Few will question the impact that the rise of the internet — and the consequent inception of social media — has had on politics in America. Never before has it been so effortless to interact with a wide variety of opinions and beliefs. Unfortunately, it seems the age of information has also spread mistrust, fear and hatred for those belonging to other parties.
The desire to paint other party members as evil adversaries has blocked objective attempts to address the issues we face in America.
A study by the Pew Research Center found that from 1994 to 2014, partisan animosity has increased. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled.
Of course, politicians have always received heavy criticism, and it is the role of citizens to provide that criticism. No politician should be free from it. We should chastise politicians when we find their actions unacceptable, but ordinary citizens should not be treated in the same way.
We should expect political figures to meet our demands. We should also expect ordinary people to approach us with relative civility.
The internet appears to have led some Americans to isolate themselves from friendly debate, even from other Americans. ‘All Trump supporters must be white supremacists,’ and ‘all Biden supporters must be radical Marxists,’ are common sentiments.
One does not need to adopt the opinion that both sides are the same, and while such claims are catchy and simple, they neglect to acknowledge the specific views of individuals. It is perfectly acceptable to detest the actions of specific politicians while recognizing the individual opinions of ordinary people.
It seems that we are no longer compelled to interact with an assorted mixture of people and opinions. Instead, it’s easy to join online communities that exist to reaffirm opinions that we already have. No matter how niche, specific or sometimes abhorrent a belief might be, there is probably an existing community that welcomes it with open arms.
Author and activist Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” over a decade ago to describe how social platforms isolate us from other perspectives. Individuals can become insulated from the larger political landscape and only receive information that reaffirms their existing beliefs. This bubble has provided fuel for absurd, even comical ideas. Anti-vaxxers, moon-landing deniers, and flat-earthers represent only a few of the most prominent bubbles that the internet has grown.
Despite how alarming these beliefs might be, the main issue for discourse seems to not be bizarre conspiracy theories, but rather perfectly sane individuals who no longer consider the arguments of other people.
It is all too common for us to participate in communities that regularly defend our philosophies, while subconsciously discounting any information that might contradict them. Often, we seek to disprove rather than first seeking to understand. Our personal bubbles might be Fox News, CNN or any online community.
Rarely do we first pause to consider why a person believes something. Instead, we often search for ways to contradict them. Understanding comes second to the ambition of winning a debate. There is no possibility for discussion when it is founded on competition. While debate should always be part of political conversation, it must be offset by an open-minded attempt to perceive the opinions of other Americans.
This is not to suggest that all ideologies are created equal, nor that we should completely stop criticizing others for their beliefs. Some beliefs, such as Nazism, are of course atrocious and deserve harsh and relentless criticism. However, most people are not Nazis. The vast majority of Americans hold beliefs that are, at the very least, within the realm of being understood.
It is our obligation, as both Americans and as students, to promote useful conversations. We should still debate and disagree with one another. After all, these things are essential to democracy. Still, we cannot limit all of our interactions to antagonistic arguments. The only path toward productive communication is one that is willing to view conversation not as a game to be won, but rather as an experience to be enjoyed.
If we cannot avoid constant combative political conversation, then we will have accepted a world where conversation will be forever limited.