Conservative media and politicians whip their audiences into a frenzy, crying that the sky is falling: that we are losing our birthright as a nation because “hordes” of dark-skinned “aliens” are invading our country. They accuse liberals of being godless heathens for questioning the “natural order” of things in terms of who should be in charge, what it means to be a man or a woman, who we can love, the list goes on and on.
In a word, these instigators are fueling moral panic, pitting us one against another, making us ever more polarized as a nation. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and prominent public intellectual, has done brilliant work illuminating the root of our discontent.1
It all stems from the categories of thought we use to navigate in the world. The human brain is limited and can’t cope with the infinite stream of incoming stimuli we receive without establishing some sort of order. The brain does this by establishing categories, defining apples as one category of fruit, oranges as another; women as one category of human, men as another; and so on. It is through these categories that we make sense of the world. They can be interpreted in two ways.
We can view these categories as immutable because they are baked into our biology or passed down from God, or we can see them as more porous and changeable, varying widely between cultures. Conflicts between these two views of reality are often explosive because they can threaten bedrock values. Challenging them can lead to moral panic. That, according to Cottom, is the underlying dynamic driving our polarization and moral outrage.
Liberals tend to view these categories as socially constructed, differentiating over time to include more categories of folks who previously were marginalized or left out. They see that as progress. Conservatives, however, tend to see these categories as sacrosanct, written in stone, ordained by a higher power. Changes for them, therefore, are seen as a moral violation threatening their deepest values.
Every person has prejudices and blind spots, whether we admit it or not. Having them outed can be disorientating, shaking us to our very core. At that point, we have a choice: We can either be like ostriches, sticking our heads in the sand by passing laws making it illegal to talk about the source of our distress. Or we can join the conversation by participating in community dialogue, all-inclusive without blame or rancor, to find a way forward to further the American dream.
It can seem comforting to look back with nostalgia for the “good ole days,” But as Cottom reminds us, we usually can only do so by glossing over past inequality and injustice. Watching “Father Know Best” as I did as a child glossed over the unequal treatment of women while completely eliminating people of color. Growing up watching cowboy and Indian shows from the 50s and 60s—as I admit I did with relish—glossed over Native American genocide.
To me, it is undeniable: We are unfinished beings at birth. We become, in large part, who we are through being socialized into a specific community. That means we are largely socially constructed, woven into exquisite beings of vast complexity by the warp and woof of our evolution.
For long stretches of our history, things have stayed the same; at other times we experience rapid change. But never before in our evolution have we ever faced, as we do today, such dizzying change in so many realms: social, technological, and environmental. As our national prophet and Nobel Prize winning poet has sung, “The Times, They Are A-Changin:”
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone.
1 – https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/13/podcasts/ezra-klein-podcast-tressie-mcmillan-cottom-transcript.html