Skip to main content

BYU–Hawaii faculty discuss aspects of political polarization and its connection to one’s identity

Three BYUH professors sit at a table in the Little Theater and discuss political polarization.

The first round of break-out info sessions for the Asia-Pacific Career Conference (APCC) on March 6 in the Little Theater was a panel discussion of three professors discussing “The 2010s: A Decade of Growing Political Polarization, Public Discontent, and Mass Protests.” Chad Ford, an associate professor in the Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts and director of the David O. McKay Center for Intercultural Understanding, said the idea of polarization causing politics is becoming “the new religion.”

The info session was organized by Dr. Troy Smith, a professor in the Faculty of Business & Government. He said, “We have three professors from very different backgrounds and ways of thinking about these problems. We’ve also got a very good audience and we want to hear from you throughout our discussion today.”

He announced there were three things about political polarization he wanted the panel to be centered around:

Is polarization a problem?
What causes it?
Which solutions are available?

Contributing alongside Smith and Ford was Dr. Mason Allred, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts & Letters. All three professors sat together at a small table on the stage in front of more than 50 people in attendance.

Laying down the basis for the discussion, Smith defined political polarization the way Journalist William Safire does, “Driving humans who are ordinarily in agreement on many positions to extremes of disagreement.” Smith said how polarization causes issues to become a “touchstone topic,” or how it becomes a defining trait of someone’s political affiliation.

Political polarization

Allred said, “Theoretically [and] philosophically, I don’t think polarization is necessarily a problem.” He shared having different positions on subjects is helpful, even if they are extremes, as they help with self-correction, but what eventually happens is people start to reject even the possibility of changing their mind.

Polarization has always been around, according to Allred and Ford. Allred explained polarization in the media has fed into the concept of “identity politics,” and that is the way it has been taken advantage of. “My fear isn’t just a tech skeleton, but a financial one.” He explained engagement is what makes money, so by playing into polarizing content, media can attract more engagement.

Allred said he was concerned polarization is a sign people are now fighting over little ideas. Smith responded it might seem like it as the United States has tried to make the government more open, pushing the actual decision-making to places where it technically is not supposed to happen. Smith said there is a saying, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant, but in political science we like to say that the rats just run to the deeper, darker corners, making them harder to find.”

Causes of political polarization

The flow of information from authority to the people is what Smith and Allred pointed to as one of the reasons people are becoming one-sided and “polarized” on their opinions. Allred brought up algorithms in social media controlling the flow of information, saying as timeline feeds people curated content, and they are given only the resemblance of a conversation.

Addressing a question by Smith concerning the emotional factors behind polarization, Allred said people become convinced they have all the information they need to form an opinion. Explaining further, Allred said as people “hinge their identity” around pre-formed opinions, they start to talk past each other in conversations.

Ford brought up having an affiliation to reaffirm identity is gravitating from religious to political. He pointed out how religious polarization has been around for centuries. He said it is as if people are seeing their religion through their “political lens” instead of politics through their “religious lens.”

More than 50 people sit in the Little Theater to hear the panel discussion.

After Allred commented politics is becoming like sports, Ford said certain politicians are like cults, to which Smith said people are living in an age of ideology. Smith continued to explain how ideology is simple, but the reason it’s causing polarization is that life is difficult. Allred added to this by bringing up people having a “bundle identity” through which they make these ideals an essential part of who they are.

The professors addressed questions about being “in the middle” of political issues and how to avoid being subject to online algorithms. Ford emphasized the importance of figuring out an individual stance, with Smith agreeing the real challenge is attaining wisdom. Allred said people need to push past algorithms to not passively consume news as it is fed to them through their timelines.

A solution to political polarization

To demonstrate conflict, Ford asked his son to come to the stage and stand back-to-back with him and they began elbowing each other. He pointed out the problem was they were not seeing each other. How people normally react, he said, is they try to get in front of the other person. His son tried to walk around him, and when he forced Ford to face him, Ford closed his eyes.

With Ford still facing away from his son, he asked him to turn around and face him. Ford explained trying to see the other person invites them to look at you. “When we’re polarized, both parties are waiting for the other party to turn around.”

Love, Ford said, is what people need to have to turn around and see the person from which they are polarized. Referencing his book, “Dangerous Love: Transforming Fear and Conflict at Home, at Work, and in the World,” Ford said people needed “dangerous love” to see each other’s humanity and find a solution.

At the end of the panel, the professors advised students to beware of allowing their identity to rely on certain political groups or ideas.

Lovelyn Helu, a sophomore studying biology from California, said considering her major does not necessarily discuss topics like polarization, she thought it was a good experience.

Pointing out climate change, Helu said the panel made her think more deeply about the way she approaches heavier topics. “It's really easy to be swayed or [become] even more upset because of people's opinions. We need to have a buffer as to how to communicate with other people.” She stressed polarization can become a bigger issue, “especially today, with the internet and media.”

Having come to the panel for class credit, Sarah Shong, a senior from Washington studying hospitality and tourism management, said she received insight from her attendance despite not knowing what the topic was before. “I was able to understand the concepts [they were] talking about regarding polarization.” She said the discussions helped her formulate a different opinion of polarization.