Political rhetoric has never been more polarized but getting together to discuss a good book may be the answer, or so research into literary behavior suggests
This falls election offers a poignant reminder of how polarized our political rhetoric has become. Sundays debate was no exception. The mutual contempt on display was unquestionable. In this, the candidates felt like all-too-vivid proxies for the electorate at large.
It seems as if every day we are reminded of the ways some Americans hold strongly opposing views on a variety of issues. A host of academic studies has reinforced this belief, revealing one finding after another on just how differently liberals and conservatives think. A vicious circle is at work today in which reporting on political polarization only creates an even more entrenched sense of the problem. How, many of us are starting to ask, are we ever going to get out of this?
This past year we began a project to try to reverse this tendency. Using the techniques of big data, we wanted to see if there were spaces where Republicans and Democrats occupied common ground. Rather than look for more divisiveness clearly an easy find we set ourselves the more challenging task of trying to discover what we have in common as a culture.
The linguist Roman Jakobson once contrasted political conventions with literary ones: the problem with political conventions, he said, is that they encourage people to mindlessly agree with slogans, which in turn, create unnecessary antagonism between different groups of people.
Literary conventions, on the other hand, where individuals get together to read and talk about books, were different. Unlike slogans and speeches, literature encourages people to discuss their differences in more thoughtful and flexible ways. We might disagree on a number of issues, but literature helps create a space where we can compromise.