How conservatives contribute to the polarized nature of political discourse

April 5, 2019

In hearing the opinions of people on both sides of the spectrum, I have noticed that many believe the left to be the source of much of the recent polarized socio-political discussion. More specifically, they cite outrage culture as the reason that it is so difficult to cooperate with liberals to reach a meaningful compromise or understanding. I do not entirely disagree with this position. In many ways, I find outrage culture to be a necessary evil. On one hand, it contributes greatly to the stereotype of the “inconsolable liberal,” which is referenced so frequently on Fox News. On the other hand, outrage is the only way that some groups can make their voices heard.

Ultimately, I do think it is the responsibility of liberals to find ways to be constructive, but I also argue it is fallacious to insinuate that the polarized discourse we have experienced as of late is solely the fault of the left. To demonstrate this, I will evaluate the modes of discourse of two prominent conservative figures. The discussion strategies of Steven Crowder are ones which I present as examples of divisive behavior, whereas Jordan Peterson, who is often referred to in the same breath, provides an instance of what I would call much more civilized conservative discourse.

Crowder is a YouTuber with over 3.5 million subscribers and is the host of a quite popular internet show called “Change My Mind.” The premise of his show is exactly what the title would suggest: Crowder goes to college campuses with a table, microphone and a sign displaying a controversial statement with the words “change my mind” under it. One by one people come to discuss the issue printed on the sign and, somehow, the person with whom Crowder speaks often ends up being a hot-headed liberal. Crowder has with him a binder full of statistics and counterarguments.

He sets up the situation such that his viewpoint is well-thought out and defensible, which is not in itself a disingenuous thing to do. However, in most episodes, it is quite clear that Crowder ends up having the upper hand with his knowledge of empirical data that ends up drowning the college students who merely were not prepared with research. This leads some of Crowder’s opponents saying they “disagree” with a statistic or otherwise become very emotional in the discussion. Of course, in theory, it is the responsibility of the college student to change Crowder’s mind, but it feels like the entire show is just a way to make all liberals seem like temperamental idealogues.

Sometimes the liberal voice on Crowder’s show does become unreasonably passionate, and I do believe that to be reflective of a problem with liberal discourse. Seperate from that, however, Crowder himself represents many of the polarizing aspects of conservative discourse.

Peterson subverts this by displaying what I see as respectful debate etiquette. Likely because of his academic background, when Peterson talks to students or even other academics, he assumes an amount of intelligence on their part. When speaking to students, Peterson, who himself is a professor, informs the students of the model he is operating under. In debating with fellow scholars or other social figures, Peterson is much quicker to pinpoint the differences in his and his opponent’s arguments. If need be, Peterson will concede when he becomes convinced of a different perspective. Even though he does not often change his mind, Peterson’s focus during a discussion seems not to be on winning a debate, rather teaching and learning from his interlocutor.

Take, for example, Peterson’s now viral discussion with Cathy Newman, in which Newman asked Peterson why his right to freedom of speech should trump a trans person’s right not to be offended. Taken aback, Peterson replied that in order to think one must risk being offensive. He then cited their conversation as being one that had been quite uncomfortable for him yet was important to have in order for Newman to get to the heart of the issue as a journalist. He later stated in an interview with Dutch blogger GeenStijl that Newman had been quite civil before the interview but then quickly started stating odd views that seemed to blindly serve her ideology. Peterson said it was at the moment I described earlier that he felt he had broken through her ideological facade and started talking to the person he had met before the interview.

It is that attitude that Peterson takes towards discourse that impresses me. Rather than trying to humiliate and shut down liberals like Crowder does, Peterson shows those who carry perspectives with weak justifications where their logic does not make sense and takes those views which are well substantiated as seriously as his own. I believe that applying an academic mode of dialogue will make conversing on politics more productive in general, but even academics does not entirely teach the respect for the other side that Peterson exemplifies.

It can be difficult to carry out discussion that is not polarized when the views that are being expressed are as opposed as they are right now. But I believe that both sides can find themselves coming to much more meaningful compromises in following Peterson’s approach to discourse.

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