Division in America, and how to solve it

Thomas Tait '22

Many agree that the United States has never been as divided as it is today. Following both the elections of 2016 and 2020, there were huge portions of the population angry with the outcome, fearful of the new administration, and suspicious that the other side stole the election (both in 2016 and 2020).

Division like this is harmful to our democracy and our nation as a whole. Most people don’t want this division to continue. There are four major causes for this division, and by addressing these causes, we can begin to unify once again.

  1. Recognize the difference between fact and opinion

Many viewers take the word of Tucker Carlson, Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper, and Ben Shapiro to be fact. In reality, a lot of the programs and information on news channels and social media today are not straight fact, but rather commentary on the day’s news. Many Americans only get their news from shows like Carlson’s and Cooper’s, and yet many of the more popular anchors are attempting to convince viewers of their opinion, not share strictly fact-based news. This is usually accomplished by entertaining monologues and emotion inducing narratives, neither of which are news.

Even more so, most anchors aren’t an expert on all the subjects they discuss. Let’s be honest, do Carlson and Cooper know more about the economy or racial injustice than someone who has completed decades of education and research on the subjects? No. Often times they may present their words as fact, but it is really their own reasoning and beliefs on a subject. If they are backing it up with logical fallacies, oversimplified reasoning, and even sometimes just plain falsehoods, it isn’t fact, or even analysis: it’s an agenda.

When watching these “news” shows, viewers should recognize that these networks will always have an agenda, some more obvious than others. They are trying to push your reasoning and beliefs in a certain direction. Take what they say with a grain of salt. Watch it critically, looking for flaws in their logic to fill with your own research, research from knowledgeable, credible sources. A good chart to see the reputability of various outlets is included here.

Also keep in mind that some people may seem credible, but truly aren’t. Their credentials may look reputable, but they could be completely phony. Do your research on their background and think about what agenda they might have.

  1. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the idea that people will seek out information that agrees with the beliefs they already have. Those that identity as Republicans or supporters of former President Trump may only watch Fox News or Newsmax, while Democrats or supporters of President Biden may only watch CNN or MSNBC. The information given to those groups on these channels usually aligns with what they already believe, further validating those beliefs, making them more likely to come back and watch the next day too. And the news channels have an incentive to continue this cycle of belief-validation. Just like any other TV show, news channels like CNN and Fox News are competing for viewers to make money. The broadcast news industry brought in over $177.48 billion in revenue in 2019, but this huge chunk of revenue is declining as more Americans get their news from social media and the internet. To avoid risking an even greater loss in viewership, broadcast news channels have settled comfortably into only presenting information and opinions that will validate how their viewers feel.

This effect is worse on social media. Apps like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Tik Tok use algorithms learn what information users like to see, what users spend the most time looking at, and what users will engage with the most. Often times the posts that fit into those criteria are full of ideas the user agrees with most; the app will suggest more posts like it and continue the cycle of confirmation bias. Keep in mind, social media is a place where anyone can share any information they believe, which means people can share posts that are missing context, are classified as hearsay, have only partial information, or are just plain inaccurate; it’s no different than a random person yelling on the street. Make sure to fact-check information found on social media.

Don’t fall into these traps. Seek out information that disagrees with your beliefs. Seek out new information with the intention to learn and develop your thinking on the issues. Don’t seek out new information with the intention to disagree with it; if you do that, you’ve already fallen into the confirmation bias cycle.

  1. Demonization and Distrust of Others

In the United States today, many news outlets and social media users accuse the other side of being liars and un-American; there are people on both sides that believe the other side is completely brainwashed into disregarding all information that disagrees with them. This is an unfair generalization. Most supporters of President Trump aren’t seeking the destruction of America; they are just scared of their taxes being raised and losing their jobs. Most supporters of President Biden aren’t communists who love China; they just prefer a government that uses direct intervention to help its people and don’t mind paying higher taxes to accomplish that goal. Unfortunately, the rhetoric that has become so common disagrees with this idea. There are too many people who believe that “if you support Trump, you’re a racist insurrectionist who loves fascism. If you support Biden, you’re a communist who wants to outlaw guns and hates the Christian faith.”

The reality is that most people cannot be defined by either of those statements. To leave the confirmation bias cycle, you need to seek out new information. But how can you do that if you hate the people presenting it? How can you do that if you assume that the information the other side is presenting is inherently misleading or a lie? That doesn’t help anyone; it only deepens those divides. We need to recognize that most people agree on a core set of values. We want the best for our families and neighbors, we want to feel safe, we want the ability to live our lives freely; we just disagree on how to accomplish that goal. Don’t fall victim to the rhetoric.

  1. Lack of Civil Conversation

Another way to heal the division in our nation is by committing to having civil conversation. There are a few simple guidelines that can help keep almost any conversations civil.

Seek out this civil conversation without looking to convince others of your beliefs; don’t attack the other person; be open to hearing new information and ideas. These are the keys to having the civil conversation that is necessary to find common ground and start healing as a nation.

Don’t go into a discussion with the goal of convincing the other person of your beliefs. That very quickly turns a discussion into a debate, which has the potential to turn into an argument. Do present your information, share your beliefs and the reasoning behind them. Just talk about the issues; you’ll come to an understanding on how you both feel. Then the demonization and distrust doesn’t become your only basis of knowledge regarding the opposing side.

Don’t attack the other person; don’t name call; and don’t presume to know what their intentions are. As soon as you do any of those things, you alienate the person you’re talking to. They become defensive and not focused on listening to your thoughts; their focus is on defending themself. The door to understanding is locked shut.

Don’t feel threatened when presented with new information, and don’t be afraid to change your opinion. This goes both ways in a discussion as well – allow the other person to change their opinion if they so choose, move the conversation as beliefs shift and move. Make sure you allow the other person to change their opinion without making them feel “inferior” or like you “won”. By the end, you may both have changed your opinion and outlook on a topic. Changing your opinion when presented with new information shows maturity, growth, and strength. Admitting that you were wrong also shows that strength.

Additionally, if you don’t think you can have a conversation about a certain topic civilly, then wait to bring it up until you personally feel ready to handle the conversation respectfully.

Most Americans don’t like the division that has emerged in today’s society, but as soon as we start to recognize these causes and fix them, we can begin our road to healing and unity. So, I encourage you, go seek out someone that disagrees with you: a friend, a family member, anyone. I encourage you to seek out new sources of news and to read information from the experts. I encourage you to seek out information you disagree with and analyze the information for its truthfulness and its relevancy. Change your opinions and evolve; our country can only heal if we change together.