The Internet has knocked America’s B.S. detector askew. Americans are so used to attributing the national stench to Washington that we haven’t noticed our own steaming piles — the premature, poorly informed political conclusions we’ve all been jumping to. In gaining the freedom to explore all the views the Web has to offer, we also have new power to see only those ideas consistent with the conclusions we’ve already made. But the crap is starting to hit the fan. Those bad, smelly conclusions are dividing America.

We should have first smelled it during the national health care debate. During Congress’s summer recess, we saw images of extremists shouting over others at town hall meetings to discuss health care. Their rude interruptions suggest that gears are grinding somewhere within our old democracy. When people become so frustrated that they see no worth in the views of their opponents, something is wrong.

And it’s not just those already on the fringe who are growing more extreme. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in May, just as the health care issue was moving to center stage, shows that the political parties are more starkly different than ever. In two years, the percentage of Republicans who believed that government regulation of business does more harm than good rose from 57 percent to 75 percent. Over the same time period, the proportion of Democrats who agreed sank from 57 percent to 41 percent. Divisions grew similarly across a variety of issues, with what Pew defines as the “average difference between the opinions” at its highest since measurement began 22 years ago.

There’s nothing inherently smelly about disagreement, but the growing contrast can’t be explained by the personal nature of health care or economic recovery. Instead, division has grown because the ideas Americans are exposed to are less diverse, and decisions made while cut off from the broader realities of issues are stinky ones indeed.

The Internet, hailed by some as the tool to diversify our information intake, has done much the opposite. Provided with millions of Web pages, most prefer using the Internet to tailor the information they read. It’s a phenomenon renowned Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein spoke about when he visited the University last December. According to the Daily on Dec. 12, 2008, Sunstein argued that the Internet tends to lead people into isolation “from the variety of beliefs and opinions needed for rational political discourse.” With plenty of sites like the Huffington Post and political blogs to choose from, people are getting better and better at avoiding accidental encounters with opposing viewpoints.

When opinions are never exposed to the sanitizing power of daylight, they tend to grow uglier. In one study Sunstein conducted, conservatives and liberals were separated into two groups and asked to discuss political issues. Over the course of the study, people in both groups developed more extreme views. They were isolated from the whole debate and thought their conclusions were reasonable. In other words, their detectors were knocked askew.

Impressively, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made my point about growing extremism without a single allusion to feces. He compared the current poisonous political environment in this country to that in Israel in the days leading up to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitznak Rabin in 1995. Rabin, who was ready to trade land for peace with Palestine as part of the Oslo Accords, was portrayed by some right-wing Israelis as a treasonous Nazi until one Israeli extremist ended Rabin’s life. “The parallels to Israel then and America today turn my stomach,” Friedman wrote in a Sept. 29 New York Times column.

With so many Americans isolated from exposure to opposing ideas, the division is crippling national debate. When it comes to health care and fixing the economy, we must choose to be exposed to ideas we find contrary to our own. Otherwise, compromise will remain elusive and urgent issues will continue to be left unresolved. It’s time to recalibrate our collective crap sensor, start reading the blogs we disagree with and bring moderation back to the national debate.

Nicholas Clift is an Engineering freshman.

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