of the divisive rhetoric but can also serve to further entrench opinions on both sides.
Mainstream media outlets also play a role in promoting and maintaining the current division. The Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy published a report called “How the Media’s Coverage of Political Polarization Affects Voter Attitudes” discusses the media’s role in labeling society as more divided sometimes has the positive outcome of creating desire in people to view issues in a more centrist fashion as opposed to perceived opponents. When these opponents do not follow suit, the negative effect is leaving those who are now more centrist frustrated at those who remain with more extreme views. In addition, the corporate funding of media sources and outlets can lead to further polarization on certain topics that corporations want to either promote as centrist and “good for the nation,” or as extreme in effort to create division and further political divide, relying on both approaches to further commercial gains.
However, after looking at all this research, I tend to agree with the perspective that we, the American people, are actually the source of this ever-increasing political polarization and the media is just capitalizing on it. James Campbell, a political science professor at University of Buffalo, and author of an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times published in June 2016, stated in 1972 that 50 percent of Americans identified as moderates and the other 50 percent split evenly between conservatives and liberals. By 2015, the combination of liberals and conservatives outnumbered the moderates by almost 20 percent. This shift is more pronounced because political parties now reflect some of the more extreme ideologies as part of their platforms. As Campbell stated, “This makes both parties much more dependent on their ideological wings for support – in votes and contributions. The polarized perspectives of the public are now firmly embedded in the parties.”
How can we navigate this polarized political landscape and work together to diminish this divide? We must find some common ground. I can clear my social calendar faster than most these days by sharing two short sentences. I am a registered Republican. I am a member of WISE. While both utterances might have people erasing me from their contact list, WISE provides that common ground I was seeking. WISE is a nonpartisan group composed of more than 500 women in the Severna Park area. The group is organized in issues-based action huddles that cover topics such as education, health care and women’s issues. WISE’s members are liberals, moderates, independents, Democrats and Republicans, and while members don’t agree on everything, they focus on issues facing our society and often find what we already know: We have more in common than our political affiliation.
As noted in published studies by Justin W. Holmes and Ramona Sue McNeal of the University of Northern Iowa, the use of social media and reaching out to our neighbors who might not have been aware that their “friends” hold opposing views may create instances in which people are more likely to listen to ideas that vary greatly from their own. It is through these interactions that a more centrist viewpoint can be reached that positively affects a greater majority of citizens. WISE seeks that attenuation of dissent in effort to achieve shared goals.
In today’s world, with complex issues facing so many areas of our society, it is hard to research and truly understand them all. WISE hopes to educate its members on issues, and let each member decide how she feels based on the facts, and what actions she wants to take based on that knowledge. It is an amazing feeling to stand among other women and openly share conflicting ideas and beliefs and to have that exchange be welcomed rather than avoided out of adherence to etiquette.
WISE chooses to focus on issues, and it believes that nothing good comes out of viewing your friends and neighbors as opponents. While we may disagree on ways to achieve this, we must acknowledge that sometimes we will agree and this agreement does not mean that we are giving up something or who we are. Listen, really pause and listen, when someone you do not agree with is speaking. Resist the urge to filter out opposing viewpoints and ideas, whether it is religious, political, or scientific in nature. Listen not to the rhetoric and fear-mongering of the past; rather listen for the desires and wishes your friends and neighbors want for their future. Listening and reflecting doesn’t mean losing. We do not have to agree, but we all profit when we understand each other, when we are respectful and inclusive. When we are honest about whom we are, what our motivations are and what we represent, we help others better understand our point of view as well.
And at your next party, if I’m ever invited anywhere again, I might want to talk about your gorgeous kitchen backsplash and I am certainly going to stalk you over a fabulous pair of earrings, but I might also want to ask you your opinion on an issue, because truthfully, I want to know how you feel about it. We don’t have to agree with one another. It’s time we agree to disagree, and just get to work. And it must be together, because frankly, there is too much at stake not to.
WISE (Women Indivisible Strong Effective)