Divisive, an interesting correlation – ngrams

Last week I showed that our use of the word “divisive” is a relatively recent phenomenon. Yes, the word has always been part of our vocabulary, but only recently did the frequency of usage skyrocket.

I discovered an interesting correlation that seems likely to at least be a contributing factor.

As always, here’s an intro to ngrams, if you are not familiar with this tool from Google.

And the correlation is… television.


Television came into the public life in the 1920’s and 1930’s and it really took off after that. This website shows some of the history of tv, including photos of some of the earliest tv sets sold to the public. It also includes statistics of how fast tv was becoming a fixture in public life based on how quickly tv units were being sold.

The obvious key feature of television is the fact that it can bring us a visual portrayal of reality in a way the radio absolutely cannot, and even newspapers, with still photos, are also not able to measure up to. But its strength can end up being a curse for the tv audience. It is said that if you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Similarly, if you are a television broadcaster, then you will naturally favour broadcasting that which is visually engaging.

Imagine, for instance, that you are a news reporter and you have two stories about news activists that you could possibly cover. One of the activists is a well-behaved lobbyist who sets appointments with the appropriate government officials and carefully and respectfully presents his case during those meetings.

The other activist charges into the government official’s office, unannounced, with a loudspeaker and placards.

Which story do you think is more likely to receive coverage? It seems self-evident to me that the second is far more likely to make it on to the six o’clock news than the first.

Given this likelihood, however, we have to take another facet of human nature into account. When an audience sees something on television, the act of viewing it causes them to perceive whatever they’ve seen as a little more “normal.” And that which seems normal will be considered just a little closer to being in the domain of something that the audience might consider doing.

This can even be the case with suicide, as this study shows. After a television series about train suicide was broadcast, there were more train suicides in the months that followed. This “werther effect” relates to what I wrote about previously – social momentum. A similar effect can be seen in the current spate of terrorist attacks. For instance, shortly after the Dallas ambush of police officers, there was another attack on police officers in Baton Rouge. There seems to be evidence that the second shooter was following the lead of the first.

Now, obviously, it’s not as if some normally sane and level-headed individual with no particular gripe against the police just suddenly snapped and went on a killing spree because of what he saw on television. As with suicides, it’s more a case of somebody who was on the brink of committing such an act who had occasion to “see” the act being committed, and that nudged them over the edge.

These examples won’t apply to most of us, but consider the implications for your average person of the previous example of two activists. If you are more likely to see belligerent, disrespectful, angry protesters on television than you are to see respectful, courteous activists, which of those two is more likely to shape the conception of “normal” in the minds of the tv audience? And if political disagreement becomes increasingly associated with antagonism, yelling and generally rude behavior, then could it rightly be said that television is leading us to become more “divisive?”

I don’t think this fully explains our current divisiveness – I would argue the emergence of the New Left is a contributing factor as well – but it seems likely to me that television is making the situation even worse than it might otherwise be.

All the more reason to cut the cord (or at least seriously scale back) all forms of visual media. We might actually start to get along with each other again, even in our disagreements.

Imagine that – being able to respectfully disagree with each other.