Why Polarizing Messages Are So Effective

If you read anything about polarization in the realm of politics or psychology today, it almost always comes with a negative connotation and is followed by long-winded, motherly diatribes about how polarity is destroying our country.

A quick Google search will bear this out. Among political commentators and writers at The Atlantic and New York Magazine, polarization is a four-letter word that resides somewhere in the same low rent district as racism and bigotry.

To this crowd of elite thinkers, academic types, and highbrow journalistas, polarization is the bastard child of tribalism and closely related to extremism, hate, and divisiveness. What is almost exclusively focused on is the negative aspects of polarization. What they keep demanding as a solution is moderation, focusing on shared interests, policy compromise, and wide-scale societal collaboration.

And the biggest irony of all? Many of those same people are pushing highly polarized cultural campaigns through news media, entertainment, and academia. They’re embracing brand marketing strategies, political maneuvering, and legal measures that amount to total warfare for the progressive cause. While fueling polarizing and divisive messaging from the far left, they pass the peace pipe and demand moderation. Pay attention to what they do, not what they say.

To be fair, most of the effective alt-right personalities are also masters of polarization, including Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump. But what they don’t generally do is cry about the moral depravity of polarity politics. That’s reserved for leftists and milk toast conservatives aligned with or a part of the political establishment.

After all, one of the basic tenets of conservatism is to keep your head down at all times. Build a bunker or bomb shelter, batten down the hatches, don’t speak up, don’t disrupt Thanksgiving dinner with the family. Go with the flow. Don’t attract attention to yourself. In other words, avoid polarization at all costs.

It’s important to understand why polarizing people are calling for moderation. Like any great war strategy, this one is based on deception. And a damned effective one, at that. The best way to build up your nuclear arsenal without anyone noticing is to be the world’s greatest promoter of disarmament. This not only provides the cover you need to beef up your weapon stashes unnoticed, but also creates a likely scenario in which the enemy willingly disarms while you’re preparing for blitzkrieg.

Sun Tzu, in his Art of War, described it best:

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

Likewise, the lefty poster child, Saul Alinsky, wrote in his community organizing playbook, Rules for Radicals, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.”

Here’s what I’m driving at in this article: Polarizing messages are very effective.

For the remainder of this article, I want to talk about why that is, how you can use it, and why this principle is so important to understand in the church.

1. Why Polarizing Messages Are So Effective

While politicians and psychologists cast polarization in a pejorative light, marketing folks are much more open to capitalizing upon the positive impact polarity in messages can deliver. For example, the Nike campaign with Colin Kaepernick is often interpreted negatively by conservatives but was a financial windfall for the company—a year after Nike inked an endorsement deal with the failed NFL quarterback it reported a $6 billion increase in worth thanks to a 31-percent increase in sales.

What’s the point? Polarizing messages are effective. They demand a response, either in the form of love or hate. As one marketing expert put it: the most exciting and interesting brands are decidedly polarizing.

The truth is the biggest enemy brands face in today’s polarized world is not the other side—the enemy of all brands is indifference. Don’t fear being hated. Fear being invisible. Fear being something people don’t have an opinion, or a thought about, at all. Fear being something that can be easily replaced. Polarization—in politics and beyond—gives us passion groups. Gives us friction. Friction creates cultural heat. Cultural heat creates buzz. And when you can tap into that, suddenly your brand isn’t invisible. When it’s clear what a brand stands for, and what they stand against, things get interesting.

Brilliant insights. Don’t fear being hated; fear being invisible. Embrace cultural friction. 

Polarizing messages are effective because they demand a passionate response. They rub us the wrong way. They strike a chord. They make us think. They trouble and perplex us. They engage us in debate. We feel compelled to weigh in. We must choose sides.

Some of the best communicators in history have had a knack for figuring out where the cultural fault lines are—unspoken tension points that polarize us—and they start dancing around them with big banners and a megaphone. There’s no room for indifference. These messengers usually have passionate haters and diehard followers. This was the genius behind Trump and the 2016 Make America Great Again campaign.

What Would Jesus Polarize? 

Disturbing as it may be to the soft church today, Jesus communicated with polarity in his message all the time. First, He often chose us vs. them language that would make the nice guys in the pews today wet themselves. Not very inclusive, Jesus. Pick your sides. Eternity depends on it.

“He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad” (Matt. 12:30). “And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38).

You’re either a sheep or a goat. A son of God or of the Devil. The violent will inherit the kingdom. Repent or perish. This is the kind of language that draws definitive battle lines in the sand.

Second, he spoke in hyperbolic, extreme ways that were meant to elicit a powerful response, negative or positive.

 “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12).

“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

What did you just say, Jesus? Hate my parents? Be violent? What?

Jesus could have qualified these statements but chose not to do so. In fact, his speech put as sharp a point on it as He could have. It’s more than a little offensive. Makes your ears stand up. Sparks a bit of curious outrage. Reveals your preconceived notions. Ruffles your feathers.

And it’s effective because it makes you pay attention, think, and ask good questions. What it doesn’t allow is for you to ignore what’s being said.  

2. How You Can Use it

There’s an important caveat to make as we delve into the question of how this information can be useful to you.

Polarization can be a powerful technique for communication or it can be completely abused.

We have to be careful how we use this powerful tool since we live in a culture that has made an art of exploiting and abusing polarity for a vast array of politically- and consumer-driven reasons.

As the Nike incident illustrates, corporations have figured out they can use outrage to drive sales. Politicians can do the same to bolster fundraising campaigns and solidify voting segments. Twitter and Facebook do it to drive clicks and time on site.

Likewise, social media and traditional news outlets churn out the kind of sensational headlines that are meant to fuel a state of constant outrage, fear, or panic, which constitutes an abuse of polarizing communication methods. Yes, you get outraged, but often about all the wrong things. And none of it spurs you on to take meaningful action. They do it because ratings and engagement increase.

Polarizing messaging has to be used with wisdom, which means you have to know the time, place, and measure in which to use it.

Like stress, polarity in measured doses administered at the right time can be used to create a necessary response—some things really are outrageous, after all, and demand our action—but when people are outraged or stressed all the time, they eventually get overwhelmed, depressed, and simply shut down.

I bring this up because we are living in a culture in which people are addicted to outrage and our culture-producing smack peddlers on both sides of the camp are more than happy to keep us snorting lines off the coffee table and constantly strung-out from the latest Twitter- or Fox News-induced rage fest. And, generally speaking, these outrage pimps are creating polarity along lines that don’t match up with goodness, truth, or beauty. CNN wants you to hate the Right while Fox wants you to hate the Left, but neither is usually interested in promoting anything like the righteous standard of God’s holy law or repentance in accordance with it.

So, how can you use polarity to your advantage?

First, realize that polarization is one component in a larger strategy for effective communication.

The most effective communication is simple, deeply resonates, provides concrete call to action, relatable, and polarizing. In other words, effective messaging is easy to understand, connects with people’s souls in meaningful ways, gives them practical steps for taking action, relates to their life, and demands a love or hate response.

I’ll be the first to admit—and my own mother can confirm this—I was born to be a “button pusher.” I have an intuitive knack for finding people’s buttons and pushing them. Uncontrolled, this skill can be used sinfully to agitate, harass, and send people over the edge. But when it is harnessed for good, it can be used to drive at the issues that really matter. And it is harnessed for good when it is combined with other tools like wise listening, a dose of empathy, and compassionate truth telling.

Second, only talk about politics and religion.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “I never discuss anything except politics and religion. There is nothing else to discuss.”

The taboo matter we often tend to shy away from is often, topically speaking, the most interesting. What if you embraced rather than spurned those topics? What if you embraced the social tension this creates as the necessary means to having deeper, more meaningful conversations that lead to genuine change in people’s lives?

One of our biggest temptations is to think if we want to have an effective message, we have to aim for the largest number of people, which means speaking in a way that the majority of a population will appreciate. To do this, we simply stay away from controversial issues.

The result of this is usually a bland message that attracts people with low to moderate levels of investment. It doesn’t really resonate with anyone all that deeply. And while it doesn’t create many haters, it also doesn’t create many passionate followers, either.

My strategy for The Hard Men Podcast ran 100-percent counter to the conventional keep-your-head-down wisdom of the day. I began by considering what the front-line issues in the culture and church were today, and then decided I’d speak as boldly and authoritatively about them from Scripture. In a world that trains us to flee from the fiercest portion of the battle, I decided to aim my efforts precisely and directly there. Hence, a podcast about biblical masculinity in a feminized world.

It’s been highly effective. I have a tribe of loyal supporters. I have a horde of green-haired manhating lesbian Lutheran pastors who hate my guts. Most importantly, many people’s lives are being transformed. Polarity creates passion. Passion drives action.

Third, recognize and master the interplay between polarizing speech and relational care.

After Jesus had dropped a somewhat confusing or troublesome truth bomb, he’d enter homes, listen, heal, walk alongside his disciples, answer questions, provide clarification, and tend to men and women’s souls. He wasn’t some overly offensive religious version of Howard Stern. He chose to be polarizing in order to get people to see truth from a different angle or to examine themselves more realistically. He ate with them, befriended them, and cried with them.

Polarity, rightly used, is a tool we use to drive people deeper into relationship with Christ and a life of continual repentance. It’s a merciful thing to confront someone’s indifference.

Fourth, polarization, rightly used, should lead to action.

As mentioned above, the outrage pimps use polarization to drive ratings. Jesus used it to drive people to repentance. A simple litmus test is whether polarization results in a call to action, and whether that call to action resembles biblical obedience.

Most of what passes for polarization in America today is never meant to lead to action, which is how you know it’s a counterfeit. Just be outraged about the Democrats. But what you notice is people start getting squirrely when you name action steps like getting your kids out of public school or getting out of a wage slave existence in corporate America.

The right kind of polarity will always lead to obedience.

3. Why it Matters for the Church

The majority of Christians within the church today take their cues from The Atlantic rather than The Holy Bible when it comes to polarizing messages. In other words, they’re terrified to speak about the most important issues of the day for fear they might ruffle someone’s feathers or, God forbid, get labeled judgmental or divisive. It seems the church refuses to talk politics or religion, and instead we keep the convo light and therapeutic.

Church leaders refuse to address or take a stand on taboo issues like sexuality or education. They neuter gendered piety into an oblivion of nothingness. They refuse to address the fact that Christians are handing covenant children over to statist schools for indoctrination and this has ravaged the church. These topics are off limits. Too divisive.

They take Scripturally clear issues and stir the mud in the bottom of the river until everything looks murky and confusing. They do it because they’re cowards who refuse to answer simple questions with biblical authority and abundant clarity. They do it because they love the crowds that gather at their mega conferences to buy their books.

To borrow from the political arena, many Christians have adopted a strategy for “aiming for the middle,” which if you’ve followed politics for the last few decades, is a great strategy if you like losing. To avoid the title of extremism, evangelical leaders have strategically and consistently taken the place of the Sophists, punching hard right to distance themselves from conservatives while blowing kisses to the progressive elites who hold the reigns of culture production. They take stands only when it’s a socially acceptable position that won’t cost them anything.

Avoid polarizing language at all costs. Stick to the issues that aren’t controversial. Go with the current of the culture. Ironically, this is exactly what’s robbed current leaders of any real authority in their churches or in the culture—a refusal to speak authoritatively from Scripture on keystone issues makes these leaders nothing more than empty talking heads that no one takes seriously.

Boots on the Ground

What are the key takeaways for churches and Christians engaging in the culture wars today? How should this affect your day-to-day tactics and overall strategy?

First, embrace a polarizing message.   

If you want to establish a community, whether that’s online or local, start by taking clear, authoritative, open stands on the most important issues of the day. This kind of truth-speaking courage is a huge reason for Doug Wilson and Christ Church’s growing reach over the last few years. It is very clear who is and isn’t part of his tribe. Doug’s magnetism attracts some and drives others away, but this also acts as an effective filter for the church—a majority of the people who stay are highly invested disciples, not passive consumers. And that’s the point of a tribe.

It’s the same reason the churches that grew the most in 2020 were the ones who pushed back hardest against mask mandates and government tyranny. They weren’t afraid to be courageously polarizing. This made them attractive to the right kind of person and filtered out the chaff. Polarizing messages are an unmasking. 

Second, don’t be afraid to confront the taboo.

As George Grant has pointed out, every culture has blasphemy laws. All you have to do is find out what you’re not allowed to talk about and that’s what’s being falsely worshipped. As Christians, we should be eager to address those issues. Remember, cultural heat and friction means meaningful conversations and powerful opportunities for change.

For example, James Coates refused to stop preaching, went to jail in Canada, and got millions of us talking about resisting tyrants and Matt Trewhella’s book, The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates. The net result of one man’s polarizing action was that many mainliners got off the fence and started to take action in their own counties. Polarity is a good thing.

Likewise, thought leaders in the Intellectual Dark Web—from Joe Rogan to Jordan Petersen—have been successful largely because they were willing to address untouchable issues, from Trudeau’s leftist political appointments to identity politics and Alex Jones. So, don’t be afraid to address those issues from a biblical perspective. This might be the very thing that gives you a voice and a tribe.

We should be like Gideon, taking these idols into the public square and burning them—not hiding the idols protected by pagan blasphemy laws. Think about the success of Michael Foster and Bnonn Tennant at It’s Good to Be a Man: that ministry is effective because they’re willing to deal with issues the majority of the church won’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Pornography, Effeminacy, Homosexuality, the tyranny of feminism, singleness is not a gift, public education, etc.

Third, use a polarizing message to drive people to action.

People need simple, concrete, relatable, polarizing communication with clear actionable items. This is the beauty of John the Baptist’s teaching in Luke: If you’re taxman, stop extorting money from people. See how clear and straightforward that is?

Too often, pastors use Christianese language that gets turned into oft-repeated platitudes that no one actually understands. “Surrender your life to Christ.” “Man up.” Those phrases don’t actually tell us how to do anything. They’re pretty vague and, as a result, not that helpful.

Addicted to porn? Here’s how to get free. Home life falling apart? Here’s how to build a durable household. Marital strife? Here’s how to talk to your wife. Provide people with practical steps for change.

Fourth, polarization helps you know who your enemies are.

What would Christ in the Gospels be without the Pharisees? Or Paul in the Epistles without the Judaizers? Or David without his uncircumcised Philistines? The truth is, whether we’re talking football or religion, we’re hardwired to love a good rivalry. Clemson vs. Alabama, Red Sox vs. Yankees. Everyone needs a team to root against just as much as a team to root for.

Polarizing speech draws that line in the sand and makes your enemies come out of the woodwork—especially the dumpy manhaters with shaved heads and baggy clothes. This is actually a really good thing.

In the same way, 2020 was such a gift because it made people pick sides, and when they picked sides it revealed a lot. Many of the Big Eva elites put their progressive leftist cards on the table for all to see. Good men stood up. All of it is crucial information in the coming campaign.

Effective communicators and strategists understand the rhetoric of enemies. For example, if you’re doing a blog on masculinity, it would be helpful to say something—and quite often—about feminists. If you’re talking about the intersection of politics and religion, you should probably say something about Bolsheviks, critical race theorists, and Russell Moore’s ERLC. Build your tribe by being clear about who the “us” and “them” are. Get into all the messy details.

Fifth, and more importantly, polarization helps you know who your tribe is.

Nothing gets worse press than tribalism, but it’s an essential dynamic of life in community. It’s how we build, shape, and protect culture. Polarizing messages help put clear borders around our tribe.

Who are the 150 or so people who really get you? Who share your fundamental vision? Who resonates with your message? Who’s helping you protect the perimeter? Who are you fighting alongside in the trenches? Polarity helps crystalize who’s in and who’s out. In that sense, it’s a very effective tool for tribal pursuits.

Photo by Kalea Morgan on Unsplash

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