Polarization is both a process and an action. Water molecules, for example, are polarized, with positive and negative charges on opposite sides. The earth spins on an axis around two poles. Visible light can become polarized, oscillating in only one plane, through interaction with other substances.
Polarization is more similar to homogeneity than diversity. With diversity, a wide range of options exist with nuances available to each individual. Polarization reduces those options into a small number of homogeneous factions or parties. Polarization can take place around differences in religious opinion, political allegiance, identity, social location, and ideology. In each case, polarization concentrates homogeneity within two or more poles.
When considered as a tactic of structural racism, polarization refers to the intentional use of propaganda to create polarization where it would not otherwise exist.
Democratic systems often distribute power in response to majority vote. To understand its relationship to structural racism, however, we need to revisit the principle of inversion whereby power is inversely related to responsibility.
Persons elected by popular vote to office bear responsibility to those who elected them. Those elected by a consensus bear responsibility to the whole. The maximum possible inversion would be to win an election by a very slim majority, gaining the legitimacy at the lowest possible cost.
Polarization serves the cause of inversion. The antagonism, tribalism, and divisiveness it creates keeps those without privilege fighting among themselves while privilege is consolidated at the top who themselves may bear little to no actual commitment to the controversial issues they use to polarize the electorate.
The following properties characterize polarizing propaganda:
- Selective privilege for issues that most evenly divide people, regardless of how contradictory the resulting positions might be or how irrelevant those issues might be.
- Dog-whistle appeal to faith identity, national identity, personal rights, and duty.
- Spotlighting scandalous events and personas that reinforce negative stereotypes and incite anger, resentment, and fear.
- Simplistic meta-narratives and conspiracy theories.
- Misrepresentation of opposing viewpoints or agendas.
- Persecution presented as martyrdom, heroism, and justice.
- Calls to antagonistic and divisive action.
Within the U.S., the United Methodist Church is polarized in numerous ways. The church is polarized globally in its relationship with Central Conferences. It is polarized economically. It is polarized ideologically between White progressives and White conservatives.
At the same time these polarizations exist, the church is homogeneous in other ways that are detrimental to its vitality. The church in the U.S. is over 90% White. The membership is significantly older, more educated, and more affluent than the average citizen. As a mainline denomination, the church is also increasingly marginalized within the greater Christian experience in the U.S.
Like marketing companies, propagandists work for those who pay them. The polarizing ideological platforms often feature moral inconsistencies and contradictions. This forces everyone to choose a side with which they do not fully agree and furthers the potential for internal and external conflict.
Within the UMC, propaganda is very prevalent, with political groups spending millions producing incendiary, cynical, and inflammatory propaganda intended to polarize the church.
The IRD works for its funders. Those funders are not Methodist. They do not care whether gay people marry or not. They don’t care whether a Methodist preacher is orthodox. They don’t care if a trans-woman with tattoos is ordained and sent to serve a 15 member church. They don’t care whether Methodists have a flag in their sanctuary. They only want Methodists to care about those things, and to care more about that than about decency, hospitality, kindness, values, colleagues, lifetime friends, their clergy, their denomination and the missionaries it supports. They want Methodists to be polarized, angry, selfish, rude, jealous, anxious, and bigoted, and for the UMC to be ultimately fragmented, dismantled, and divided. They were organized to oppose the UMC on the basis of “socialist” structures such as the annual conference, collective mission agency, and progressive social advocacy.
We might wonder why the leaders of the UMC would tolerate such undermining and antagonism within its clergy and communication channels. The answer is found again in the principle of inversion. Polarization makes it easier to win elections with fewer votes and even less commitment to mutual relationships and accountability. Partisan polarization gives less qualified people an easier pathway into power and influence with less responsibility. It favors those already in power, chosen on the basis of their status to have even more power in exchange for carrying the ideological flag and agenda.
This inversion, however, carries the risk that polarization will become schism.
And here we are.
Intentional use of propaganda to create polarization is especially destructive within non-White local churches. Communities of color are often united around culture, identity, shared history and common values. They will often be diverse in opinions about many of the topics appearing in polarizing propaganda.
Even when intentional polarization does not split the non-White church, the choosing of sides is always the choosing of a White-dominant side. The community of color does not define one of the poles in the polarization. It cannot create its own platform without being in conflict with one or the other presented options. It cannot be what it is, evangelical and progressive, traditional and inclusive, religious and spiritual.
The result of this is similar to gerrymandering, but divides the community at a much deeper level of identity, autonomy, uniqueness, and diversity. The result is toxic.
POLARIZATION AND DISTRACTION
Toxic polarization agitates the disenfranchised and oppressed into conflicts that distract them from their own marginalization.
When the 2012 and 2016 General Conference voted to abolish fair process and appointment security, undermining equitable compensation, open itinerancy, freedom of the pulpit and collegiality, these decisions were made on consent agendas. Items on consent agendas are not considered controversial. Throwing the employment security of 35,000 elders under the bus and freeing bishops to redline and deny deployment of clergy into marginal and impoverished areas was not considered controversial.
Without realizing it, both sides of the polarized electorate united to serve the social Darwinism agenda of the IRD. The IRD propaganda worked. The church remained evenly divided over the full inclusion of sexual minorities while uniting to undermine the very policy (full deployment/equitable compensation) that secures such inclusion for people of color, and consequently, also for sexual minorities.
Polarization distracts marginalized people from their own marginalization. It frames everything as a left-right issue. As we engage in these ideological battles, connectionism is supplanted by congregationalism, egalitarianism is supplanted by cronyism, democracy is supplanted by oligarchy, passionate volunteer diverse boards are supplanted by clericalism, and White privilege and power are consolidated in fewer and fewer people. Laborers serving in neglected facilities with inadequate salaries continue to fight over cultural and identity issues while being manipulated into opposing the very egalitarian principles that secure their employment and give life and vitality to their denomination and congregations.
POLARIZATION AND RACE
When we speak of “people of color,” it is important to remember the broad spectrum of ethnic and cultural diversity that lies behind this terminology.
Polarization of race is responsible for the very ideology of racism. Children are brought up singing how Jesus loves the little children who are reduced to radicalized color labels: Red, Yellow, Black, White, where no human being is actually any of these colors in physical appearance. Our use of racial labels must take caution not to perpetuate the reductionist, superficial ideology of color and caste that created such terms.
Racial polarization can reduce racism itself into a Black / White binary conflict, excluding the experience of many persons who do not clearly adopt either label. Such communities are also oppressed and marginalized by structural and personal racism.
Such binary reductionism can be found in unlikely places, such as the website of the General Commission on Religion and Race, a site containing many useful resources including those that inspired this writing, but lacking ethnic and linguistic diversity.
Dr. David Maldonado has expressed his concern for the place of Hispanics in the conversation on race in his recent essay, Racism and Latinos: The wall of separation and fear. Dr. Maldonado documents many features of structural racism that uniquely impact Hispanics, especially within the current U.S. political climate. When this article was posted to the Facebook page of the United Methodist News Service, it unleashed a wave of racist, reactionary comments, many annoyed that somehow, yet another non-White group was going to complain about racism. The hostility of these remarks merely confirmed the truth of his assertions in the essay.
When engaging in anti-racism, racial polarization can hinder potential alliances, allowing structures of White privilege to deal separately with each marginalized community, significantly impairing the leverage of each group to demand change.
In my work as an advocate and pastor serving within Hispanic Methodism, it has been my experience that Black and Hispanic Methodists tend to interact more with the Anglo-dominant hierarchy and Anglo-dominant churches than with each other. This includes the national caucus groups of MARCHA and BMCR, as well as GCORR and the National Plan for Hispanic and Latino Ministries. The lack of communication prevents these communities from sharing common experiences, joining forces against racism, and forging new collaborations. It is the direct result of racial polarization.