Polarization Isn't Just for Politics: The Rhetoric of Polarization



The following post is an excerpt from Become Your Own Fact-Checker.

This book will help you, and the ill-informed, the confused, the conspiracy theorist, or the college student in your life, better navigate the media environment of 2020. Visit my homepage, www.ericsentell.com, to learn more about what the book offers and to try an excerpt.


In this chapter, we’ll learn about one of the most powerful and problematic ways of making an argument, so that you can recognize it and defend against it.


It’s not news to anyone that we live in a very politically polarized time. The most extreme voices get the most attention, which makes the polarization seem even worse than it is. But as groups, people on “the left” and “the right” are without doubt more extreme in their views than they were a generation ago.


According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of democrats with a “very unfavorable” view of the republican party shot up from 16% in 1994 to 38% in 2014.


The percentage of republicans with a “very unfavorable” view of the democratic party rose from 17% in 1994 to 43% in 2014. The percentages of merely “unfavorable” views increased from 57% and 68% all the way to 79% and 82%, respectively.


To put it another way, only about twenty percent of both Democrats and Republicans hold a favorable view of the opposite party.


In an environment of existing polarization, one can use “the rhetoric of polarization.” The rhetoric of polarization involves using the language of “us vs. them.” The people or group using this rhetoric presents themselves as protecting, defending, and saving the “us” from a dangerous and threatening “them.”


The rhetoric of polarization won’t persuade anyone, but it can build an incredibly strong credibility with the target audience. But it can also exacerbate the existing polarization and, in the most extreme cases, even dehumanize the “them.”

Because of these potential consequences, we need to be able to recognize the rhetoric of polarization when we hear it and then raise our skepticism and defenses.


I could go back to the dawn of time and find examples of the rhetoric of polarization. But I like to use the best examples I can think of, first and foremost, and secondarily, I try to use relatively recent examples as much as possible.



One of the best, and most recent, examples is Fox News. Fox News brands itself as “fair and balanced.” By implication, other news organizations are not fair or balanced. It follows that Fox is a protector, defender, and even savior for the viewers, ensuring that they are well-informed in spite of what the rest of the media says.


Fox News anchors and hosts, especially the most popular personalities like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, make these implications explicit. They often criticize the mainstream media and its coverage, usually with very strong, even insulting language like “the lamestream media” or “the liberal, leftist media.” They describe other news organizations as intentionally deceitful and as serving a specific agenda contrary to the viewer’s interests.


In short, they use the rhetoric of polarization. They position themselves as saving the viewers, the “us,” from the rest of the media, a dangerous and threatening “them.”

When an audience frequently or regularly hears the rhetoric of polarization, that audience will eventually accept the rhetoric’s “us vs. them” worldview. They accept the claim that they’re hearing the “fair and balanced” perspective as well as the warnings about the bias of alternative information sources.


They will think, those sources don’t present a similar perspective on the same events because they’re not fair and balanced, they don’t have the viewer’s interests in mind, they have an agenda. It couldn’t possibly be that there are other valid perspectives or that the perspective they’re hearing might have some flaws.


The rhetoric of polarization can be used to obscure problems with someone’s information, arguments, or other ideas. For starters, it can enable someone to make assertions without providing evidence. Once you establish such strong credibility, you can make bigger claims with smaller evidence or even no evidence without arousing the audience’s critical thinking.


Often, people and groups who use the rhetoric of polarization will also associate themselves and/or their ideas and values with a powerful cultural ideal.

For instance, Big Oil companies have conducted a century-long public relations campaign to associate its product as an essential engine of the economy, the driver of America’s prosperity, and the cause of people’s material well-being.


To criticize Big Oil is to criticize America! To favor regulations from “them,” the government or environmentalists, is to endanger or hinder the “us” that makes modern civilization possible. To suggest investing in more renewable energy is to suggest turning our backs on all that we’ve built and done.


It can be very difficult to argue against a person or group that associates itself so strongly with the target audience’s values and also grabs a hold of that audience with polarizing rhetoric.


Supporting the person or group and its values becomes a core value, a matter of social and personal identity.

Using the Big Oil example, people can become so invested in the “us” and how the “us” associates itself with positive benefits that they stop questioning what the “us” says and whether we might achieve similar or greater benefits in another way.


But there’s an even more alarming and distressing issue with the rhetoric of polarization. It can also dehumanize the “them.”


In the 1930s, Hitler and the Nazis presented themselves as the saviors of the German people and as defenders against the Jews who had betrayed them and would destroy them completely if given the chance.


The rhetoric became so charged that Jews were caricatured as rodents. In the last few years, rhetoric has cast illegal immigrants as gang members, drug dealers, rapists, and murderers.


This kind of “us vs. them” language is especially disturbing and dangerous when it dehumanizes one group as well as casting them in the role of enemy.

At the end of a chapter, I explain how to apply the chapter’s content to communicating with others as well as analyzing rhetoric. However, this chapter puts me in a bind.


The rhetoric of polarization is undeniably effective. The “us vs. them” language of polarization can build extremely strong connections, mutual trust, and credibility, all while simultaneously motivating and mobilizing large groups to rally around a person, party, or idea.


But I also believe that “us vs. them” language is unethical. It heightens conflict, sows division, prevents compromise, and dehumanizes people. At its absolute worst, it leads to genocide.


To get out of this bind, I will recommend moderation. One might be able to use “us vs. them” language without preventing compromise between groups or dehumanizing races, ethnicities, or political rivals.


For example, a politician could argue that the “us” comprised of his or her political party offers benefits to the electorate that the opposing candidate or party does not or cannot offer. These benefits may even include protection against the outrages of the opposing candidate or party, the dangerous “them.”


But the politician does not necessarily have to portray the “danger” of the opposing candidate or party as a physical threat, an existential challenge, or a revolutionary change from business-as-usual.


Phrases like “They’re out to destroy you” or “They’ll take away your X” or “Only I can protect you” do not have to be used to still create a sense of solidarity in opposition to someone or something. The politician certainly does not need to talk about the opposition as though they are subhuman.


As I write this, the 2020 election cycle is underway in the United States. Some of the candidates for the Democratic party’s nomination use the rhetoric of polarization to argue why they would be the best candidate, but they moderate their rhetoric by not crossing the line into hyperbole about societal destruction if they, or the Democratic party, loses the presidential election. It also helps that they occasionally call for unity among Americans of all beliefs and backgrounds.


An Elizabeth Warren, for instance, will make a strong case for being the champion of average Americans. She’ll attack a fellow candidate, Pete Buttigiege, for hosting a lavish fundraiser that represents being out-of-touch with average Americans (that’s her intent anyway). But she never implies that nominating Buttigiege would result in some catastrophe, or that Buttigiege has nefarious intentions.


All of the Democratic candidates criticize the incumbent, President Trump, and argue that America can’t afford another four years of a Trump presidency. They argue that his conduct while in office doesn’t reflect American values and ideals, that his policies are harmful or ill-considered.


But they contextualize that argument within their other arguments about what constitutes good public policy. They don’t argue that Trump will begin rounding up nonwhite citizens and throwing them in jail or deporting them. They don’t suggest that entire ethnic groups will be ravaged by other ethnic groups left unchecked by a Trump administration. They moderate their “us vs. them” rhetoric.


So, you can contrast yourself, your ideas, or your positions with the opposition in a way that builds solidarity, motivates supporters, and even creates some antipathy.


  • You can argue that you or your ideas represent a really good option, a boon to the audience’s self-interest.

  • You can argue that the opposition represents a really bad option, a detriment to the audience’s self-interest or values.

  • Just don’t cross the line into gross exaggeration, hatred, or dehumanization.

You may argue, for a non-political example, that the way you teach your History class is more engaging and effective than the way the rest of the History department teaches. Other teachers may be unwilling to change their teaching methods due to defensiveness, laziness, or fear. Administrators may be divided over whether to compel changing the curriculum.


You could provide evidence that your approach gets better feedback from students and raises test scores. You could describe your approach as the best service to students, in contrast with the other approach that doesn’t serve students nearly as well.


You might even go so far as to portray the other teaching method as a threat to students’ achievement and success. But you wouldn’t need, or want, to portray the other teachers as a dangerous threat that must be stopped at all costs.


You would want to moderate your polarizing rhetoric so that you could persuade while still being able to continue teaching at that school.


Summary


Any time you hear someone using “us vs. them” language or presenting themselves as a defender or savior, then you should be wary of that person’s claims, arguments, and credibility.


At best, they may be trying to manipulate you into giving them so much credibility that you’ll overlook obvious problems with their facts, evidence, or bias. At worst, they may be dehumanizing another group to justify inhumane policies.


Next chapter, we’ll start to go on the offensive. So far, we’ve focused mostly on how to recognize and react to problematic rhetoric, on being your own fact-checker. Next, we’ll learn what we can do to be proactive in response to news, fake news, and lies.


Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker.
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