In America, tensions are running high. Neighbors, family members, even communities are clashing. Why are we so antagonistic toward each other?
There is no shortage of ways to separate people. For example, the political divide is larger than it has been in a generation. Economic inequality is at record levels. Rural and urban areas are at odds with each other.
Why is there so much tension?
It’s true that thanks to the Internet, people are able to seek out ideas similar to their own. Social media can act as an echo chamber, and algorithms can limit exposure to competing ideas.
Similarly, cable news has spawned a news channel for every political outlook. Talking heads with an agenda help shape public opinion.
There is also what is known as “self-selection”. When deciding where to live, people will often choose a neighborhood filled with people who look like them, vote like them, and pray like them.
Gerrymandering, or the political act of grouping conservative or liberal voters in a district has led to candidates that are more ideologically extreme.
There also seems to be just a general lack of civility. People arguing are quick to insult, or to simply disengage altogether.
What is the cause of our polarized environment? Is it one of these explanations, or something else entirely? Why are we so antagonistic?
Related questions: How can we encourage debate? How do you know who to trust? Angry or afraid? What makes a community?
6 thoughts on “Why Are We So Antagonistic?”
The context provided above lays out many good reasons we are, as a society, more often antagonistic with those we disagree with than not. We separate ourselves into comfortable camps, reinforcing our beliefs rather than challenging us. But respectful challenges and respectful, but sometimes uncomfortable, conversations may lead us to strengthen, tweak, or even remold our opinions and beliefs.
My profession requires that I have many daily conversations with people I disagree with. I still like a good number of those people, or at least understand, despite our differing viewpoints. I guess that makes me lucky. It also makes me unafraid to share my views and want to hear those that are unlike mine. In many cases, it leads to compromise — a dying art in much of our society.
Stephen Covey once wrote, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” A former colleague of mine frequently tells people to “listen gently.” Unfortunately, we live in a society more focused on competing and winning rather than listening and understanding. I hope that our current tumultuous times drive people to try and understand what they currently cannot. But I don’t know that that’s in our future.
I say that, partially, because today is a sad day for me. Someone I care about, reaching out to friends posted on his Facebook page, said he wanted no help from “liberal #%$@” — and I’m to the left of liberal. Without saying that to me specifically, it forces me to feel unwelcome.
Again, a sad day.
Great question and context! And great response, Michael! I have several random thoughts.
First, there’s a great book by George Lakoff called “Moral Politics.” He’s a cognitive linguist and he lays out his theories in this book in a very, very readable way. In a nutshell, people think in metaphors and analogies rather than facts. People evaluate what should be done in a group, work place, or society based one metaphor more than any “family.” There are two primary competing family metaphors in America: the “strict father” aligns well with conservatives; and the “nurturant parent” lines up with liberals. We filter everything through these metaphors and, based on confirmation bias, reject any contrary evidence.
Second, as described in a book called “The Big Sort,” Americans have never been more completely and precisely divided up and self segregated. We live, learn, work, and play with people who were raised the way we were and see the world the way we do. Many people are rarely challenged about anything they believe in their daily life.
Third, we have very little “broadcast” media left. It’s mostly been replaced by “narrowcast” media, which most people refer to as “social media” but real it’s not “media” at all; it’s good old fashioned targeted marketing. Unless you make an effort, most of the information you get from outside your daily life will reflect what you believe back at you. To the extent you get conflicting information, it will involve people very different from you talking about things you’re unfamiliar with and may be even be presented to you in a deliberately negative light.
But, eventually, a “disruptive dilemma” occurs, as in the case of the George Floyd, and a window of opportunity opens to shake up how people see the world.
I think people are antagonistic because they are having to confront the uncomfortable truth that what they believe is wrong, and no one likes to be wrong. No one likes to be called out on behavior that they don’t think is inappropriate, even though it is.
Many people feel attacked when confronted with information contrary to what they believe about themselves and the world in which they live, and so lash out in order to protect their belief system.
I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, and I think I’ve come up with a reason why we are so antagonistic with each other.
Fundamentally, I think it comes down to a simple behavioral trait, tribalism. But that natural trait, to separate into tribes, is magnified to an unprecedented degree by current technology, and reinforced by those tribes that we choose to be part of.
Let me provide an explanation.
We live our lives by determining what we want, and then we take action to get it.
Sometimes, this can be very simple. I want it to be warmer, so I turn up the thermostat. I want to eat, so I go to the refrigerator and get out some food.
But it can also be very complicated. I want to live a moral life, so what do I do? First I decide what “a moral life” means, and that definition will inform the steps I take to try and achieve it.
The situation gets more complicated when we start adding other people into the world. They, of course, have their own wants, and are taking their own actions to try and achieve them.
This can put us in conflict. I want the it warmer, so I turn up the thermostat, but my partner wants it cooler, so turns down the thermostat. I’m hungry so I get some food from the fridge, but so is my partner, who wants the same item of food.
So really, the way we figure out how to act in life depends primarily on two things: what it is that we want, and what it is that we think others want. So in our heads, we are constantly guessing about all the other people that we come into contact with in the world. What does that person want? Will it impact my own goal of what I want? If so, will they want to work collaboratively to help me, or will they work competitively to try and stop me?
This behavior informs everything that we do, from where you live, to your career, to your politics. It influences every decision you make.
From a practical standpoint, trying to understand the motivations and desires of the thousands of people in your community, or the millions of people in your state, or the hundreds of millions of people in your country is impossible.
So in order for a society to function, we believe that fundamentally, we all want the same thing. We might disagree at an individual level, as we may be competing for the same job or the same house, or to get your kids into the same school. But ultimately, we all want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This belief is the bedrock of civilization. We must believe that in the abstract, the majority of the people in our household, in our community, in our city, in our state, in our country, and in our world want the same things that we want. At least in broad strokes, even if we disagree on little details.
Often, however, to get what we as individuals want, we must work against what society as a whole wants.
The history of our species has always been a balancing act in this regard. Do we work together to do what is best for everyone? Or do we break into (religious, political, economic, racial) groups and concentrate on what is best for our group?
There are cycles in the course of history, where one is ascendant over the other. There may be a unifying event, like landing on the moon. That was an amazing effort that showed the potential of our species. But there are also things that pit one group against another.
Today, we have a number of powerful forces that are encouraging, consciously or unconsciously, various groups to disagree and come into conflict with each other.
Traditional media has a vested interest in encouraging that conflict. Conflict gets attention. That in turn, drives ratings, which then turns into profit through sales of advertisements.
Amplifying this is the relatively new phenomenon of social media. What we hear on television or on the radio is repeated in our Facebook or Twitter feeds, which are targeted through algorithms (and our self-selected friends) to concentrate on what we already know.
This makes a feedback loop, and through it, our beliefs become more entrenched, and more extreme.
The end result is that anyone who is in your group is logical and rational, and anyone who isn’t wants to destroy everything you believe in. And so whatever group you find yourself a part of, the leaders of the other group want the exact opposite of what you want.
Let’s say, for example, you are part of a particular religious group, let’s say Christianity. Then everyone who is not Christian is portrayed as actively working to eradicate every aspect of your faith. Hence a “War on Christmas” (your most holy holiday), removing symbols of God from public and private places, prohibiting prayer, prosecuting religious leaders, negative portrayals in movies and TV, and advocating for other religions while oppressing your own.
Non-Christians, or course, don’t see it this way, because that’s not the way it is portrayed to them, through the messages they get from their community and media, and amplified by voices online. There’s no “War on Christmas” — Christmas is everywhere! Removing public displays of Christianity is following the Constitutional edict of the separation of church and state. Prosecution of wrongdoing is important in the application of justice, no matter who is guilty, and so on.
Similarly, if you are rich, the message is that poor people want to take your hard-earned money through taxes to support laziness. If you are poor, the rich are greedy individuals who never have enough and refuse to contribute to the very society that has benefited them.
If you are Republican, every Democratic leader is either a socialist who wants to destroy democracy, from AOC to Bernie Sanders, or a corrupt opportunist who belongs in jail like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama (and now Joe Biden, of course). And if you are a Democrat, then Republican leaders, like Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump want to rig elections and cheat to win, who want to grow their own personal wealth and power at the expense of everybody else.
And to some extent, these polarizing opinions are a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Republicans think the Democrats really want to destroy our democracy, Republicans *should* do everything in their power to beat them, even if it means suppressing the Democratic vote. If Democrats believe Donald Trump truly is an existential threat, what kind of behavior is *not* acceptable to stop him?
This behavior is chipping away at our civilization. Many of us no longer believe that we all fundamentally want the same thing. If we don’t, then our internal models for how to behave to get what we want change, often in dangerous ways.
Why be civil to a stranger, if you think that stranger wants to take away everything that defines who you are?
I think capitalism is to blame for antagonism. In a capitalist society we are trained to justify greed and personal possessions. If we lived in a resource based economy and the Earth was seen as a finite spacecraft ( which it is 🙂 we would share equally in order for future generations to exist.
Lee, I agree that the major media promotes conflict.
River Monkey, maybe your better society will happen in the next evolution of mankind.