The polarizing nature of now

Without question, the nature of President Trump’s interaction with virtually everyone, friend or foe, is polarizing. He revels in it. No one, even his most ardent supporters, will honestly say otherwise.  By denominating his bold pronouncements about virtually everything that comes his way via others by denouncing them as suffering from “political correctness,” the President has promoted a willingness for individuals — indeed, on both sides of the divide — to cavalierly articulate the most unedited contents of their minds, unambiguously. The potential consequences of doing so to the listeners or victims of their testy words, notwithstanding.

We can blame the president, though, only so much. We are, after all — again on both sides — sentient beings with independent thoughts and processes to deal with them. We were, most of us, brought up differently and maybe at a different time  — when political correctness, if one wishes to call it that, was in vogue. We were taught, or at least better taught, to listen to and be respectful of oppositional thinking and communicators however much we disagreed with their stated thoughts. As long as their thoughts weren’t hate-filled.

But it’s not that way any longer. If we disagree, the opposition isn’t simply wrong, he’s wrongheaded. If his idea is foreign to our personal way of thinking, it — and he — are unAmerican. If she chooses a different way to educate herself, her very learning is deficient and should be debunked. If his religious observances differ from mine even slightly, he is a borderline heretic, or has already crossed that border.  Not to mention his liberal or conservative views of racial bias, or the true cause of and means to address COVID-19.  We have come to see things through our own idiosyncratic lenses, reflexively concluding that there are no other legitimate perspectives. We are polarized. We are right, period. And everyone who disagrees – cancelled.

But is it that we are actually right? Or have we just taken the position for whatever reason, that the other side’s view is simply not worth exploring – whether because we’re offended, or maybe because the other side of the argument is promoted by those whom we abhor for political or social or religious reasons?

How did we get here?  Simple. The products on the shelves in the marketplace place of ideas have become totally dependent upon the merchants who purvey them.  But aren’t ideas worth considering irrespective of who seeks to sell them? Meaning, if we pretend to have open minds, shouldn’t we consider the words and thoughts presented and put aside the faces, voices and amplitude of the other-side’s presenters?

Take any issue: the intrinsically debatable question of whether a woman should have an abortion, notwithstanding a woman’s right to choose; the seemingly undemocratic conduct of the State of Israel even toward “peaceful” Palestinians; the tendency of some judges (at both ends) to overly legislate from the bench; any leader’s effort to soft sell a crisis lest, theoretically, the public become stricken with panic; or a fervent atheist’s written assertion that believers in God simply imbibe an effete placebo.

Believers on both sides of these issues certainly have their right to advocate their views. And believers who oppose them are surely free to promote their opposition.  But must they state their disagreements disagreeably and with personalized venom – even if they are, indeed,  personally offended by the advocacy on the other side?

Yes, we can easily blame the President, impulsively aggressive columnists or even the internet itself for creating an atmosphere where polarizing discourse and hate speech associated with such discourse have become the order of the day. But public discourse shouldn’t be like rooting for your team at a closely-contested hockey game where rabid fans scream support, sometimes employing outlandish epithets and gestures.

Hockey teams probably need that peculiar mode of support to motivate them – just watch a game sometime diminished by empty stands. The rest of us, though, don’t, or at least shouldn’t, require it.  Let’s not blame the President alone even if, unquestionably, he is the raucous cheerleader for it more than anyone. Let’s, instead, try to do better – showing that we’re better than him, as are our ideas. That we’re better able to make the thought, not the person, the thing worth listening to!

Or are we?

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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