• Flux Magazine

"The Divided States of America" by Riley Lewis

Political polarization, partisanship, social cleavage, left or right, liberal or conservative; these are the terms that authors, professors and pundits use to describe life in the United States. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I read the word “polarization” in the news, I would have enough money to retire. These buzzwords are routinely used; much like toothpaste, and it is frustrating because it does not capture the divisive nature of our time. Historically, social cleavages and political divisions are quite familiar. The Constitution, for example, was a document of great compromise between various stakeholders, including slave owners. Predictably, the Atlantic slave trade grew increasingly controversial over time and the American Civil War was the product of this controversy.

As an undergraduate student of political science in the San Francisco Bay Area, during the administration of Donald Trump, I witnessed the breakdown of discourse into a formidable, contemptible duel between my classmates, my professors, my peers and even my family. As a graduate student of peace, justice, and conflict, I am flabbergasted by the divisive language that is perpetuated on campus and off campus. Above all else, we have prioritized our own comfort and narcissism above honesty, integrity, and humanity. The language of war has assisted in the dehumanization process that is so fashionable in 2020.

To understand the current state of division in the US, we will borrow an idea from the peacebuilding literature. Lewis Richardson’s concept of the “war mood” is totally indicative of the social atmosphere, especially on campuses. I have experienced this division directly both as a student on college campuses and a tutor on high school campuses. The traditional wartime narratives such as “us versus them” and “moral superiority versus moral inferiority” perpetuate this division because it justifies our position. No matter how weak my argument might be, the other person or group is wrong. In addition, they are morally inferior and even evil, and they must be silenced. There is no room for negotiation or discussion, this is about total domination.

The years since the 2016 US election have been the most tumultuous years of my entire life. Granted, I am only twenty-three years old, however I know that one thing is for sure; the current level of hostility is unsustainable. The levee is going to break at some point, and at this point one of two possible things will happen. The first option is that people will simply be too tired to keep fighting and agree to work together for the sake of community betterment and good governance. The second option is that people will triple down on the division and continue to create segregated social spaces that eliminate the need for civil discourse altogether. Obviously, the first option is the better route to take, however angry people are not known for making decisions that are truly in their best interest.

The fragility of our society, as we currently know it, is concerning. The content of our discourse is drawn from wartime measures that pit one group against the other group, and this division is normalized through our language. What’s more, the presence of critical theory and intersectional theory has provided a range of terms, slogans and phrases that are deployed in the culture war. This war mood is so contagious that it also influences our performance on social media. The instagram biographies of my closest associates are rife with new age political slogans that are meant to virtue signal. My friends want to express their identity and also shame others at the same time, and this process is fashionable. Of course, the devolution of online behavior is indicative of the same problem offline; people are losing their capacity to articulate the perspective of others, particularly if their perspectives challenge someone’s core values.

At this point, I have made my case for the problematic levels of division in the United States. As the title suggests, we are losing our shared sense of meaning and with this loss is the loss of our unity. Furthermore, the unification process is necessarily a collective effort that is much bigger than one person. It won’t be Joe Biden, or AOC, or any one individual, that unites this fractured nation. Unity is a choice; and it is up to us to decide whether or not we are interested in snapping out of this war mood and unifying. There isn’t one formula for the unification process, however our chances of success significantly increase when we work together. In order to do my part, I extend myself beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone by engaging in difficult conversations with people about unification. In fact, one of the reasons for my pursuit of peace and justice studies is the presence of such division in the US and around the world. To that end, I consistently dedicate myself to the pursuit of unification because if we do not have unity, then we have nothing.

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