Polarization has human consequences

Alexander Cohen

Contributing Writer


Polarization is an unfortunate phenomenon. In today’s polarized political climate, I find it important to comment on the nature of polarization in an effort to help stave it off. Have you ever thought about how we justify various policies? Should we keep children locked in cages or is that going too far to curb undocumented immigration? Should women have a choice, or should we follow God’s word and preserve the right to life for that collection of cells and soul? Should we make the possession and sale of firearms illegal or do we have a civic duty to protect ourselves against a tyrannical government? 

No matter where you stand on these issues and many others, it is generally accepted among our society that we need justification for the opinions we undoubtedly have regarding them. For example, “Undocumented immigration is a legitimate problem and needs to be stopped; it is a woman’s body and therefore, a woman’s choice; so on and so forth.” But I’d like you to go further than justification. It was one of Immanuel Kant’s most contested arguments in his moral philosophy that the will to perform an action is just as important as the action itself for one to be considered morally culpable. Our justificatory reason(s) for one position or another tends to rely on various schools of thought, methodologies and interpretations. “I own a gun, because it’s my right as an American citizen; abortion is wrong because it goes against my beliefs as a Christian.” This is insufficient. To be clear, a stance premised entirely on one’s justification for that stance is dangerous, misguided in its intentions, shortsighted in its objectives and is wholly incomplete in its application. 

When it comes to policies that affect people’s lives, we need to think about the consequences at least as much as we think about our reasons for believing whatever it is we believe. When two people have a political disagreement, it is likely that the disagreement is due to different methodologies used to approach the same problem. And what makes polarization so natural in this type of disagreement is that the reasons one uses to justify their position — “abortion goes against my religious beliefs” or “gun violence in metropolitan America warrants more anti-gun legislation” — are not seen as justificatory reasons by the opposing party. Put simply, divergent methodologies yield divergent sets of beliefs. What needs to be done, then, to avoid such polemic and cyclical disagreement? How can we as a society depolarize if our beliefs cannot be understood as rationally justified by those with whom we disagree, and vice versa? 

Think about the consequences. How do the laws in this country affect its citizens? I am not so much interested in why you believe what you believe; I care about how it affects people’s lived realities. What is there to show for “tough-on-crime,” retributive justice legislation or the policies enacted in the name of the War on Terror? Are people’s lives better because of these policies, or have certain groups of people been marginalized, silenced, ignored and harmed or killed because of the principled stands we took and didn’t fully think through?


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