The morality of polarization

See update for December 23, 2019, at end of post

So Donald Trump bragged about being able to grab a woman “by the pussy”[1] (he dismisses this as “locker room talk”[2]), almost certainly had an affair with an adult film star,[3] and went on to nominate a judge for the Supreme Court who now stands credibly accused of attempted rape at a drunken party in his teen-aged years.[4]

We hear a lot less about Hillary Clinton’s slut-shaming defense of a rapist early in her legal career[5] or her slut-shaming of women who accused her husband of rape or sexual affairs.[6] And it should be disturbing that Clinton was not alone in defending her husband but was joined by other prominent women.[7]

Why condemn the one and not the other? This is only one example of what I’m seeing a lot of lately, what I call the morality of polarization, in which what “we” do is good and right, simply by virtue of the fact that “we” are doing it; and what “they” do is evil and wrong, simply by virtue of the fact that “they” are doing it. It’s an impediment to conversation: If your fundamental presumption is that the other side is irredeemably evil, you cannot engage with them to address any legitimate concerns they have. And they, starting with the same moralistic presumption about you, cannot engage with you to address your legitimate concerns.[8]

Instead, no matter who wins an election, the other side will feel tyrannized and often doubt the legitimacy of the results. Which is about where the U.S. is as a country today.

It’s also awfully hard to see how, as a country, we get out of this. In a marriage, we would most sensibly admit irreconcilable differences and get a divorce. As a country, our relationship seems beyond challenge, with secession out of the question.[9] Even if secession were conceivable, it’s difficult to imagine a division of territory that would make any sense: Here in California, for example, I call the Central Valley, which runs nearly the length of the state, from north of the Tehachapis all the way to Mount Shasta, California’s “Bible Belt.” Beyond that, secession movements have appeared in far northern California[10] and in southern California.[11] More locally, I occasionally see a pickup truck flying a Confederate flag from its bed around Santa Rosa.

But how do we accept that those we regard on a level with Satan are maybe not evil incarnate? That’s a hard place to move from, especially when we have committed to overlooking our own faults in a jihad against the other.

Update, December 23, 2019: I revisit the morality of polarization, telling the story of how I wound up presenting it and addressing some of the theoretical background in a new blog post entitled, “The theory of the morality of polarization.”

  1. [1]Jeff Stein, “Here’s what happens if Trump drops out,” Vox, October 8, 2016,
  2. [2]British Broadcasting Corporation, “US election: Trump says obscene remarks were ‘locker room talk,’” October 10, 2016,
  3. [3]Anderson Cooper, “Stormy Daniels describes her alleged affair with Donald Trump,” CBS News, March 26, 2018,
  4. [4]Emma Brown, “California professor, writer of confidential Brett Kavanaugh letter, speaks out about her allegation of sexual assault,” Washington Post, September 16, 2018,; Deanna Paul, “A former sex-crimes prosecutor analyzed Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh. Here’s her take,” Washington Post, September 18, 2018,
  5. [5]Alana Goodman, “The Hillary Tapes,” Washington Free Beacon, June 15, 2014,; Josh Rogin, “Exclusive: ‘Hillary Clinton Took Me Through Hell,’ Rape Victim Says,” Daily Beast, June 20, 2014,
  6. [6]Amy Chozick, “’90s Scandals Threaten to Erode Hillary Clinton’s Strength With Women,” New York Times, January 20, 2016,; Liza Featherstone, “Hillary Clinton’s Faux Feminism,” Truthout, February 28, 2016,
  7. [7]Maureen Dowd, “When Hillary Clinton Killed Feminism,” New York Times, February 13, 2016,
  8. [8]I presented this informally in response to a line of questioning addressed to Jim Smith who was presenting at the Human Science Institute retreat in Burlingame, California, on September 15, 2018.
  9. [9]Christopher Ketcham, “Long live secession!” Salon, January 26, 2005,
  10. [10]Michael Bastasch, “California secession movement picks up steam,” Daily Caller, September 25, 2013,; Peter Hecht, “Secession brews in the ‘State of Jefferson’,” Sacramento Bee, October 10, 2013,; Alexei Koseff, “Jeffersonians rally for independence at the California Capitol,” Sacramento Bee, August 28, 2014,; Alexei Koseff, “State of Jefferson brings three more California counties on board,” Sacramento Bee, January 15, 2015,; Ian Millhiser, “Northern California County Votes To Secede From California,” Center for American Progress, September 4, 2013,
  11. [11]CBS, “Official Calls For Riverside, 12 Other Counties To Secede From California,” July 1, 2011,