Are Your Responses Futile?

48 Hours, The Human Brain
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.