Professor Karsten Stueber Tackles America’s Political Divide In “Polarizing Disagreements”

Joey Abrams ‘23

News Editor

The presidential election of 2016 spurred the largest political polarization that the American electorate had ever seen, exacerbated further by the 2020 election year and simultaneous coronavirus pandemic. Former centrists have been skewed, social disagreements have become violent, and those who’ve stayed out of public spheres now find themselves increasingly engaged in a volatile political atmosphere. Political disagreements no longer necessitate an unspoken reminder to avoid certain conversations at the dinner table but instead justify an absence from the table altogether. 

Thankfully, Holy Cross Philosophy Professor and author Karsten Stueber took to Rehm Library last Friday to help break down what he sees as a devolving political and social climate. In his talk, “Polarizing Disagreements: Philosophical and Psychological Reflections on a Political Conundrum,” Professor Stueber drew on his past research into the condition of human empathy, as well as contemporary examples of widespread ideological divide in order to explain the many moving parts that have led to the current state of American discourse. Organized into six transitioning segments, Professor Stueber outlined the role of echo chambers, technological disruptions, and underlying human tendencies in the rise of America’s internal animosity. 

He began his lecture with thoughts on a particularly fitting subject of American polarization: mask mandates. For Professor Stueber, this was a key example of how political conundrums can inflame otherwise nonchalant positions on public health and personal freedom. Once such issues are elevated to issues of morality, people begin exhibiting “greater degrees of intolerance, a tendency to defend beliefs violently,” and are more likely to support “anti-democratic practices,” according to the professor.

For Professor Stueber, the rapid escalation of polarization can be traced to the emergence of echo chambers in response to technological disruption. With the rise of social media, each user has access to a vast universe of credible and non-credible information and plenty of like minded people. Without checks and balances on information, critically thinking through information is disregarded and people create devoted ingroups based on what they believe: “It more closely mirrors some central aspects of the structure of real social encounters, allowing creation of new ingroups,” Professor Stueber said. He advocated that this largely contributes to a hostile community of echo chambers that “undermine the web of normative expectations put in place in order to regulate the moral corruption of our sentiments that form the foundation of the social cohesion of any human group and most importantly that allow for a proper epistemic and scientific engagement with our beliefs.”

While external factors like social media definitely play a part, Professor Stueber also cited human nature in society as an influence on polarization. Referencing philosopher and economist Adam Smith, the professor suggested that the moral expectations and convictions that we adopt from each other and uphold together are subject to in-group bias: “We are emotionally strongly attuned to them [moral norms] because we see them tied to our identity as members of a particular group. Accordingly, we react emotionally if somebody violates them.” He went on to describe how one’s moral consciousness is constructed around the moral consciousness of those in their in-group, stating in his own words: “you only emulate people from your own group because you can trust those people… because they have the same habits.”  

Along with nudging people out of echo chambers through policy (one of his examples was vaccine mandates) and misinformation regulation, Professor Stueber pointed to critical thinking and holistic inquiry as a solution to political polarization: “What we need to do at the moment is have a little bit more philosophy and have a little bit more liberal arts. But as we need to ultimately break our moralizing tendencies- that is, we need to take a more reflective stance towards ourselves.” The full lecture can be found on the College of the Holy Cross YouTube page.

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