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More and more as we have become a society with an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor we are also becoming a society more polarized than ever before. And everything in our technical infrastructure, popular culture and lousy educational system is encouraging this trend.

A friend asked me recently at dinner – “Why are we so polarized in our political views?” Sure I know we are so polarized politically that our congress is barely functioning. But the question I was asked was why? I have been giving this considerable thought and realize in light of the Gabrielle Gifford's murder how this question is at the core of the tragedy. Is this a complete nonsequitur – hang in there with me.

Some time ago David Brooks wrote a article addressing this very question and ascribing the answer to a more educated electorate then at any time in the past. Although he cites one academic he did not mention any surveys or research to support his position and I felt that his reasoning was, at best, specious. (Big deal as he is the one with the column in the New York Times not me.)

While I would love to find a simple answer to this question, a silver bullet if you will or some pithy verbiage that will explain away the conundrum, I believe, as with many other issues concerning societal trends and happenings, the answer is complex and convoluted rather than straight forward. There are a wide variety of reasons that contribute to this problem. And, the more I think about it, the more I see almost all of them stemming from a change in our social mores. Customs of behavior that are accepted as not only right but obligatory.

First I must state that I consider this polarization one of the biggest problems we face as a society today. It limits, even prohibits in some cases, common discourse and compromise and leads to an Us versus Them mentality. This polarization  prevents civil discourse and compromise – the necessary elements of an enlightened and properly functioning society.

It would be beyond the scope of this article for me to trace all the origins of these changes in societal behavior, for they too are many and quite complex. I will leave that to some academic with the time and interest.

First, I see quite clearly the role that our all-pervasive media and entertainment industry has played in bringing these changes about. We have become desensitized to the very act of killing by the insidious inculcation of violence into the very fabric of our pop culture.

Just a few small examples; How can a gang banger value life when he sees mass killings in a film intended for entertainment, and then sees a guy who was shot, moan and groan for a few minutes, and then get up, jump from a building and punch the bad guy out. Or the video games that are all about killing, be it monsters or bad guys. And all you have to do to make it all go away is to hit reset.

Are they simply satisfying a blood lust inherent in all of us or are they merely exacerbating this propensity with what sells? Sure our mass media, entertainment industries and public figures pander to the emotions of the crowd. Over the top garners attention, headlines and profits.

And just as we have become desensitized to violence we have become intolerant of those that challenge our world views. Rather than treat such views as genuine and heartfelt we belittle and denigrate the speaker in adhominum attacks. I joined you in laughing at the antics of the rabid tea partier's and fools like Sharon Angel, Christine O’Donnell and the Nazi re-enactor who ran for the House in Ohio. However, many others of those I do not agree with have come to their views and positions intelligently and with a strong moral or ethical basis.

It would be bad enough if it were only the media and entertainment industries that are guilty of perpetrating these egregious images and characterizations. But we actually have politicians on the far right who skirt the lines of unconscionable speech. Sara Palin had a map posted on her web site (I understand she had it taken down) which lists election districts with Democratic legislators who she believes should be turned out of office, identified with the cross-hairs of a gun sight. Or Sharon Angel, the far right wingnut, who ran for a Senate seat in Nevada recently, who said we should consider “Second amendment remedies” for dealing with domestic enemies - referring to the political left.

I see three basic sea changes that have changed our social mores that pertain to this question:

• A loss of common civility.
Starting with a No Ma'am or Yes Sir from children to their elders. I have seen children talking back to their parents public in such a rude and crude manner that I was embarrassed for them. Had I done so, when I was their age, I would not be here today to write about it and my father would have spend many years in prison. If civility is lost to children, it is most certainly lost when the children reach adulthood.

• An inability to admit to being wrong.
I have seen this tendency lead to lying and/or changing reality, or to the simple ignoring or refusal to accept facts. And here I differentiate between lying and changing reality. Those who change reality have repeated the lie to themselves so often that they now believe it to be true. At our recent county fair I was working the Democratic Party booth and handed a fact sheet (with all sources listed) on the economy to a passerby. He looked at it a moment and handed it back saying – “You don't really expect me to believe this do you?”

• A plethora of truly polarizing issues beleaguering society.
Contentious issues such as reproductive rights, personal freedoms and the like are viewed as irresolvable. And it is not as if we have not had such issues in our past - one such even led our civil war. But the discussions today become magnified by our technically aided ability to communicate with each other orders of magnitude faster, more frequently and in effect louder than in the past.  

This in turn is compounded by the fact that most Americans have not been taught to think critically about complex things. Numerous non-political issues spring to mind, but to cite just two - the belief of some that childhood vaccines lead to autism or the denial of human involvement in global climate change. This is better understood when one looks at the surveys that indicate that some 70% of Americans get their news from the nightly network broadcasts. Everything explained in three-minute sound bites without analysis, discussion or contrary argument.

Once while driving I tuned in on Rush Limbaugh and heard him accuse a caller of treason for questioning the efficacy of the war in Iraq. Truly, he actually called him a traitor, and not once but five or six times, screaming over the radio. And he resorted to this behavior because the caller disagreed with a political position that he happened to support. I can imagine the less articulate, less educated listener picking up on this and swinging into action at their work place or other venue. We even have a term for this behavior – Going Postal.

The behavior one develops in civilian life is carried over in political life when certain individuals get elected to public office. Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell immediately come to mind. I fondly remember Senator Everett Dickson, as a Republican who would vote for a Democratic sponsored bill if he though it made sense and would benefit the country.

More and more as we have become a society with an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor we are also becoming a society more polarized than ever before. And everything in our technical infrastructure, popular culture and lousy educational system is encouraging this trend.

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