The Rise of Polarized Thinking

Do you know what the most overvalued feeling in the universe is? It isn’t love, or acceptance or the relief of knowing you belong. These are all groovy things, although they do come with their own qualifiers depending on the individual and the situation. But for me, the most unfairly lauded emotional state is that of feeling ‘in‘. Part of a clique. It’s different to simply feeling you belong, because being ’in’ implies a feeling of exclusivity and superiority. You become one of the gang and others see you as a real stand-up member. That last description can often be quite accurate.

A bunch of Stand-up members

To explain: We live in an age of instant expression and near-instant critique. Internet, content, reaction blah blah blah. You’ve probably read enough think pieces about that topic. What’s been troubling me is how internet culture has both facilitated and fueled Polarized Thinking, in a way I couldn't have foreseen during my formative years.

For example: Do you remember that dude Trevor Noah. You know, the one taking over from Jon Stewart as the host of The Daily Show? The one nobody had ever heard of before? Yeah, that guy. Now once upon a time, that guy made some fairly unfunny tweets. Many people also found them hacky and offensive, because they relied on tired hand-me-down stereotypes:

Instantly, the process of demonisation began. Despite the fact that the people running these articles had combed through YEARS of his Twitter account and selected these jokes as a representation of his work and views (when actually they probably represent 0.00000000000004% of his output) people began laying into him and demanding that he be stripped of his chance to host the show.

Personally, I found the jokes artless and yeah, a bit offensive. The problem I have with the condemnation that followed is that if you start labelling people and sticking them in boxes then you restrict their ability to grow and change for the better. Sure, some people never learn and display negative patterns of behaviour over time. I’ve no problem with mocking and deriding these people, and hopefully doing so in a humorous way that illuminates the absurdity and stupidity of their positions.

But to shun someone for an imperfect or undesirable expression of thought and to ask that others refrain from engaging with them is equally ridiculous. Making someone an Unperson is a cloying, morally bankrupt and pernicious action that can only ever lead to groupthink and unhappiness for all involved. Because people are human. They are made up of all the good/bad life experiences they’ve had and their personalities are a mixture of good and bad and everything in-between. They are in flux, flawed and imperfect. Even you. Yes, especially you. People will inevitably fuck things up every once in a while.

The important thing is to be adult about it with them when it happens and to avoid the impulse to denounce.

The oppressive stress of being part of a group that demands orthodoxy of thought is something I haven’t felt since.. well since high school.

Outside the circle. Looks like fun in there, doesn’t it?

People pretended to like each other simply because they were part of the same social group. It was an everyday occurrence and a laughable part of high school life. Yet now we have prominent ideological speakers attacked (by their own side) for trying a ‘hands across the water moment’ and merely speaking to someone with opposing views. Such a reaction is patently absurd and I’ve even seen comments like ’Good, now I can stop pretending to like them’. How can someone like that claim to be morally serious? It is a lightweight way of thinking, a flimsy construct born of the high school need to be part of a group. It is polarized thinking.

So back to the tweets. Patton Oswalt weighed in to the Daily Show guys defence. His satirical deconstruction of a series of jokes was either a hilarious swipe at activist piety or an unhelpful lessening of the damage oppressive language can do, depending on who you ask. But it’s telling that a man who wrote one of the best pleas to be allowed to mess up, change and grow was then slammed by those who considered him an ally. You know, part of the group. In actuality there was little evidence that Patton thought in such blinkered, reactionary, us against them terms.

Perhaps we haven’t escaped those high school corridors after all.