SERVICE IN A POLARIZED CULTURE

Polarization of opinion is a byproduct of democracy.

Constitutional government is better than autocracies. Or other totalitarian ways to manage society. Deliberations can be positive avenues through which possible actions are discerned, created and applied.

However, as good as democracies are, their kind of representative governance is messy—even frustrating. It is anything but quiet contemplation in an atmosphere of efficiency and certainty.

Decision-making seems to take forever as lawmakers debate incessantly. Trying to hammer out compromises. Their positions ‘poles’ apart.

Or if they align themselves with a party platform to show loyalty. To achieve goals emanating from a particular philosophy.

I have never served in an elected position as a legislative or congressional representative. Not something to be proud of. But like many Americans, I hold politics in low esteem.

Especially when candidates pander to crass attack ads paid for by political action committees. “PACs” are financially supported by corporations and special interest groups. They pay PACs huge amounts based on the 2010 Freedom of Speech rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Advertising companies with creative writers can easily sway public opinion. Through a combination of deceptive verbiage, sinister graphics, ominous voiceovers, and shady proclamations.

Americans have been hoodwinked into taking extreme positions by unscrupulous advertisers. By commercial broadcasters allowed to spew out anything they please with no restrictions. By social media giants filling our minds with intellectual detritus. Disgusting!

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan told us “the medium is the message,” taken from his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He said the medium itself should be considered before accepting the message it delivers. In today’s world, that assertion applies to everything from emailed ads to TV sound bites. From bumper stickers to Twitter.

And we are heavily influenced by them, their perceived good way to fix the problem. They too often work as intended. Our education system does not help students guard against untethered hyperbole designed to convince people without supporting evidence. The awful part is that it can lead to mass hysteria. Acceptance of solutions that lead to revolution, war, and millions of deaths.

Many historians point to the 20th Century’s invention and use of commercial radio and motion pictures as media to effectively sway public opinion. To bring to the surface underlying fears and prejudices against human beings perceived to be dangerously different than ourselves. Skin color, religious views, cultural preferences, and political/economic viewpoints.

To make us afraid. Very afraid.

To the point many otherwise decent folks believed in genocide. The total elimination of the other fearsome culture.

Now, in the 21st Century, we have even more invasive media used to promote biases and polarization. The proliferation of unrestricted television and social media produce unverifiable information, used to justify existing prejudices or create new ones.

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Cooperation, politically referred to as bipartisanship, is now a sought-for goal in Congress and other representative groups. Advocated by those critical of the polarization. Fueled to overcome the hysteria caused by the purveyors of hate and narrow cultural viewpoints.  

Bipartisanship has existed throughout American history. Usually, it starts with an influential leader who articulately asserts a point-of-view through words or actions.  S/he enlightens with “ah ha” moments. “I never thought of it that way before” reactions.

That is the ultimate kind of service. Often produced by people brought to the brink of despair.  The example: Abraham Lincoln when he penned The Gettysburg Address.

Some highly principled people were intelligent and self-effacing enough to work together to find solutions to the nation’s problems. They were creative thinkers, articulate writers, and responsive negotiators.

Their service was equated with self-effacement. Simply the right thing to do. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, IF inspired me to provide that kind of service.

But Kipling was also an advocate of service in the guise of “the white man’s burden” genre. That interpretation of service caused the kind of superior feelings which resulted in many misguided missionary endeavors. Patronizing behaviors toward women and minority groups. The idea that those of us born with theoretically superior attributes should care for those born with inferior intelligence or abilities.

That kind of thinking was polarization of the worst kind. Should we be happy to serve others if they would just recognize their inferior status and show appreciation for our largess? Recognizing and accepting our Christian charity without seeking equality with us?

Service with strings attached. Service that creates the kind of resentment that seethes below. That makes polarization worse.

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As an educator, the service I try to provide is one in which students are given the intellectual, emotional, and academic tools to become contributors to humanity. My job as a teacher is to help my students progressively become ‘more.’

Many of my students were potentially already more than I. But sometimes had to be convinced of their precociousness.

Service with no strings attached. With no polarizing wall between who I am and who he or she will someday be.

With no fear of being dominated or the possibility of succumbing to the inclination to dominate another. Just knowing we are on this earth to serve each other’s welfare. Whatever way we can, thereby leaving a legacy for others to follow.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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