Understanding defensiveness

Examining the limitations of seeing the other perspectives

William Lyman, Features Editor

We exist in a community and a political landscape that relies on competition. Small margins of victory for political candidates in presidential and congressional elections have heightened the struggle for power within our government. In other words, the aggressive fight between political parties perpetuates the idea that we can’t afford to lose or admit we are wrong.

Modern media sites have become involved in this political fight. “Daring, dramatic headlines perform well in comparison to stories of compromise,” explains U.S. government and politics teacher David Graham ’85.  This dramatization takes us further away from compromise, creating the illusion idea of polarity that might not be true to our realities. We are much more similar than we think, yet modern politics and media trains us to focus on division, exacerbating the extent to which we perceive everyone is against us. The result is an “us v. them” dialogue felt across all sides of the political and ideological spectrum.

When confronted, challenged, or proven wrong, a common response is defensiveness. In a dichotomous political landscape, it becomes incredibly easy to villainize others based on one belief set. We are always the heroes in our own stories. “We forgive in ourselves what we condemn in others,” says Alex FisherWe can’t—or don’t want to—change our minds.

We often view changing political affiliation as cowardly or taboo because of this labeling, perpetuating polarization as we view individuals as one-dimensional and incapable of change. For this reason, we treat ideological growth a form of failure or admittance of wrongdoing.

The culture of labeling is convenient in an identity-driven culture. As a whole, it’s easier to define someone and refuse to see a change in that individual. Through arguments, the pride we invest in them contributes to posturing, confining us to one belief.

Next time you find yourself reinforcing polarization, try to stay objective. It takes a confident and self-assured individual to accept their faults and continue forward without defensiveness or anger, and we should strive for this self-awareness when engaging in political discourse. “If you come into a conversation from a sense of trying to gain understanding,” explains Fisher, “you can potentially shift that culture.”