Friday, April 28, 2017

Are You Really That Divided?


charleshughsmith |  If we don't challenge these poisonous polarizing binaries, they may well trigger the accidental suicide of our polity.

If there is any statement about politics in America that qualifies as as a truism accepted by virtually everyone, left, right or independent, it's that America is a deeply divided nation. But is this really true?

Like everyone else, I too accepted that the line between Hillary supporters and detractors, and Trump supporters and detractors, was about as "either/or" as real life gets.

But are we really that divided? A fascinating 55-minute lecture by historian Michael Kulikowski entitled The Accidental Suicide of the Roman Empire has made me question this consensus certitude.

Maybe the real driver of this division is divisive language--more specifically, language that is designed to drive a wedge between us. In other words, maybe the divisions are an intentional consequence of the language we're using.

Kulikowski makes a number of nuanced arguments in his talk, but his primary point is that the late-stage Roman Empire collapsed partly as an unintended consequence of rhetorical binaries, polarizing rhetoric that lumped an extremely diverse Imperial populace into false binaries: Roman or Barbarian, Christian or heretic, and so on.

The actual lived reality was completely different from these artificial either-or binary classifications. As Kulikowski explains (and anyone who has read a modern history of late-stage Rome will know this from other accounts), many "Roman generals" were "Barbarian" by birth, and the boundary between "Roman citizen" and "Barbarian" was porous on purpose.