Political and religious figures throughout history have utilized inflammatory speech to incite the masses. Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevic relied heavily upon incendiary rhetoric to inflame the nationalistic passions and ethnic hatred of his own Serbian people and that resulted in the death of tens of thousands of people in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

I’m not sure exactly when the political discourse became so highly toxic here in the United States. I first remember the political commentator Rush Limbaugh spewing his toxic rhetoric during the nineties. Rush found a formula that enabled him to get people’s attention and build a huge following of “ditto heads” and soon thereafter many others began to follow his example.

The twenty-four hour news-opinion cycle has only added to the toxicity of our environment. Fox news, which is nothing more than a propaganda machine masquerading as a news organization, has now become the most widely watched network in the United States. Its commentators typically combine conservative talking points with inflammatory rhetoric designed to elicit fear, anger, a sense of victimization and outrage in their listening audience.

Conservative political commentators such as Glen Beck and Sean Hannity continually play off of people’s fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities. I’m simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the way Glen Beck evokes images of Nazi Germany in reference to our current president and his administration while making use of the same tactics used by the Nazis to influence the masses. What I find most disturbing is that so many people never bother to check the facts and are actually buying into his message of paranoid delusion. Beck has since moved on from Fox, but will no doubt find voice through other media outlets.

Everyone has a bias of one form or another and I lean towards a more progressive stance. I listen to liberal and progressive commentators with the same critical ear that I listen to anyone else. True democracy, if it ever existed, has been replaced with corporatism. Liberal politicians, like their conservative counterparts, are almost as guilty of siding with special interests at the expense of the greater collective good. But rarely do I see progressive commentators blatantly lie or intentionally distort information in the way conservative counterparts do on a regular basis.

Political pundits are not the only ones playing off of people’s fear, anger and sense of victimization. Militant feminists here in the United States began to take their message to the extreme during the later part of the previous century.

It is a completely natural and normal process for men and women to admire others whom they find attractive. It is true that a significant percentage men may never develop the capacity for intimacy, but there are many others who experience a deep longing for a partner and approach or express interest in a woman out of their own normal and healthy needs for companionship.

Feminist scholar Catherine MacKinnon was quoted as saying, “All sex, even consensual between a married couple, is an act of violence against women.” Noted feminist author Marilyn French stated, “All men are rapists and that’s all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws and their codes.” One of the more popular feminist quotes states that, “Women have their faults, but men have only two …everything they say and everything they do.”

Anti-male views have been toned down as of late, but were taught to a whole generation of women in colleges and universities across the country. Such toxic rhetoric reinforced the sense of fear, mistrust and victimization that many women felt towards men and that has further broken down the lines of communication between the two genders. Men and women both suffer as a result because the fear, hostility and mistrust generated by anti-male hate speech has made it so much more difficult for people to connect with one another and find the love and companionship they truly need and desire.

The media which thrives on hysteria and sensationalism hasn’t helped matters either. The media understands people’s perverse fascination with violence. They usually seize upon every act of violence, especially those perpetrated against women, and then they milk it for all it’s worth. Cause people to become more afraid and what do they do? …They spend more time watching television, surfing the internet and buying more products to fill the empty void that results from being so disconnected from themselves and other human beings.

It’s a very sad but true fact that women have and are still being oppressed by men and patriarchal systems throughout the world. It pains me to see the horrible abuses girls and women are subjected to in many developing nations. There’s still a great deal of healing and empowerment that needs to take place among women. Men also suffer greatly under the same patriarchal systems that oppress women as they are usually the ones sent off to kill and be killed in the wars started by men who hold positions of power.

It is completely impossible for a society to progress and thrive when over half of its members are being oppressed. Women are in many respects the more intelligent of the two genders, which is often demonstrated when they are provided with equal opportunities. Education is one of the greatest tools for breaking the cycle of oppression as it provides women opportunities to advance socially and economically. Women who are empowered are in a much better position to effect positive change on their behalf. Women are usually most oppressed in societies where there is greater segregation between the genders. Encouraging dialog through honest and open communication and integration of the two genders will help to promote greater equality and understanding between men and women.

Media pundits, political and religious figures and activists know what people’s hot buttons are and how to press them. They are in many respects entertainers who understand that having a shockingly compelling message attracts a larger listening audience. Increasing viewership for the network means the pundits are given more media exposure and as a result they make considerably more money.

The relentless media bombardment that we are being subjected to on a continual basis has caused us to become very jaded. We’ve become so used to the mind numbing incendiary rhetoric and talking points that we find it difficult to listen to in-depth thought provoking discussion. Pundits have adapted to this phenomena by ramping up the intensity of their rhetoric. They intentionally chose their words and structure their comments in a way that is designed to elicit strong emotional reactions. Our polarization as a society has become far greater as their message has gone further to the extreme.

The media in its highest form informs and enlightens. But to a large extent, our media has become just another bunch of big moneymaking corporate entities that are constantly battling it out with one another for the highest ratings. Our present day media, which is primarily driven by its own need to increase its audience, continually feeds into the destructive phenomenon of polarization. Higher ratings generate increased advertising dollars for the networks. The media fires the flames of discord by giving a platform to politicians, pundits and commentators with extreme views who generate the highest ratings for their networks. The media seldom stops to give consideration to the fact that we are all being hurt by this destructive process.

I grew up within the Christian fundamentalist movement. God started talking out of the television set by six a.m. and certain family members subsisted on a steady diet of televangelists such as Pat Robertson, Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart. I have sometimes wondered if the political pundits, social activists and evangelists trade playbooks. I have absolutely no doubt that they study each other’s examples.

The primary difference between cults and religions is the number of adherents who follow them. Religions teach us to believe in abstract representations of a divine being. In many instances, we are taught to adhere to rigid sets of rules and beliefs while simultaneously denying our feelings and physical bodies, our underlying needs and other aspects of our basic human nature. The resulting bound up emotional force held within the body often expresses itself in some form of distorted thought or action.

Religions often refer to their own as God’s chosen people. Non-believers are commonly viewed as sinners or infidels. Many of our scriptural texts and those who give voice to them are dictating that people who follow the word of God according to the rules ascribed in the book are good. People who don’t follow the rules are bad and should be punished or killed. It’s no wonder that more people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason.

The danger of the polarizing nature of inflammatory rhetoric is that it breaks down the common bonds of humanity by creating an “us versus them mentality.” Other ethnicities and whole groups of people who hold differing viewpoints, beliefs or go about doing things in different ways are vilified. The oppressive nature of inflammatory rhetoric stifles diversity. We then lose the opportunity to learn and grow which comes from being exposed to a wider diversity of perspectives and ways of doing things.

The extreme degree of polarization that has occurred within our society is reflective of how disconnected we have become from parts of ourselves. Fear, frustration, anger and other toxic emotions become bottled up inside when we fail to work constructively to address our issues, confront our fears and work through our feelings. That prevents us from growing or maturing as individuals. We fail to develop the capacity to understand the greater range, depth and complexities of life and that makes us far more susceptible to the forms of communication designed to manipulate our emotions. We are then more likely to view life and the world around us through a series of filters that predispose us to extremist views. Sadly, many of us never stop to examine our thought processes and the underlying emotional forces driving them.

We are faced with many serious problems. Our world is in a state of crisis and extremist rhetoric is not helping matters. If anything, extremist rhetoric is making it nearly impossible for us to come together to find workable solutions that truly serve the best interest of the majority of people.

The right of free speech is enshrined in our constitution, but it’s important for us to stop giving a platform to people who’s message has a destructive impact upon others and society as a whole. The Color of Change provided a good example of what we can do to stop the destructive phenomena of polarization by launching a boycott of Glen Beck in response to his racist comments and incendiary language. The Color of Change has shown that the best way to bring about real change in the media is to hit them where it counts. Beck lost virtually all of his A-list advertisers. The advertisers never returned, Beck’s ratings plunged and he lost nearly half of his viewing audience and that made him a liability to the Fox network.

It is so easy to regress into reactionary tendencies. What we are listening to and choosing to believe determines how we live our lives and the way that we affect other people around us. All “truth” is relative. No matter who said what or what was written in some supposed holy book, we all need to thoroughly examine our beliefs or viewpoints. We need to ask ourselves is this way of thinking or approach to life really valid? How does it compare with other beliefs or ways of doing things? How will holding this belief or acting in this way affect the lives of those around me? Anything less is a failure to assume the responsibility of a healthy, mature and functional adult. We need to encourage thorough and in depth discussion of the issues. And we need to stop voting along party lines and make decisions based upon our own individual conscience.

Mindfulness practices such as breathing into our feelings as they arise will help us to develop greater self-awareness. We begin to diffuse the highly charged emotions of anger and fear and sense of victimization that leaves us prone to being so easily manipulated. Learning to digest our feelings roots us more deeply into our bodies. It deepens our connection to the Earth and all creation. Becoming more fully embodied increases our capacity to take in different perspectives and that increases the range and depth of our understanding.

Working through our own highly charged issues and emotions increases our capacity to experience empathy and compassion. We may not always like or relate to the beliefs and ways of others, but we understand that they are also human beings who, in most instances, are doing the best they can to make their way through life. As the Greek philosopher Plato said “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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