To fight polarization, give yourself some breathing room

November 6, 2018
Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

The midterms have finally arrived. The bloviation of politicians and the media is briefly hushed, in quiet anticipation of the verdict of voters. For one day only, the mood is equal parts reflective and tense. Social media has turned to chipper selfies, with friends reminding friends to go to the polls—as if anyone in America could forget that today is the day. The last however many months have been completely oriented toward this moment, the media bemoaning the sorry state of polarization—even The Wall Street Journal has a series called “Voices from a Divided America”—while succeeding little in pulling people from the entrenchment of their bases. Sometimes it seems the only value Americans have in common is a belief in the necessity of strong opinion.

What makes polarization so bad these days? It’s not only that voters’ convictions may be stronger than they were in times past, or that they come into contact with opposing views less often. It’s that, within ourselves, there’s hardly any space for change. What if the barriers to understanding are not between opponents, but instead, people are trapped in themselves, unable to find wiggle room in their political positions? Americans hold their moral views close to their chests and wield them like blunt objects, ready to persuade but never to be persuaded. This election, as votes are being considered as a proxy for President Trump’s influence, being part of the resistance means, for many, making a public display of going to the polls with a whole heart and a firm mind. “Vote like a bunch of school children were shot and a bunch of other children were put into camps indefinitely bc they werent white and like a journalist was murdered and like you are being lied to daily by rich liars who harass / assault women & wont renounce white supremacy,” the comedian Chelsea Peretti tweeted. On Instagram, “I Voted” stickers are democracy as personal branding. News articles, too, have become badges of opinion—shared without reading, but used as evidence against Trump.

ICYMI: Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media.

Is something lost when politics is turned outward? In “What Privacy Is For,” a 2013 paper for the Harvard Law Review, Julie Cohen, a legal scholar at Georgetown University, argues that privacy is not only necessary for an innovative society, but crucial to individuals. “Freedom from surveillance,” she writes, “is foundational to the practice of informed and reflective citizenship.” Privacy as we know it, she continues, ensures that culture is dynamic and changing—especially in a world shaped by social media: “Privacy is shorthand for breathing room to engage in the processes of boundary management that enable and constitute self-development,” she explains. “In a world characterized by pervasive social shaping of subjectivity, privacy fosters (partial) self-determination.” Reconsideration—even changing your mind—is rare and elusive. You need space to try on ideas, look in the mirror, and decide whether they look good—in other words, you need privacy before you can come out in public wearing them with confidence. Without private room to think and process, you can only reproduce ready-to-wear ideas that are already socially sanctioned and handed out in the public forum. Yes, Yes, Yes says the Working Families Party about the three measures on the ballot in New York City today. Yes, Yes, Yes, my friends post on Instagram stories, in bold, colored fonts, with jazzy GIFs.

As a result, public personas developed on social media are somewhat immovable. Our current views can be held up against previous posts—by the public, by potential employers, by opponents in a Twitter feud—to expose hypocrisy, or a lack of internal consistency—and this is taken as a reason for condemnation rather than celebration. Opinion pages—the goals of which vary by publication but ostensibly foster debate and expose readers to a range of ideas—are fodder for reaction and hate reading, but rarely revelation. Sharing op-eds on social media is mostly done to advertise one’s own views, or in mockery; swaying others is not usually on the docket when we post a David Brooks piece.

We typically think about filter bubbles or echo chambers limiting what we see on our feeds, both of which suggest a confining fortress. But polarization is not just a problem with what we’re shown. It’s also a problem with what we’re projecting—and incentivized to project—into the public space. Facebook and other social media companies have a financial interest in keeping our user behavior this way—in keeping our public personas as constant as possible. The more they can successfully predict our political and purchasing habits, the more they can make in selling targeted advertising. Cohen believes that privacy is crucial for individuals to resist such calcification. “Privacy shelters dynamic, emergent subjectivity from the efforts of commercial and government actors to render individuals and communities fixed, transparent, and predictable,” she writes. “Dynamic, emergent subjectivity,” here, means the ability to step outside yourself, and outside of your community. We can’t do this when there are large platforms—full of people, trained into belief—expecting our opinions only to grow taller, never sideways.

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So today, when we consider the stagnancy of the nation and hope for its malleability, we should ask whether we are giving ourselves the space to be flexible and unpredictable. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to change your political stance or to allow a wobble in your conviction. It simply means making time and space to decide your political opinions for yourself, offline. That means not merely advertising political views but also reading—with an open mind—lest we mistake political posting for political action. The best way to do that? Buy the newspaper—ideally in print, and for the truly private, in cash. And then take what you learn, and do what you want with it.

ICYMI: Conservatives trust conservative media. Here’s why.

Nausicaa Renner is digital editor of CJR.