A friend recently commented on how our country is politically polarized. Yes, I feel that — but I also feel that many of us are apathetic and alienated from the political process.
How could these both be true? It seems contradictory, paradoxical.
Perhaps the answer, or part of it, has to do with our narrowly circumscribed political dialog. I’ve been puzzling over how to better express the idea.
Say you’re looking at two marks on a wall. If you’re standing very close, with your nose practically touching the plaster, you will see the two marks as rather far apart. But if you stand back and look at the whole wall, you might say that that the marks are quite close together.
Or take a bar graph. It’s a well-known fact that if you chop off the bottom of a bar graph you can exaggerate differences and make them seem bigger. There’s a whole chapter on this in How to Lie with Statistics.
Or say you listened to nothing but grandpa’s record collection. You might think dixieland and bebop represented the absolute opposite ends of the musical spectrum. And you’d be right, insofar as 1940s jazz was concerned.
All of these seem like variations on the same phenomenon. This has surely been observed and documented by those who study human cognition. What’s vexing me is I can’t think of the name for it. The only term I’ve encountered that seems to make sense is “truncated scale,” but that’s hardly ubiquitous.
Anyway, my theory is that some of us are “zoomed in” on two marks on the wall.
From this close view, the differences are vast and passions run high. There is a sense of polarization between these two diametrically opposed points.
But if we’re zoomed out, we see a contested area that seems to be only a small part of the whole map. From this perspective, the rhetoric of the campaigns can seem overheated and alienating — a tempest in a teapot.
Note that both views are valid to some extent. Sometimes you have to zoom in to see important details. My inclination is to take the wider view; that’s just who I am. That doesn’t necessarily mean this view is more correct or relevant. But as the saying goes, “Distance lends perspective to the view.”