March 6, 2019
In the New York Times, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute has an interesting piece on the polarization and fracturing of America today. Of note:
Political scientists have found that our nation is more polarized than it has been at any time since the Civil War. One in six Americans has stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election. Millions of people organize their social lives and their news exposure along ideological lines to avoid people with opposing viewpoints. What’s our problem?
A 2014 article in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on “motive attribution asymmetry”—the assumption that your ideology is based in love, while your opponent’s is based in hate—suggests an answer. The researchers found that the average Republican and the average Democrat today suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that is comparable with that of Palestinians and Israelis. Each side thinks it is driven by benevolence, while the other is evil and motivated by hatred—and is therefore an enemy with whom one cannot negotiate or compromise.
People often say that our problem in America today is incivility or intolerance. This is incorrect. Motive attribution asymmetry leads to something far worse: contempt, which is a noxious brew of anger and disgust. And not just contempt for other people’s ideas, but also for other people. In the words of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”
Quite alarming. Nevertheless, this is confirmed by what we see in our slice of social discourse—whether in reference to people holding to historic Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, or merely seeking to protect their ability to hold to such teaching.
A recent study in The Atlantic discusses how such intolerance is cemented as beliefs become more siloed within certain groups and communities. The worst offenders? “[T]he most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves.”
Brooks’ solution for all this?
Not eliminating different ideas, but embracing them. “What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better,” he says. When treated with contempt, we should not return it upon our opponent’s head. Instead, we must choose to respond with grace.
Of all people, Christians should most eagerly embrace this idea. Our faith itself is based on God not responding to our contempt with contempt, but by sending his Son to die in our place on a cross.
We should be the first to embrace the idea of showing grace to neighbors and those around us. There is much we cannot control in our society today, but let us seize one of the few areas we can change—our individual choice to respond with grace when treated with contempt.