By: Saba Johnson
Saba joined JSA her freshman year and served on SoCal’s State Cabinet for three years as a Deputy Director of Debate. For the 2019-2020 JSA School Year, she served as Palisades Chapter President and National Director of Debate on JSA's National Cabinet.
Fidgeting in an ill-fitting pantsuit in a stuffy hotel conference room, I watched two students sit at the front of the room, separated by a stoic moderator. Over the course of an hour, they passionately debated why physician-assisted suicide should be legal or illegal.
As a spectator, I was firm in my opinion. I thought, “How could you revoke people’s freedom of choice with their own bodies, let alone their own health?” In the next 45 minutes of that debate, my position not only softened, but had the opportunity to change.
It was in that room that I heard someone exclaim how the physician-assisted suicide revealed the greater weaknesses of the healthcare system, weaknesses that forced people to resort to death as opposed to improved care.
This perspective was entirely foreign to me, and the subsequent adjustment in my beliefs made me the model-child for the potential of discourse.
The increasing demand for discourse is due to the expansion of political polarization. Currently, we know polarization as people blindly taking sides on issues, as opposed to discussing their complexities.
Polarization has not only radicalized each side of the political spectrum, but has also nullified the idea that it is a spectrum at all. As individuals are presented with issues, they are met with the questions: Blue or red? Left or right? Democrat or Republican?
As a result, people cannot have contrasting opinions on different issues. For example, one may have a traditionally left-leaning approach to domestic policy, but a more conservative, isolationist view of foreign policy.
Thus, centrists are increasingly no longer individuals who lean both ways, but rather people who often hold no opinion at all. Polarization serves as an obstacle to the presence of diversity of opinion, thus making it more difficult for the American people to practice pluralism.
In fact, polarization has consumed politics where instead of cooperatively finding solutions, individuals have been conditioned to step on either side of an imaginary line and scowl at whoever may be on the opposite side of them. As a result, political issues are handled with growingly extreme approaches, making it increasingly difficult to find common ground. At the beginning of my viewing of the speakers, I was contributing to polarization: my inability to see the other side and steadfast position that only my opinion was correct prevented me from seeing the similarities in both sides. By the end of the discussion, however, I was reformed, to some extent. As such, reducing the negative impacts of polarization is a much longer process than a single discussion.
The question, however, is whether or not discourse is the solution to the parasitic issue of polarization. Judy Z., a high school student from Los Angeles, argues,
Political discourse has caused individuals to become more aware about the socio-political situation within American society, but at the same time, it has heightened tension among party lines and led to hyperpolarization to occur.
In the Junior State of America (JSA), students find that the purpose of participating is not to “win” by acquiring points in a rigid grading system of rhetoric, but rather to devise solutions to pressing, current issues. So, despite JSA being a rosy example of how polarization can be overcome, it is an example executed on a much smaller scale than American politics as a whole.
Currently, the American people are overstimulated and confronted with social media’s tendency to exaggerate and perform. As breaking news hits the internet, issues are framed by different individuals to suit their political agendas, thus causing polarization to become a vicious cycle. Within this cycle, individuals simply take a side and move on to the next issue, as such a method is much more convenient than intensive solution making.
Meaning, members of American society have become so deeply entrenched in a whirlwind of current events that it has become increasingly difficult to take a step back and thoroughly evaluate an issue, no matter how pertinent, thus resorting to the comforting byproducts of polarization.
In addition to diluting how individuals confront political affairs, political polarization has caused political discourse to devolve into being more confrontational than collaborative. As opposed to recognizing the “other side,” individuals aggressively assert their case, and leave it at that.
Litsa K., a student leader from Chicago, states, “the best way to prevent [polarization] is to focus on creating a culture of listening, where everyone, starting with leadership, believes and actively reminds others that they are not always ‘right.’"
Litsa introduces a particularly detrimental effect of polarization: the confinement of people within their respective ideologies. Without exposure to opposing opinions, individuals tend to internalize the idea that they are correct because they only surround themselves with likeminded people.
At the end of the day, however, where you lie on the political spectrum is entirely irrelevant. Polarization adversely affects both “sides,” which is why individual advocacy is more desperately needed than ever, especially by the younger generations.
The current pandemic has reminded young adults of the power we have as individuals.
We have the power to contact our representatives, our senators, our governors. In the most general sense, we have the power to exercise our freedom of voicing our concerns to those wielding political power.
Many criticize online activism for its lack of immediate, tangible results. However, in a time where we are primarily confined to our screens, activism has been expanded by young people to produce empathy and subsequently, solutions.
The novel coronavirus [and the Black Lives Matter Movement] has produced and amplified existing obstacles and struggle for millions of Americans. Thus, while people’s attention is on the news and social media, our younger generations have taken this opportunity to tell their stories and uplift voices that are traditionally silenced.
The ease of transferring information to one another provides much needed exposure, and provides foundation for large scale movements across socioeconomic boundaries that will translate to collective change. After all, we cannot sit in disdain at the lack of change if we do not stand for anything at all.