Polarization And Strife
We’ve never been less polarized as a country than we are right now. I’ll explain.
Note: this essay was originally published on Revue on January 3, 2022.
When I was a child, they let us out of the classroom twice a day as I recall. You can only hold 25-40 children inside a room the size of an average gas station for so long before the molecule turns unstable and I assume the teacher needs a few stiff drinks, and you can’t really have children in the room for that, so out we’d go to scream and pound on each other for a while and hurl ourselves into the air or into walls like sentient superballs, and that was recess—again, as I recall. It was a long time ago. It was the olden days: the eighties. The nineteen eighties.
I do remember one recess game that was popular. It was called “smear the queer.” This was basically tag with a ball added. Whoever held the ball was “the queer.” Everybody else chased “the queer.” You could hit “the queer” as hard as you wanted is my recollection. The thing to do was to get “the queer” on the ground and then everyone would dogpile on, maybe with an elbow or a knee thrown in. Then when that was over, you’d throw the ball in the air and whoever the ball landed closest to would have to be “the queer,” and usually a guy wouldn’t want to take the ball and would be forced to take it, if he wasn’t tough enough to force somebody else to take it. It was a rough game, with pretty much all the boys playing it, taking turns being “the queer” and then taking turns in joining the mob brutalizing him.
Nobody in this game ever fought on behalf of “the queer.” Nobody even considered it. I certainly did not consider it. It wouldn’t have made sense. Anyone doing so would have broken the game so fundamentally that it would have stopped making any sort of sense.
I do know this: being “the queer” was not fun. You didn’t particularly want to be “the queer.” You’d do what it took to avoid it.
It wasn’t a thing questioned, this playground game. Fighting was not allowed, but unless serious injury occurred there was no problem that I recall with all the boys taking turns getting beaten for being “the queer.”
I don’t know how we knew about this game. I guess the way we knew all the other games; somebody told somebody who told somebody who told everybody else. An older brother to a younger brother, maybe, just a sort of inheritance of tradition and knowledge.
It was just a game. A playground game.
This was pretty much my only exposure to the concept of “the queer” back in the olden days. Sure, I heard rumors—of men who wanted to marry men, is how I recall being told about it—but it was in the same category as hearing about werewolves, or Freddy Krueger. There weren’t really gay people, at least not if they knew what was good for them.
We had words for these sorts of mythological people besides “the queer,” which we deployed freely at one another, usually as a casual insult. I won’t print those words here, because we “can’t” say those words anymore—which means we can, but not without receiving awareness that by using those words we’ve done actual harm to actual people, and I’m told that the delivery of this awareness means that these are far more polarized and divisive times today than they were back in the olden days, when video games cost a quarter a play, and schoolchildren played “smear the queer,” and calling each other slurs for homosexual didn’t mean you thought the person was something as terrible and mythological as gay, it simply meant you thought the person was worthy of contempt, or bad, or socially maladroit, or stupid.
Speaking of stupid, there was a kid in our grade who didn’t learn in class as easily as the rest. We had a word for him and people like him, too, which again we deployed liberally about him, but also among each other as an insult. We had words for all sorts of people. They all meant basically the same thing, or at least they all felt like they meant the same thing when you were called them, which is that you were the guy who’d been chosen to hold the ball. I won’t print them here, because, again, these are much more polarized times, when nobody agrees about what is funny, and you just can’t say anything anymore, because everyone is angry and nobody just relaxes, and that makes things harder for everybody, is what I hear.
For people who say things like “god, everyone is so offended these days; everybody should relax,” I expect the olden eighties were indeed a fine time for you, because everybody who saw us play this game was pretty relaxed about it, as far as I could tell. It was a much more relaxed time for everybody, I’m sure, and we were far less polarized.
The unpolarized eighties were a halcyon time; there were all kinds of words you could say without anybody ever delivering any awareness to you about it. Nevertheless, even the eighties, there were words we generally knew you couldn’t say. Those were words that people could use with impunity when our parents and grandparents were children, in an even less polarized time. I had a vague understanding that back in The Sixties there had been some very polarized times, and now, following those times, everyone agreed those words were no longer OK, so we were no longer polarized.
(I still heard those words all the time, by the way. I just noticed people took care of their company before using them.)
And twice a day we went out for recess, and played our games—which were just games.
Somewhere around that time, Ronald Reagan’s press secretary told a lot of jokes to reporters on the record about AIDS, the disease that was killing thousands of gay men, the disease that the Reagan administration was ignoring to fatal effect, and everybody in the room on both sides laughed and laughed and laughed. I don’t know how they all knew it was funny. I guess the way they knew all the other jokes were funny; just a sort of inheritance of shared knowledge about what was funny. They, like schoolchildren, seemed to think that gay people were no more real than werewolves.
There was no real controversy at the time about it. No significant outcry. It was the olden times: the eighties, a far less polarized time, when the world’s most powerful government leaving people to die by the thousands was funny, and everybody agreed with that, or at least kept quiet about it if they didn’t.¹
These days, when the government lets thousands of people die, there’s lots of yelling and fighting about the damage to human dignity and the loss of human life, and the ways we treat disabled and immunocompromised and other marginalized people as disposable.
I’m informed this means we’re far more polarized now.
I think a lot about this: how polarized we all know we are right now, and what a problem we all know it is.
It’s a real problem, I’m told. If centrist pundits are to be believed, it appears to be a bigger problem than hundreds of thousands of disproportionately minority, immunocompromised and elderly, and even otherwise healthy people dying, or than hospitals and schools overtaxed to breaking.
We’ve never been more polarized in most of our lifetimes, at least that’s the word. This polarization is tearing us apart,“ says the pundit to a nodding panel. "Cancel culture is out of control. We need to stop fighting ourselves, learn to build bridges to each other.”
We and us and ourselves are such interesting words. They leave a trail. You can usually follow them back to the lair of their underlying assumptions.
“We have never been more polarized as a country,” for example, says something very clear about who is considered a part of this country, and who is not.
If one becomes adept at following the trail of pronouns, one might almost start to observe that the idea of “polarized” is very much a question of whose perspective you’ve decided to take up, and where you set your poles. One might almost start to realize that even neutrality is a way of taking a side.
But I get it; I really do. I see what is meant by “polarized.” Family relationships have grown cold. Friendships fray. There’s invective on the airwaves on both sides. Rhetoric is superheated on both sides. There’s a lot of anger on both sides.
And, if you’re a marginalized person, this is a terrifying time, because the worst intentions of those who wish to harm them have rarely been so near to political actualization, and the efforts of those who will normalize literally anything in order to maintain a comfortable order have never worked so hard to make that seem all right.
But both sides are fighting.
There’s a lot of strife.
To give just one example of very many, we could talk about democracy. On one hand, there are people who want everybody to have equal access to the ballot, and on the other, there are people who would like to further entrench and expand our country’s history of disenfranchisement, and see election results they dislike overturned completely. And they’re doing it.
But, while many of the people who claim to want everyone to have equal access to the ballot seem quite willing to compromise on that, a lot of them aren’t budging at all, and they’re angry and hostile, and people who want to disenfranchise minorities are certainly willing to fight them about it. They’re willing to kill for it, if they decide the police aren’t doing so efficiently enough on their behalf.
(January 6, 2021 was a year ago this week and its organizers are all still at large, by the way.)
So, there’s a fight. And that’s distressing.
The resulting strife of this fight is very damaging to the national fabric, I’m told. But I’m not convinced it’s more damaging to the national fabric than the dismantling of our democracy, which is the current project of the disenfranchisers, and always was.
Disenfranchisement isn’t new, and the fight against it isn’t new, either; it’s just awareness of the fight that’s new for a lot of otherwise unthreatened people. And, perhaps, from the perspective of disenfranchised people, those times when few others fought beside them (or even acknowledged that there was a fight) felt more polarizing than now, when more people are fighting and refusing to stop fighting for the sake of comfortable politeness—even if that means that there is more fighting now.
We’re talking about voting now, but we could be talking about climate injustice. We could be talking about wealth disparity. We could be talking about access to public spaces. We could be talking about insulin prices. We could be talking about anti-trans bathroom bills, or anti-awareness education requirements. We could be talking about many things.
Maybe for people who suffer systemic disenfranchisement, the fact of the fight isn’t newly polarizing, because the fact of the fight is a daily reality. Maybe it’s not so much the fight itself that’s distressing so much as the fact that there are people willing to fight to enforce and expand systemic disenfranchisement, supported by people willing to ignore it. Maybe the increase in strife actually feels like the first fluttering sign of solidarity—one they’ve seen go dormant far too many times to hope much in it, perhaps, but nevertheless certainly not polarization. Because when people fight beside you as you struggle for dignity and life, then you are less polarized from them, not more.
This seems obvious to say, but it’s apparently not—because, remember, it’s become a received knowledge that at this time of strife we have never been more polarized.
There were real people indicated by the slurs and words we used to use on the playgrounds in the eighties, which we “can’t” say anymore. Perhaps those real people experienced those golden olden times—when those words were given free license and everyone was much more relaxed—as a more polarizing time than now, when using those words will at least create some controversy, even if that means there is more visible anger and argument at the dinner tables and on the airwaves now than there was before.
I have to say, if I were a gay teacher at my elementary school in the eighties, I might have experienced that time as extremely polarizing. There were things that couldn’t be said back then, too. It’s just they were different things than slurs. In those days you couldn’t say things like “actually, I’m gay’” or else you’d be carrying the ball. You’d become “the queer,” and if you wanted to know what that meant for you, you only had to watch the boys playing at recess, or listen to the press secretary of the President of the United States. Criticism would be the least of it. Criticism still is the least of it, even in these times that have more protections for and awareness about gay people … protections and awareness that make us more polarized.
Perhaps this hypothetical gay teacher at my elementary school back in the eighties, who today sees families and churches breaking up because a critical mass of their members are no longer willing to go along with the anti-gay bigotry of the rest, does not experience this as an increase in polarization, but of solidarity, even though they recognize an increase in overall strife.
Yes, and what do we mean when we say “we’ve never been so polarized,” anyway?
What if instead we said “It’s been a long time since the reality of injustice has been made so unavoidably present to otherwise comfortable people”?
What if instead we said “Its been a long time since so many people have become so violently resentful of the moral demands of justice”?
Let me suggest something that might seem counterintuitive: We have rarely been less polarized as a country.
Am I saying we’re not polarized? Far from it. I’m saying we’re miscategorizing what polarization even is.
We are still very likely to treat gay or bi or trans or nonbinary, Black or brown, Muslim or Jewish or Sikh or Hindu, or undocumented, or disabled, ill, neuroatypical, impoverished, or unhoused people, and many others, too, as if their lives and dignity don’t exist, or at least matter enough to fight about.
But more and more of us are unwilling to do that to them.
We are insisting that they are actually our friends and neighbors and brothers and sisters, and that their lives have the same value as ours, and they deserve protection from those of us who would mistreat them as if they were not us, too.
Some of us insist on behaving as if all of them are actually us.
Which means we are increasingly unwilling to keep comfortable and normalized relationships with those of us who insist on treating our brothers and sisters as if their lives don’t matter.
And yes, we’re willing to fight about that with some others among us—not because we see ourselves as separate from them, but because we know that even though we’re fighting them, they are actually us, too … and we demand better from ourselves.
It’s not the beginning of “us versus them.” It’s the end of it. Or, I hope, at least the beginning of the end of it.
When people say “this polarization is tearing us apart” by us they don’t ever seem to mean “the people our society ignores and harms, either for identity or fortune; the people we ignore for our own lazy comfort.” That is a polarization they insist on; the cause they fight for. By us they seem to mean “the critical mass of people willing to license our injustice.”
And yes, many people, who resent the inconvenience of that fight, or who have no stomach for it, experience this strife as polarization. They experience it as being treated as a them for the first time … even though nobody is trying to disenfranchise them; they’re just no longer willing to date them.
But for many people, I suspect the increase in this kind of strife isn’t experienced as polarization at all, but solidarity.
So, where do you set your poles?
Are you opposed only to fights? Or are you actually interested in what people are fighting for?
Do you see each fight as an increase in polarization? If so, be honest with yourself about the assumptions you’re aligning with, about who in your worldview is allowed to be we and us and ourselves, and who isn’t.
Consider the idea that treating certain people as if they don’t matter enough to care about their dignity and their lives—and doing this so thoroughly and effectively that society treats them as if they are nonexistent and disposable—creates a much deeper polarization than any fight over the holiday dinner table or on the airwaves over whether or not it’s good to do so.
And: the more peaceful that subjugation, the greater the polarization.
Consider a corollary, that as people stop going along with this unnatural injustice, it will decrease the peace of that subjugation; will increase resentment and strife, for as long as there are people still willing to fight to subjugate others.
But the strife isn’t polarization. It’s distressing, but it’s not polarization. The strife is the first early sign that we might be willing to stop being polarized by bigotry and injustice.
Consider that these numbers below might bode very well, if you’re somebody who is targeted for systemic daily malice and harm by Republicans, who depend on the friendship and cooperation of Democrats to continue doing it without paying social or political consequence.
Sarah Isgur @whignewtons
This doesn’t bode well. “By the numbers: 5% of Republicans said they wouldn't be friends with someone from the opposite party, compared to 37% of Democrats.” https://t.co/cOy2qFSzYj
10:39 PM - 7 Dec 2021
In fact, consider that for many, 37% might seem like far too low a number. Maybe 37% isn’t a polarization metric, but a solidarity metric.
It has to be said, even if we’re less polarized than ever by this metric, we’re still a very polarized country, and always have been.
There exist many willing to fight for the degradation of other human beings, and they are supported by a critical mass of comfortable people, because supporting injustice remains the path of ease. There are still people who want to smear “the queer,” and they’ll always find somebody they can force to pick up the ball and run, as long as everybody continues to treat it like a game, or at least not care enough to notice.
And some people are those humans, who have had no choice but to hide or fight their whole lives. And for those same people, the sight of ostensible allies willing to compromise in order to reduce visible strife and maintain their own comfortable relationships would represent not a diminishment of polarization, but rather a demoralizing and entirely expected reversion to our polarized norm.
And now, some otherwise comfortable people who are not targeted in that way have been drawn or shocked into awareness, and many of them are willing for the first time to endure the strife that comes with insisting that they are us.
What is the strife about, after all? It’s a fight. Not a new one, even if awareness of it is new for some of us. What is the fight about? About whether all humans matter enough to care about their dignity and their lives.
This seems like a pretty worthy fight, and worth the strife. We should hope that those among us who have picked up this old fight for the first time continue it, not abandon it—if we are interested in decreasing our national polarization, that is.
Anyone doing so will start breaking the game so fundamentally that it will stop making any sort of sense as a game.
So let’s do that.
Let us never build bridges to connect us to back to injustice, but rather build channels designed to carry us all away from it.
Let us refashion our priorities and our society until justice becomes the way of ease and it’s injustice that carries the heaviest burdens.
This may be a lot of work, and it may bear a heavy cost. But it’s worthy work, and a reward worth the price.
That’s my word for this morning: let’s do that work.
May we never abandon our brothers and sisters for the sake of comfort and ease. Increase the awareness of injustice, and thus the discomfort.
And may we become even less polarized than we are now as a result, no matter the strife.
¹There were people yelling then, too, but history’s record will show that they had to yell for a very long time before most people stopped laughing, and some people still laugh, or very much resent the expectation they should have stopped.
A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places. He never promised you a toes garden.
Sadly, society will continue to be society, and expectations will continue to be expected. That doesn't mean that efforts shouldn't continue to be efforts. It only means that disappointments will continue to be disappointments. That understanding should bring tears, and alliev none of our fears. Sometimes I wonder if there's no more objectivity left in the world. The "wrong " side is always the "other" side... for everyone.