During Thanksgiving dinner, I was asked a hard question: “Would you say your family is conservative or liberal?” For most Americans, this is an easy one. Being one or the other is part of their identity. The question translates directly to “Republican or Democrat”, “Trump or not”, “social security or free market”. This country seems to have simplified a complex bundle of worldviews into a binary choice, into a single word. It should be rather obvious to choose your category. Once selected, you can buy a political sign saying “Trump” or “Warren” and plant it into your lawn. Life could be so easy.
For me, however, it’s not. I would say my family is both to some extent: conservative and liberal. The scale in my European head is not 1-dimensional, it’s not just a binary choice. Political views are multidimensional in my world. To talk about politics, I like to use a 2-dimensional model: One axis shows how nationalistic you are, the other axis measures your liberalism with respect to the economy. This model still neglects a whole range of factors, but it would at least allow me to express where I stand politically.
In our increasingly global and complex world, having two categories seems like a comfortable point of retreat. Always knowing which one of the two parties to vote for is convenient. This also applies to other categories in life: Climate activist or polluter, Party-person or Nerd, very good at math or not at all, extroverted or introverted. Just like computers, we like our world to be binary, to be easy. But it is not and this “either-or” attitude is dangerous. How have we come this far and what can we do against it?
Can PC heal us?
A nice abbreviation I’ve learned these days is “PC” for “political correctness”. It’s a huge deal in the States to correctly address different identities, to show respect using adequate language. One important identity I want to pick as an example is gender. During the last years, awareness of a whole spectrum of genders has emerged. Americans make a remarkable effort to be sensible and to use the right pronouns for everyone. Notably, this question is not 1-dimensional anymore. Instead of being a boy or a girl or something between the two, people have their very individual concepts of gender. It has become a complex matter that PC is trying to incorporate in our language.
While PC warriors seem to fight a constant battle against bad words and inappropriate language, I get the impression that they are working on a Sisyphean task. Our language adapts to currently relevant identities, like gender and sexual orientation, introducing new categories and scales. There are other battles though that we’re currently losing.
One such battle is related to socio-economic status: The US society seems to be more and more divided into rich and poor. Not just statistics show us that wealth gaps are increasing, I can even see it here on campus. Most students at Northwestern are either on full financial aid or not at all, meaning they either pay 0$ or up to 78’000$ per year. It might not be appropriate to ask in a conversation, but Northwestern’s Wildcats usually identify as one of the two categories. “Rich or poor” is the unspoken “conservative or liberal” on campus.
In the media, many of these observations are summarized by the term polarization. Most would agree that today, polarization is increasing, despite the rise of political correctness. Polarization is in some way binarization, it is the simplification of our complex world into two categories. Fighting binarization means making the world a bit more complex, adding more layers and dimensions to our views. That’s hard compared to doing the opposite: Splitting the population in two.
The United States is an extremely polarized place. I’ve heard stories of Thanksgiving dinners where families couldn’t even have conversations about politics anymore. Views are so far apart that everyone would just state their opinion and then not listen to the others. If grandma is a Republican and dad is a Democrat, no dialogue will be established. The origins of this phenomenon go back to the 1960s, as I’ve learned recently, reading the fantastic book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Back then, Republican leaders have adapted a ruder language to talk about Democrats and their ideas. Soon, both parties focussed more on their differences and their specific target groups of voters. The values they promoted became more distinct while finding compromises in the congress became more difficult. Today, we see the result: A country divided into red and blue. The question which side you’re on has become fully legitimate – it is even essential to check whether starting a conversation makes sense.
When politicians use their rhetoric to emphasize differences, they deprive their people of choices. The further apart parties position themselves, the more obvious it becomes for voters to choose their side. On election day, the ballot will force you as a citizen to officially document that decision. This choice will cause a ripple effect: You’re now part of one half of the voters, you stand for their values and concepts. Facebook will know and will show you more advertisements from that party. At Thanksgiving dinners, you’ll more likely talk to your aunt who has cast the same vote. And then, on TV, you’ll pick the channel that reports from your perspective. It’s a vicious circle that drives you deeper and deeper into one of the two wholes. Having only two major parties and having been actively polarized for 50 years, the US is extremely vulnerable to this phenomenon.
Don’t stop voting
Binarization seems to be a disease spreading all around the globe. How can we cure ourselves of it? An apparent option is to simply avoid making decisions: Instead of identifying as liberal, one can simply not care about politics. Instead of voting, one can sleep in and watch Netflix on election day. We could all flee polarization by becoming grey blobs without an opinion.
That’s not how humans work though. We need values and clear decisions to live a meaningful life. We need the tension between different sides of a spectrum to find out who we want to be. We need a constant battle to find energy and excitement. All of this is possible without binarizing every view and characteristic. There are huge brains in our heads that permit us to perceive the world in a more complex way than a computer. Other than 0-or-1-Bits, our models of reality should be multi-dimensional, creative and comprehensive. It’s a constant effort and it’s not easy to have more than two options. But as I see it, we’re not here to have it simple and easy anyways. Appreciating the world means appreciating its complexity and discovering new categories every day.