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Marginalizing Views In A Time Of Polarization

Our guest author today is Peter Levine, Academic Dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life. This post was originally published at Professor Levine's blog, and has been reprinted with permission of the author.

I recently posted “marginalizing odious views: a strategy,” which was about a powerful and sometimes valuable tool for self-governance. When communities define specific perspectives as beyond consideration, they uphold norms without needing formal censorship. This is good when it happens to Nazis (for instance), but problematic when it’s used to block serious consideration of minority views.

I assume that marginalization is a perennial strategy. Its advantages and risks – especially as compared to a strategy of engagement – are also perennial. But the context does make a difference.

When most Americans got their news from three rather similar TV networks plus a metropolitan daily newspaper that had from zero to three local competitors, marginalization depended on the mass media. You could try to marginalize a position that you considered odious, or create space for a currently marginalized view, but your success would depend on what Walter Cronkite and his ilk thought. If a position wasn’t marginalized on the network news, it wasn’t marginalized. And if a view never got aired in the mass media, then it was pretty marginal even if you and your friends believed in it.

At the same time, the two major parties had overlapping national elites with similar educational pedigrees who, while disagreeing about some important matters of policy, still tended to agree about what was marginal. Along with the mass media, they adjudicated what belonged on the national agenda. Thus the terms of the game were clearly defined, even if the rules were problematic because they gave too much power to homogeneous elites.

Now that the media landscape is highly fractured, we live in many separate epistemic communities. What is mainstream in one setting can be effectively marginalized in another. Just to name one example, the phrase “illegal immigrants” is pretty much marginalized in both my city and my university, but it is the standard phrase across large swaths of America. 

The fact that our national discourse is polarized and balkanized has been widely noted, but I want to emphasize the consequences for a strategy of marginalization:

  1. It is now virtually impossible to marginalize across the society as a whole. Given any opinion, some people are comfortably expressing it right now in public (online) to their fellow believers.
  2. It is now much easier to marginalize within a community in which you in are the mainstream. The temptation to say, “We don’t say that here” is very high when that can be so successful.
  3. There is also a constant temptation to demonstrate that each community is biased by forcing it to confront views that it is trying to marginalize. That makes the community look intolerant to external audiences. For instance, if a university seems pervasively liberal, invite Milo, watch the reaction, and cry “Censorship!”
  4. Since being marginalized feels like being censored, more people have the experience of censorship in various specific settings where their own views are unpopular. In fact, almost everyone would be marginalized somewhere.
  5. The same statements often have a double effect. For their proponents, they reinforce shared norms. For their opponents, they serve as examples of what must be marginalized. For instance, Rush Limbaugh clearly has two audiences: conservatives who like what he says and liberals who are appalled by quotes that circulate in their networks. (Both reactions benefit Limbaugh by bolstering his prominence.)
  6. The strategy that is furthest from marginalization–trying to learn from other people while sharing your opinions with them–is harder than ever, because we all hide in homogeneous communities.

I continue to think that marginalization has a place in politics. Not every opinion deserves respectful consideration. Communities gain coherence and value by drawing limits around what they will consider. However, I suspect that a fractured media system makes marginalization too tempting and persuasion too difficult, with costs for democracy.

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