Bipolar America: The Polarization of American Culture

North and South, East and West, city and country. America has always been something of a divided union. A living, breathing paradox that all logic indicates should have collapsed by now, yet it hasn’t. Still, the divisions have gotten worse and more intense. We tend to use culture as a way of reflecting a society’s reality, a mirror of sorts, and if you look at American culture you’ll see a lot of polarized opinion about damn near everything.

Movies, video games, books, music, politics, sports, TV shows, and even the everyday products we use.

People get into fights over high school sports! How is that constructive?

Then again…neither is this:

ELECTION-CLINTON-TWITTER

There’s a reasonable (albeit depressing) reason for this: consumer identity, and boy do we love it in this country.

 Are you a Mac or a PC?

Part of this is because as a consumer culture we allow the products we buy and own to define us as people. In the older, “Get a Mac” commercial by Apple, we see Justin Long representing Apple products and John Hodgman representing PC (read: Microsoft products). Long is young, casually dressed, and more aloof than Hodgman who plays a neurotic straight-man dressed in a brown business suit.

Boom.

Cool people buy Apple products and geeky squares buy PCs.

Is that in any way true? No! So now you have a dividing line and something to align yourself with. This is just one example though. What kind of music do you listen to? How about books? Movies? Video games? TV shows? In some ways, these things can be helpful secondary identifiers. The things you consume say a lot about who you are as a person, which can be okay, except now when someone criticizes the things you like it feels like an attack on you not the product or idea.  Humans are social and tribal creatures, we like to surround ourselves with people that think and behave the same as we do. There is strength in numbers. So if an interloper comes into your group, criticizes the thing your group cherishes you can resist the intruder.

This isn’t a new phenomenon when you really think about it. Ever since mankind has been roaming around in tribes we’ve had arbitrary reasons to dislike each other. Now thanks to the internet we have a place to go to interact with other fans and rip on the haters: the echo chamber.

 Hello Hello Hello Hello  :The Rise of the Echo Chamber & Digital Tribalism

Fan bases existed long before the internet, and if we enter a hellish future without the internet, fan bases will continue to exist. Probably about whether the flesh of our enemies tastes better over burning Macs or burning PCs.

Here’s the crux of the matter: the internet is a limitless, digital universe where we can form little colonies and settlements or find preexisting colonies and settlements populated by people that share our beliefs and belong to the same fandoms. You never hear dissenting opinions, and you can have your opinion fed back to you in an unending echo.

This is the echo chamber, and it dominates American culture.

It creates hyper-focused niches where specific content is curated and either rejected like heresy or accepted like religious canon.

And it’s so easy to find your cozy little safe space – for anything.

You’re no longer forced to leave the comfort of your house to be around like-minded people. You can grab your phone, kick up your feet, and Google to your heart’s content until you find the exact group that matches your tastes.

Marshall McLuhan described this as the “retribalization” of society and the creation of a new electronic, or in this case digital, tribalism.

Basically, his argument was that the closer we get, the more divided we become. If the internet is the pinnacle of connectivity, then it only makes sense for us to become even more divided. It rings especially true in a place like America, and it’s the kind of place where it could cause tremendous damage.

 The Damage Done

So what if people are stubborn and entrenched in the things they like? It’s not a big deal if some overzealous nerds screech at each other, right?

Here’s the issue. It is a big deal, because it destroys meaningful conversation and mature discourse. It promotes intellectual laziness where the participants of the hivemind are no longer forced to consider challenging concepts, or anything that falls outside the comfortable norm. It makes stubborn ignorance and hostility the norm in lieu of curiosity and openness to different ideas put forth by different people.

Diverse art will be the first casualty, and art in general may indeed suffer. If our media is broken up into one hundred, hundred different genres and subgenres how will each piece of art survive if a fandom consists of only a dozen overzealous fans?  It seems like fertile ground for mediocre, repetitive, radio (or TV)-friendly art to dominate the social landscape and ultimately runover anything deemed “offensive” or “unmarketable.”

That’s just the surface damage, but if you go deeper you realize the polarization allows for a loss of empathy, and a dehumanization of the other. Those outside the group are misguided idiots at best, and a dangerous enemy at worst (depending on the stakes). A lot of this is because of perception.

Let’s start with something less serious, how about the earlier example: PC vs. Mac.

You’re firmly in the Apple camp. You only use Apple products and you are convinced that anything else is garbage. You know someone, a peer or a coworker, that hates Apple products and refuses to buy them. In your eyes, that person is an idiot. Why would they buy unreliable products?! Do they just like to throw money away?! And in that person’s eyes, you’re just a sheep that thinks a light-up fruit icon is worth $1,000.

What if we’re talking politics? Or religion?

It’s no longer about someone being an idiot, it’s about someone being immoral, or a threat to your perception of safety, stability, and general well-being. Except you encounter Democrats, Republicans, various Christians, atheists, etc. in your daily life and they’re decent people. Maybe you’re wrong? Maybe they’re right? So at the end of the day you retreat to your digital bunker to be surrounded by opinions that validate your position and remind you that, yes, you are the paragon of morality and virtue and everyone else is swine.

So what do we do?

Come Together, Right Now

This article mentions a paper titled, “Echo Chambers on Facebook” by Walter Quattrociocchi, Antonio Scala and Cass Sunstein, which basically says that people on Facebook only interact with other Facebook users that share similar views and values.

Not really that surprising, so how do we fix it?

The mentioned article states the obvious: expand your horizons, entertain other positions, reach out and connect with different people.

It’s a nice thought, except the people that need to hear that message won’t respond to it. Realistically, what we need is a collective moment of introspection and reflection on how absurd we’re all acting. We need to laugh at ourselves a little bit.

I might be reading into this too much, but it almost seems like this commercial is a subtle jab at how divided we’ve become over such silly things.

Most of us live relatively comfortable lives. We don’t have to hunt and forage for food, or walk a mile to get clean water, or worry about bands of marauders attacking our homes and loved ones. We have the energy and time to bitch and moan about the latest Call of Duty, or that our sports team lost, or about how to spend hundreds of dollars on a piece of plastic and silicon that will be obsolete in a matter of months. I’m sure Karl Marx is scratching his now-hairless head trying to figure out how the proletarian became so bourgeoisie and comfortable.

I’m not saying there aren’t real issues, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have debates (it’s part of a functioning democracy), but maybe we should spend less time arguing about inane bullshit and more time reflecting on how fortunate most of us are, more time on engaging in meaningful conversations instead of flame wars on some forum, and stepping outside of our comfort zones.

It’s easy to stay in bed all day, but what do you really accomplish if you do that?

Thanks for reading, and make sure to leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter (@ahahnjones) and leave a comment there.

A luta continua

In the Land of God is the debut novel of Adam Jones. It’s a story of multi-generational strife in a Midwestern family set during the First World War and the Great Depression. It’s available on Amazon as an eBook for $2.99 and as a paperback for $9.99.

 

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