Beyond political or social issues that may contribute to causing it, polarization has evolved into a dangerous framework of communication that is a poison to our democracy and democracies around the world.
Jennifer McCoy, a Senior Fellow at the CEU Institute for Advanced Study (Central European University) described polarization as “when societies become divided into two mutually distrustful political camps.” The typified American example of this is the current and long standing division between the Republican and Democratic national parties. “Eighty percent of Democrats and Republicans view each other in negative terms and nearly half of each party sees the other as actually a threat to the nation.” According to polls provided by Pew Research Center in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic “77% of Americans said the country was now more divided than before the [COVID-19] outbreak.” Further polls provided by MSNBC show that, “only 22 percent [of Americans] answered that things are “headed in the right direction.”’ This shows a clear correlation between the division of the country, and the pessimism and wavering trust held by the American people. Further, both parties believe that the other party threatens our democracy. Pew Research Center notes “most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.‘” In fact it may be their intense partisanship that is the biggest contributor to the problem.
Polarization is a problem because it unravels our social structure and impedes social collaboration and commerce. It puts people into silos where they further incubate their positions and become more alienated from each other. A polarized society threatens the function of the government by making it near impossible to negotiate and come to compromises on important political and social issues, creating a political gridlock where nothing gets done.
Battling polarization warrants a multifaceted approach, but two main strategies should emphasize understanding the other’s position and understanding our own emotions. Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project, and authors of Getting to Yes, have been dealing with all levels of negotiation and conflict resolution for over 40 years. Some principles of negotiation they put forth apply to battling polarization. It starts with conversation and building relationships. Some of their negotiation tactics that apply to combatting polarization include:
- Separate people from the problem
- Interests not positions
- Work together to create options that satisfy both parties
Further, OpenMind is a platform that reinforces many of these ideas. Pausing to think before acting on instinct, actively trying to understand others’ perspectives and why they think the way they do, creating a respectful and positive conversational environment, and realizing that there may be a common goal are some of the ways we can fight back against the polarization that corrupts our society.
Battling polarization needs to be a grassroots effort among individuals, and until we start effectively communicating with each other polarization will continue to divide us.