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Perception, Fear, and Media: Roots of Polarization

Perception, Fear, and Media: Roots of Polarization

Guest blog by: Bob Van Oosterhout

Polls indicate that 60 to 70% of Americans believe that polarization is one of the most serious problems we face today. I believe it’s the most serious problem. We can’t solve other problems if we can’t work together.

Polarization is fed by mistrust.

We don’t trust each other because we don’t understand each other. We don’t understand each other because we view our world through frames that don’t overlap. Most of these frames are created by media, particularly political media.

Many of us spend more time with media than we do with each other.

Our sense of reality is increasingly defined by media.

Media finances its operations by selling attention – our attention. The primary source of income for much of popular media is our time and focus. Selling attention generates huge profits – and we don’t see any of it.

The most efficient way to grab our attention is fear.

Fear is the survival emotion – it narrows our focus on danger and sends a surge of energy to run or fight from threats.

This urge to act quickly blocks our ability to see and think clearly

Seeing and thinking clearly is precisely what we need in these times – it’s also what’s missing in too many of our conversations.

The surge of energy produced by fear isn’t discharged by running or fighting. It is used to build tension. Tension draws our mind toward potential threats and the media that reports them. We have to know the horrific details of every tragedy even though it happened far away and there’s nothing we can do about it. Watching fear-based messages creates more fear, which produces more tension.

Tension becomes a part of life. Fear becomes a habit. Obstacles to seeing and thinking clearly become structured in our brains as tension builds in our bodies. I call this Fear Based Thinking (FBT).

The essential features of FBT are self-centeredness, a need for control and certainty, a tendency to put everyone and everything into broad categories, an adversarial mindset, narrow, fragmented thinking, and a scarcity mentality. Each of these block our ability to see and think clearly.

Most of the threats we face are produced by other humans - humans who see a different reality than we do – humans who profit by grabbing our attention through fear – humans who don’t trust us – humans who are stuck in fear and FBT.

Fear isolates and separates us. We don’t trust each other because we don’t know each other.

Belonging is an essential human need that need can’t be met by watching or listening to media. Media produces a sense of false belonging – what we see or hear on screens and headphones provides a temporary sense of connection that’s never enough. Some of us know the characters in our favorite programs better than we know our neighbors.

Some media messages tell us that belonging is conditional - that it depends on how we look and what we own. A lot of political media messages promote Belonging by Exclusion - they connect us through a shared aversion to other people, or more accurately, categories of other people. We distrust, and even feel disgust and hatred for people we don’t know and have never met.

Conditional Belonging and Belonging by exclusion create fear. We can be rejected at any time if we don’t toe the line or keep up with changing expectations. A true sense of belonging is built on trust - trust that’s been lost because we can’t get on the same page – trust that’s been blocked by fear - trust that will elude us as long as we’re stuck in FBT.

How can we begin to trust each other?

We gain trust through understanding.

We can start by understanding how our view of our world and each other is limited – how perception affects emotion and belief, how it’s manipulated to feed divisiveness.

We can understand how media works –we can learn to identify the tools and tactics that influence how we see and think about our world and each other.

We can understand fear and how to transform it into caution, care, curiosity, and connection. We can learn to recognize and deal with FBT in ourselves and others.

Trust can be rebuilt – one person and  group at a time.

We need to learn how to connect with those who see a different world than we do. We need to learn how to create a shared reality that allows us to work together to solve our problems and enjoy life.

These are the goals of the class we are offering this summer. It’s called Perception, Fear, and Media: Roots of Polarization

There will be six sessions over a two week period. Each session will take about an hour or so to complete. Sessions 1, 2, 4, and 5 are completed on your own time with opportunities for online discussion in small groups. Sessions 3 and 6 are live with time for questions and more discussion.

For more information, go to 

I hope you will join us.

By yonty,