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July 17, 2007

polarization in American communities

At yesterday's conference, someone in the audience raised a question: Why are public discussions so polarized and dominated by hot-button issues? The questioner came from Kansas, and she specifically mentioned local discussions of education. Thus I suspect she was thinking about the well-publicized evolution/creationism debates in her home state. Abortion would be another example of a "hot," divisive issue.

Her question wasn't directed at me, but this would be my tentative answer. First of all, we have actual disagreements that split us into groups, and we sometimes have to deal with these issues. But they seem over-represented in our public life.

This is partly because most of us lack practical experience in mobilizing people except when issues are polarized. From countless news stories and movies, we know the "script" for angry, adversarial politics. We know how to organize our allies when we are angry at another group: we can call for a march or a rally, put up flyers, alert the media. There are also techniques for organizing people around less contentious issues--ways literally to get citizens out to meetings and then to achieve social change without relying on polarization. These techniques include the "one-on-one" interviews popular in community organizing; Study Circles and other deliberative forums; and volunteering opportunities that are connected to discussion and reflection. But such techniques are not widely reported or described in fiction; even less are they taught in schools.

Another reason for polarization is the narrowness of the topics about which we invite public discussion. I believe that citizens have deep and diverse moral concerns about schools: how students treat teachers, how boys relate to girls, what topics are presented as especially important, and how competitive our schools' teams are. We do not agree about these issues, but we aren't necessarily polarized about them, either. For example, most of us want more orderly schools, although we may disagree about the means.

These issues are considered the province of professional educators--teachers, administrators, school psychologists, test-writers, and others. Communities aren't invited to discuss them, let alone act on their discussions. But no one can stop activists from suing or organizing a political slate on a hot-button issue, such as prayer in school or evolution. These issues pay off for political partisans and organized ideological interests. Consequently, some citizens channel their political energies into fundamentally unproductive topics that serve as proxies for deeper discontents. (For instance, I'll bet that most proponents of prayer in school would trade that objective for schools that were more orderly and less sexualized.) Most other citizens simply stand on the sidelines, unwilling to clash on the hot-button issues but not sure how else to engage.

July 17, 2007 1:25 PM | category: deliberation | Comments


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