Are Your Responses Futile?

Is This column Futile?

Many readers are buying into the idea of brain polarization, citing various examples of it happening in their lives. Some see it as a good thing - others disagree.

"But market research tends to suggest that anyone reading these words right now is more politically engaged than most. So to the extent this column tries to point out contradictions, dishonesty and hogwash in politics and rhetoric, it is probably a waste of time.

I am, it appears, hitting my ventromedial prefrontal cortex against the wall."

Don't be so hard on yourself. In at least one instance you weren't wasting your time; I came across your column in the course of several days websearching for input on "political polarization" and "political hatred." This websearch was inspired by a several month survey I did of the "blogosphere," left and right. I was so shocked and appalled by what I encountered there that I felt compelled to go in search of scholarly commentary on this seeming "phenomenon."

I got rather more than I bargained for when I found your article. Now I understand why, despite being an avowed liberal myself, that I have found myself so distinctly uncomfortable in the presence of certain other avowed "liberals," and more than a little shocked when I hear one of them openly and publicly characterize his/her opponent as a "worthless piece of scum-sucking trash" (this has been toned down to keep your ears from falling off). These last few months I've been thinking with my head, and rubbing shoulders with those who think with their guts. No wonder the doc had to write me a prescription for Prevacid.

I may just start calling myself an independent, or a centrist, or a moderate liberal.

In an interesting bit of irony, I found your article by following a link to the CBS website posted at a "right-leaning" site where the webmaster compiles links to "Liberal (Progressive) & Democrat Hate Sites" so as to "protect and defend the Constitution from domestic enemies."

Rod Brock

I recently read and enjoyed your column on polarization. What troubles me are the reasons the extremes have gotten so angry and unreachable. The problem began, you suggest, in 1972. It's no coincidence that Roe v Wade was the very next year. People really cared about that one, and they weren't willing give much consideration to the other side. Ditto with Viet Nam. The fires were lit.

Then, show business swallowed opinion. The results were inflammatory and mean. And they made people money. Fox, O'Reilly, Franken. And when money's made, there's more of the same.

Extremists saying extreme things in extreme ways gets all the attention. Reason and accurately supported argument are banished. The money flows. And the country gets angrier and angrier.

My vote and voice are for the Passionate Middle. I'd like to speak for them. I'd like to write commentary from a questioning perspective and an open mind. But nobody seems interested. Unless I set myself on fire, literally or metaphorically, I doubt if I or the moderate point of view, which I believe is where the answers lie, will ever be heard.

Earl Pomerantz

I enjoyed your column on partisan politics and the brain published March 14th.

I have tried to see both sides of the issues, watching the Sunday morning political shows and reading everything I can online. I search for facts and entertain diverse opinions.

I tell you though, the more news I consume, the more partisan I feel.

I am getting angrier and more opinionated every day. And my feelings extend to the media. There are stations I love (CBS) and writers I hate (Time's Joe Klein).I wrote a nasty email to ABC's The Note recently because they enraged me by making fun of Senator Feingold's bid to censure Bush. I won't watch or visit ABC's broadcast or website, again. I guess I would say the strength of my irrationality is in direct proportion to my feeling that the things I value most are in peril: freedom, safety, rule of law, and peace.

Here is the advice I want to give you: people will read and ponder what you have to say as long as you appear unbiased. As soon as people think you are on "the other side" they will clamp their hands over their ears and say "no, no, no." Partisan behavior breeds partisan opposition.

People like me are hungry for facts, for the truth, for rationality, but if I suspect you are skewering the facts to support the Republicans — well, you're dead to me.

Amy Billings

I am a Psychiatrist/Psychoanalyst and I blog anonymously as ShrinkWrapped (name available on request.) I enjoyed your article on Partisan Irrationality. If I may offer a couple of comments. First of all, there is nothing surprising about this finding. Our rational thinking is a thin patina lying on top of deeper strata of more primitive thought processes. Rationality is easily disrupted and strong emotional states are ideal for disrupting rational thought. Naturally, I blogged about your article and I would suggest there is a way out of the dilemma of an increasingly partisan politics. My post is "Partisans and Rationality." An excerpt for your perusal:

Here is our dilemma: People who are engaged politically tend to have an emotional investment in their beliefs. (Otherwise, we would be writing about the apathy of our fellow citizens.) Powerful emotions, motivated by anxiety and anxious times, interfere with our highest cognitive functions, including the ability to reason.

Politicians know that emotional ads work; reporters know that questioning the core beliefs of their demographic often leads to unemployment; political consultants know that offering complex, nuanced plans for policy changes is a sure way to lose business.

Which raises the question: Is there any way to square the circle?

Fortunately, as any competent Psychotherapist can tell you, the first step in changing is to recognize a problem. If you know that your initial reaction to a statement is emotional, it is incumbent upon you to take the time to re-examine your own prejudices. Some can never do this kind of self-examination, but others will and can and have.

For the rest, I suggest more partisanship! I am a life-long Democrat and think my party has lost its way, in part because the Democratic core has replaced rational argument with emotional sloganeering. The best way out of the problem is clarifying sunlight. Just as the 1964 election clarified issues for the Republican base, we need the Democrats to figure out what is important to their party. My suggestion is for the Dems to openly discuss and push impeachment (which is the logic of their positions, in any case) and have at it; let the moderate, non-partisan public decide.


Anecdotes abound to support Dick Meyer's commentary "Is this Column Futile?" When Clinton was president, I couldn't abide his image on television; I felt a visceral revulsion. In 2003, the wife of my college roommate said to me, "I can't stand to see Bush; I feel repulsed." Last month a discussion among close friends about the NSA eavesdropping boiled down to, "Do you trust the Administration or don't you?" Attraction and revulsion, trust and distrust, all are emotional responses. Even well-educated, articulate people cannot seem to examine the issues with reason. Part of the problem may be information overload. There are so many sources of news, and they so often conflict that, as my wife says, "We just don't know." Since we can't know the facts, we resort to emotion.

Harold Gabriel

Your column may be futile, if your goal is to change one's voting behavior. However, it's not all clear what it means for someone to "listen to reason."

I'm a fairly loyal Republican, even though I'm pro-choice and have a few other Libertarian tendencies. I also will be the first to say that Bush has not been a very good president. He does contradict himself on a regular basis. Whether you point that out or not, it's the truth.

Nevertheless, you, along with all other political commentators, have zero chance of ever persuading me to vote for a Democrat. My distaste for social engineering and a myriad of other rules that Democrats would like to use to run my life preclude that possibility. However, I do "listen" and read and use that information to help me choose between various conservatives. In that regard, I will probably opt for McCain in the next Republican presidential primary in my state.

At the same time, I have to admit that I simply can't stand extreme liberals. They are, to me, "zeros."

So, am I the "office lout" who is a "slave" to my "prefontal cortex" ... or not?

The other piece of the puzzle that you've failed to take into account concerns relative education levels of the U.S. population. With each passing year, education levels (percent with high school diploma, percent with college diploma, percent with grad degree, etc.) keeps rising. However, I'm guessing that the overall education level of the political commentator community has not changed nearly as much — especially over the past quarter century or so. Most probably had a college diploma back then and most probably do today. This affects how increasingly more educated people view those political commentators.

What I'm driving at is a counter-intuitive notion — that more education may, overall, make people more resistant to the simplistic type of commentary seen on the national evening news and in regular political columns (online or otherwise). Someone who is very bright, who is 100 percent current in terms of news and who has given a great deal of thought to political questions, doesn't have to engage their "prefontal cortex" to read or listen to modern political commentators.

I'm an academic (Professor of Accounting) with three degrees (BA, MBA, PhD) from schools with national reputations. I'm also a CPA.

Most college faculty, as you know, are quite liberal (in the modern sense of the word). I think you would find that they are as resistant to fundamental changes in their political views as I am.

My opinion is that much of this resistance has to do with the trivial view that we all have toward the media, regardless of our political slant. And, that trivial view, in some way, has to do with differential relative education levels.

That's all I have time for now.

Scott Newman

No political commentary is completely futile because, if for no other reason, it makes at least one person (the writer) think about the political landscape. I frequently ponder political issues and I don't discuss them with anyone. In theory, doing that is the responsibility of every mentally-competent citizen. We should ask every citizen to compose (in mind or on paper) a short weekly essay — bare minimum of 50 words — about their opinion of the state of the union or so-and-so issue.

Outside the beltway, I strongly believe most people are 99 percent non-partisan mostly because they either: (1) don't care; and/or (2) believe their opinion and vote will have virtually no impact on what happens in Washington.

Granted, if you ask them a bunch of questions during a poll or a scientific study, they will feel obligated to give an intelligent opinion even if none existed beforehand.

If you haven't already, please read the book "Blink". It might give insight to the topic of today's column.

David Woosley

Oh, great. Another excuse for illogical thinking. The neurons made me do it.

Let's put "partisan brains" on an equal track with bird flu and mad cow. We need a cure for all three of them badly.

Randi Gifford

If you still want to send in an e-mail, you'll have to read a real column to find the address.