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David Hanson, Published January 16 2011

Marriage, America and politics

Anyone who has been married for any significant period of time will tell you that a civil compromise is what makes it work. Today, in public life, we see these same people who have been happily married so completely polarized and uncompromising in their political views that they demonize those with opposite and equally deeply felt opinions.

How did we get into this uncivilized predicament where we begin to see those who hold a contrary opinion as “other” rather than an “us” with simply a different view? What is it that attracts us to the Ed Shultzes and Glenn Becks of the world who rail against those who hold differing opinions on how things should be?

For many years after 1949, the United States had rigorously enforced what became known as the Fairness Doctrine, which ensured that mass media presented balanced reports of the issues at hand. In 1985 under President Ronald Reagan, the Fairness Doctrine was repealed for compromising the right of free speech. That was a different era – an era when news was gathered only by professional reporters and broadcast on privately owned networks.

Today we live in an entirely different intellectual economy where the average citizen owns the means of production (i.e. the means to publish their thoughts to the entire world with a click of a mouse). This has meant that the broad spectrum of public debate is presented all the way from extreme polarization on the left or right to the white stripe down the middle of the road. And this is OK. However, mass media by way of broadcasting polarizing personalities is still a major influencer across our land.

Many people have a cursory economic understanding that the Shultzes and Becks of the world are highly paid talk-show hosts who make their living from garnering a large and polarized audience that provides advertising revenue to the station airing their programs. And although we know rationally that these vitriolic hosts make their living by stirring up emotions and controversy, the psychological danger lies in the fact that after prolonged exposure to only one highly polarized viewpoint, without any balancing dissent, these broadcasts begin to function as a sort of opt-in “state” propaganda machine in people’s psyche.

It would be far too easy for me to simply suggest “stop listening to talk radio” because that would deny talk-show hosts their right of free speech. So I will give the hard answer: It’s up to us individually as citizens living in civilized society to become more self-aware of how exclusive and continuous exposure to extreme polarizing viewpoints can, over the long term, damage our sense of civility and undermine the spirit of compromise that has created the basis of success of even our most stabilizing civil institution: marriage.

Hanson is president and CEO of H2M, a Fargo advertising agency.