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We’re a nation of people polarized by preferences

Updated: November 18, 2011 8:39AM

You might love former President Bill Clinton, or you might hate him. But on this, at least, you’d be hard pressed to disagree with him: Our country is profoundly polarized.

“America has overcome all these prejudices we had. We’re not nearly as gender-biased as we used to be. We’re not nearly as racist as we used to be. We’re not as anti-gay as we used to be. The only bigotry we’ve got left is: We don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us,” he told a crowd gathered at Chase Bank in Chicago for last week’s “Ideas Week” conference.

And though Clinton couched his criticism in the narrow terms of politics, intolerance of opposing points of view is a bipartisan, gender-neutral, race-blind, multigenerational pastime simply because we are a society that demands our personal preferences be catered to at all times.

Remember the old Burger King slogan? “Your way, right away, at Burger King now!” That pretty much sums up every aspect of our “me, me, me” culture.

We live in a society where families sit down to eat at tables with different meals for each family member. Dad might be on a reduced fat-diet while mom is on a high-protein one, the teen might be experimenting with veganism and the toddler eats only hot dogs.

But let’s not limit ourselves to food — virtually every aspect of our lives is geared towards self-satisfaction.

Ever tried to enforce a dress code? Go to any high school today and you’ll see students dressed outlandishly, slovenly or down-right rudely. They present themselves to others in almost any way they see fit and teachers rarely complain. Heck, many times the teachers are pushing the envelope of appropriate classroom attire.

Recently, an angry parent with children in the north suburban Woodlawn Elementary school district, where I taught a few years ago, got mad about unprofessionally dressed teachers and complained to the school board.

“The flip-flop thing got me the most,” the mom told a reporter, “This isn’t your backyard. This isn’t the beach.” The board said it would review the professional staff’s dress code.

In no other realm have we leapt so lustily into the arms of personalization as we have with media. “General news” is now a misnomer. Over-the-airwaves radio is passe; with Web-based and satellite radio feeds you can listen to channels devoted to nearly any kind of music, information or talk that you like.

TV cable channels, magazines, blogs, YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Twitter streams and even some newspapers work off the same principal: You can choose between uninterrupted torrents of liberal or conservative content that will reinforce your every viewpoint.

We even get our way at work: Flexible work hours and vacation time are becoming the norm. More and more we’re insisting that employers’ information technology departments adjust to our favorite mobile computing gadgets rather than being saddled with whatever the company provides.

I’m not here to say that getting our way is bad. But increasingly we get to have it all our way, all the time and that sort of individual-centric frame of mind is not conducive to compromise or understanding.

Clinton referred to the good old days when “people were having arguments in barber shops and beauty salons and coffee shops.”

Those days are gone forever. We’re connected and attracted to others through social media, which does a remarkable job of organizing people by their preferences. I don’t know what it’ll be like in the future, but today we use Twitter and Facebook to organize gatherings at coffee shops with likeminded people so we can talk about how ridiculous other people are.

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