“Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.” – H.G. Wells
A panel featuring four NCC professors focused on the polarization of American society and how to remedy the volatile situation in “The Politics of Hate,” a virtual forum held in early February.
“Every single person here is the offspring of immigrants,” said Earl Page, speaking on the irony of xenophobia.
Easy access to fake information causes many people to develop prejudices, said Page, professor of humanities and social sciences.
Page was joined on the panel by Brian Alnutt, professor of humanities; Ronit Shemtov, professor of sociology; and Gina Turner, professor of psychology. The forum was moderated by journalism professor Rob Hays.
The U.S. has a long history of hatred in politics, Alnutt said, explaining that the two-party system was not conceived by the Founding Fathers, but “sprung up anyway.”
“They broke into mutual hateful sides very quickly – fervent, bitter, vicious hatred,” said Alnutt, who shared historical anecdotes about heavily armed congressmen entering the Senate and a Southern Democrat bludgeoning a Massachusetts congressman for condemning slavery.
Alnutt cited historical examples of “vicious invective” in the media. Lehigh Valley publications the Evening Chronicle and The Morning Call fanned anti-immigrant flames in the 1890s, “in terms I will not repeat,” he said.
In modern times, echo chambers fostered by biased media have created a toxic environment, Alnutt said.
Shemtov equated hate with fear, which, she said, “doesn’t have any energy unless it’s mobilized.”
“The kinds of fear that we see today, it’s been around for a long time and those grievances have been given a voice because they had an opportunity,” said Shemtov, explaining how many far-right groups came together under the “umbrella of Trumpism.”
Turner responded to an audience comment about people being drawn to online hate groups during pandemic isolation.
“We have these very targeted, very individualized streams of information, or misinformation, that contribute to our levels of anxiety,” said Turner, referring to social media’s role in dividing society. People living under extreme anxiety are prone to believe fallacies and seek confirmation bias, Turner said.
When corrected, a person’s brain recognizes it as pain, said Turner, explaining why people struggle to admit when they’re wrong.
The latter portion of the forum discussed how to overcome these issues.
Members of a divided society must find common ground, Alnutt suggested. Shemtov agreed people must make an effort to have productive conversations with friends and relatives with opposing beliefs.
Turner spoke of the importance of critical thinking and media literacy, concepts she promotes to her students.
Hays summarized that notion with an H.G. Wells quote, “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.”
The forum closed with audience discussion. A recording of the forum has been posted to The Commuter’s YouTube page and can be viewed below.
(Contact Chris Devlin, Commuter editor and author of this article: firstname.lastname@example.org)