Polarization

This word implies becoming alienated from one another due to differences of opinion, often reflected in a left - right divide.  Is this really a hot-button term? Arguably, no. After all, many liberals, conservatives, leftists, and libertarians agree on the subject, each of them believing that (1) polarization means extreme disagreement, (2) polarization is a bad thing, and (3) the root causes of polarization are the sensationalism of media coverage and the fact that somebody on “the other side” has the wrong view (“they refuse to listen to us, the good guys”).

On the other hand, polarization is a contested term if by contested one means that each of the above-listed beliefs can be, and sometime is, challenged. For example, maybe polarization is not in fact best understood as extreme disagreement - because having an extreme view is not necessarily a bad thing. Doesn’t that depend on the view? Maybe the real problems are name-calling, hatefulness, and failures to listen. Which leads to this idea: maybe many of us deserve blame; perhaps it’s too easy to just lay the problem at the doors of “the bad guys” and “the media.”

If we focus on polarization as a problem, our goal ends up being “reducing” or “eliminating” polarization - rather than, say, hearing out the deep disagreements and painful emotions.  That aside, an important goal of a democratic society is to engender respect and empathy for others in spite of differences of opinion, and to also understand that civil, compassionate, inclusive and collaborative approaches to difficult issues can generate mutually acceptable approaches to otherwise polarizing issues.

QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:

  • Have you experienced much polarization in your conversations with friends and family about political issues? Or have you simply disagreed? What’s the difference?
  • Would you say that a discussion in which people express differing views respectfully, without resorting to personal attacks, and actually listening to each other, is a polarized discussion? If so, what makes it so? If not, what would make it so?
  • Should we as a nation get rid of polarization, or should we celebrate it? Why?
Dialog Tips: 

Living Room Conversation Guide: Relationships Matter

Contributors: 

Phil Neisser, John Kesler

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