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Seizing the Political Crisitunity: Solutions to Polarisation

Martin is a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner working for NHS England. He holds a Master of Science in Social Psychology.


Our brains work in an odd way. The act of avoidance itself causes avoided stimuli to be unconsciously reinforced as "worth avoiding", making us more likely to avoid those things again in the future. This is unfortunate enough for seemingly benign supermarket trips, let alone inherently conflict-laden conversations about politics. It's hardly surprising, then, that this avoidance spirals out of control to restrict the development of political voices, or that this is a particular problem for certain groups: Younger generations with their higher levels of anxiety, marginalised groups with their increased emotional reactivity and centrist positions who get attacked from both sides. All three meet greater resistance to speaking up.

In another of my articles, "Discussing Politics in Polite Company: A Missed Crisitunity", I outlined how the natural anxiety response is contributing to a reluctance for newer generations to engage in actual political debate and encouraging them to hide behind identity politics and populist figureheads—robbing individuals of character-building experiences and subjecting societies to increased polarisation. That article was a simple summary with no attempt to consider solutions (I had intended to, but there was more than enough to write about the problems). The purpose of this current article is to outline a potential path forward.

Overcoming Polarisation

More than a mere solution, this path develops character and enhances wellbeing. Benefits include becoming more tolerant and less emotionally reactive. Anxiety is our guide in a search for meaning, an invaluable Geiger counter that alerts us to the topics we care about, and we are more likely to find meaning once we start looking for it. A higher sense of meaning is then linked to better physical health, reduced mortality and increased happiness. Here's how it works in three steps: Habituating to the anxiety of acknowledging other viewpoints, coming to understand why people hold such viewpoints and then integrating honest and personal truths into any replies. It sounds simple, and it boils down to essentially a graded exposure therapy for developing a voice in the world, but can take several years to a lifetime.

Love that's reserved only for people who agree with you isn't love. It's narcissism.

— Brie Loskota, 2017

1. Acknowledge All Viewpoints Regardless of Perceived Validity

When online environments are just echo chambers of palatable content that pander to our pre-conceptions, we mistakenly come to believe two things: That we are right and that everybody agrees with us. This is particularly dangerous because when opposing ideologies clash we feel justified shutting down "dissenting" opinions. History demonstrates how extremely we are capable of shutting people down when our righteous beliefs are held aloft like the banners of a holy crusade. Modern day crusades tend to be less bloody, but their polarising and damaging impacts to democracy are as real.

True tolerance requires a commitment not to judge the validity of viewpoints. It may be tempting to write off Scientologists, Flat Earthers and conspiracy theorists, but even if we could overcome our self-serving biases to judge their self-proposed merits impartially (and we can't), doing so only reinforces the mental machinery that leads to treating conservative, liberal, meat-eating, vegan, religious or atheistic people with the same disdain. Unchecked disdain then leads to contempt. To avoid this, less emotionally charged conversations could be used to practice a moral habit of employing tolerance over automatic impulses. Strengthening alternative neural pathways to base-level tribalism prevents alienating entire swathes of the world population at best and empowering and enraging them at worst.

Attempting to push people out of a conversation paradoxically produces the opposite outcome⁠—a psychological reactance of increased resolve. In certain cases, consistently ignored individuals then develop a willingness to wield controversy as a sure-fire way to grab attention. A few cycles of escalation later is when disdain turns to contempt. As we see constantly in the news, this road is not working particularly well in politics at the moment. Worse, increasingly divisive attitudes are not contained to the bickering media. On the streets of the USA, Donald Trump’s election was accompanied by "a statistically significant surge in reported hate crimes...even when controlling for alternative explanations" and across the pond in the UK, following the referendum to leave the EU, "the majority of police forces in England and Wales reported record levels of hate crimes". Our failures of tolerance are having disastrous consequences on both sides.

Individuals high in emotional reactivity may find it particularly difficult to override the innate impulses to dominate. Conversely, these individuals may also stand to gain the most from this practice as increased tolerance leads to decreased emotional reactivity and greater cognitive control, guarding against manipulative trigger tactics of political oppositions and strengthening clarity of vision. A growth mindset approach should be taken here as years could be spent working on this first step before progressing to the next. We will never reach Jesus-level morality, but we can still hold human values of developing character as worth striving for.

Movements have begun already to implement large-scale interventions for reversing our overfragility. The University of Chicago for example has stated that they do not condone creation of campus "safe spaces", nor will they be partaking in the worrying university trend of cancelling controversial speakers. In search of increasing our ability to act morally in the face of our fears, The Moral Courage Project was also founded and is helping to turn bystanders into "upstanders" en masse with their YouTube channel showing positive role model examples.

On an individual level, the simplest thing we can do is make a commitment to be more tolerant. Creating an implementation intention is as simple as saying out loud "if I hear a viewpoint I don't agree with, then I will try not to make any judgements about it". We should also talk about politics with friends and family, embracing our subjective internal "trigger warnings" not as signals of danger but as alerts of the things we care about. Education is also an undervalued cure-all. A good book is a software update for our brains and great places to start include Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt's The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Finally, to escape our online echo chambers, we must look at who we are following on social media. Start by unfollowing those who thrive on division and then go further by following those who opposite our viewpoints from articulate and well-intentioned standpoints.

Take for example Dr. Jordan Peterson. On the surface, here is an angry white man who gets too easily triggered by the idea of equality. It would be getting too far ahead of ourselves to start analysing whether this description is justified, but it can still be demonstrated that the correct approach to his viewpoints is tolerance. Had the students who boycotted, protested and drowned out his talks been more tolerant, a rational and logical debate could have taken place as it did in the senate hearing on Bill C16. Remember that Bill C16 did pass, despite Peterson's objections, and likely all that the angry mobs were able to achieve was inadvertently propelling their opponent into stardom.

Graded Exposure is a therapeutic technique which harnesses the process of habituation to reduce the sensations of anxiety in response to feared situations or objects. Four conditions should be followed for maximum effect: Graded, prolonged, without distraction and repeated.

2. Come to Understand Why People Hold Such Viewpoints

Listen to understand rather than to respond. We have established that behaviour based on unchecked emotional impulses only serves to swerve rationality. Once we have developed the tolerance to acknowledge alternative viewpoints without feeling a need to criticise them, the next step is to develop a meaningful understanding of where they came from. Again, this is uncomfortable. Threats of cognitive dissonance lurk around every corner and the amount of mental effort involved makes it tempting to brush off entire schools of thought. Right-wingers? "No doubt a bunch of heartless racists who oppose progress". Left-wingers? "Probably just socialist snowflakes who don't understand the complexities of society". Indeed this is a bipartisan bias. If it helps, this second step could be re-framed as a kind of reconnaissance behind enemy lines.

The aim is that by spending enough time behind enemy lines, for whatever reason, we will begin to see the humanity in our enemies and their terrain will become so familiar it almost feels friendly. Irshad Manji outlined exactly why this is a necessary intervention for modern society in her book Don't Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times.

"We won't save democracy by putting labels such as 'racist' on the Trumps of our time. A truly new global order requires a new way to tribe out".

Manji has had to fight more than a few labels in her time, which I won't repeat here but rest assured that she knows what she is talking about. Labelling Trump supporters as racist, even if it happens to be true, is still incomplete and dangerous. Incomplete because it says nothing of why this person is racist in relation to their individual story. Dangerous because shaming racists is a great way to radicalise them. Even in the most clear-cut cases of unforgivable malevolence, the worst thing you can ever say about somebody is that they're human. Much better to understand this humanity with a view to preventing future malevolence.

Similarly, if you're a Trump supporter who resents being called racist then you are also capable of tolerance towards those who short-sightedly label you. Rather than becoming emotionally reactive and defensive in these cases, consider how the label is meant. Research on implicit bias suggests for instance that everybody is a little racist. Agreeing on precise definitions of terms is necessary to fully understand a dialogue because whether somebody is attacking us is not a binary event. Consider a continuum running from informed personal attack to generalisations about groups to benign statements about all humanity. Where we feel the conversation lies and where our conversation partners feel it lies are often mismatched to the degree that anxiety is felt.

These four rules can help to get the most out of the graded exposure approach to building tolerance.

  1. Exposures must be graded. This article already breaks the process down into three steps, but each step can be broken down further if necessary (e.g., by choosing a close friend to discuss politics with before a family member or stranger).
  2. No distractions. Tolerance will only be built in response to anxiety felt. If we use safety behaviours (e.g., distraction techniques) to avoid feeling the anxiety then we are not out of our comfort zones. "No pain, no gain" applies even psychologically.
  3. Prolonged. After the peak of anxiety, try to stay in the situation until anxiety has dropped to about half of what it was. Leaving the conversation or situation too soon might do more harm than good by rewarding avoidance.
  4. Repeated. It is advised to repeat the process as much as possible, ideally three or four exposures per week.

Irshad Manji states that a truly new global order requires a new way to tribe out. For finding that new way to tribe out, I would be interested to know what Manji thinks about this: The open-minded types who generally strive for understanding VS ideologs who generally don't resist base-level judgemental impulses.

3. Integrate Honest and Personal Truths Into Any Response

Once we are able to respond with calm rationality, we must allow personal truths to shine through us in order to illuminate the individuality of the side we stand on. This could even be considered a moral obligation or the "will of God" and in either case requires heavy soul-searching. If Socrates considered to "know thyself" as the beginning of wisdom, perhaps the natural next step is to "show thyself".

The sheer variety of ways in which we can respond to people in the world is overwhelming, and not limited to simple conversation. Bloggers, journalists and political activists may contribute to ongoing societal dialogues in a more traditional sense, but others may have a passion for movies and in becoming a successful writer/director learn a whole new language to speak in. The dialect of this language could then be hard-hitting documentaries, pro-vegan sketch comedy or an entirely new genre altogether. The more academically minded may wish to develop a scientific voice and work on getting published in renowned journals. Creative types may turn to dance, painting or any of the musical instruments, athletic types could adopt any of the sports to gain their voice and multi-talented individuals may want to write and perform musical comedy routines on stage without shoes. There are any number of different methods by which we can improve the small corner of the world we are passionate about, and any true expression of ourselves can become an artform if it is honest enough.

Having discovered an authentic voice, we have found the best possible way in which to conduct our life. Focusing single-mindedly on developing this voice into the highest artform it can become benefits our subjective wellbeing by supporting the self-concept that we are morally good. Financial rewards are also possible for art that can be monetised and romantic opportunities increase as our expressive honesty makes us more attractive. Further, we gain respect and friendship from our colleagues and a pleasurable, meaningful feeling of being "in the zone" when we work. Finally but importantly, a commitment to authenticity prevents ideological possession, maximising our free will and immunising us to any outside criticism as we know in our hearts that we are living our own life in line with our values.

Take for instance meat-eaters who are verbally attacked by vegans. The most annoying thing about vegans is that they are generally right. However, accusations of meat-eaters being selfish or choosing to eat meat "purely for taste" miss the mark when applied to individuals who protest animal abuse, donate to animal welfare or have dietary restrictions necessitating consumption of animal products. Farmers who go out of their way to ensure their animals are cared for above and beyond welfare requirements will not appreciate being individually attacked with group-level accusations.

Blanket judgemental attacks are always short-sighted because not everybody needs to be making the world a better place in the same way. There are no carbon-neutral, vegan, human rights activists who volunteer with the homeless after work and spend their weekends attending political rallies while going hungry to donate as much of their income as possible to charity. There are, however, individual people who cover each and every one of these bases as a collective. To be morally good we don't have to be morally perfect. There is more to our character than one dimension, and anybody who cannot see this isn't looking at our individuality.

This is also why remaining humble is so important. 'Human' is synonymous with 'fallible', but generations of keeping up with the Joneses and years of viewing our world through the lens of social media accounts have increased the pressure to appear perfect on the surface without incentive to develop moral values in the core of our characters. Our egos are embiggened because we generally remain in echo chambers of like-minded social circles. We need to show our humanity again, even in embarrassing or seemingly hypocritical ways. Vegans who occasionally eat non-vegan chocolate, white allies who agree with something Donald Trump once said and feminists who quite like Eminem are entitled to a political voice and the power of them speaking up cannot be overstated. Every action we take potentially perpetuates chain re-actions of positive influence as the mirror neurons of other minds notice our role-model selves. To integrate honest and personal truths into responses is to "be the change you want to see in the world", and be that change so successfully that others envy to follow.

Is This Really All That Important?

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, answering what she felt was the biggest threat to democracy today, responded "a public that doesn't care". Democracy cannot function left to its devices or bereft of its divisiveness. Therefore, a public that doesn't care enough to push past the anxiety inherent in developing more accurate understandings of opposing viewpoints will become less free, both societally and individually, as anxiety becomes their dictator.

Those who commit to finding and developing their voice in the world, on the other hand, will feel more comfortable in the world and connected to others. Connection is known to be important for individuals⁠—self-determination theory posits relatedness as one of three basic needs for psychological wellbeing⁠—but can also transform societies. For example, the strongest protective factors for preventing against suicide are those which connect us to others (significant others, family members, spirituality, community). Tragic acts of terror such as school shootings are also found to be overwhelmingly preceded by "acute or chronic rejection—in the form of ostracism, bullying, and/or romantic rejection". Following our morally chosen self-defined paths enables societal healing which can slowly reverse these ills, which is what Republicans probably mean when they state gun crime is a "mental health issue". Of course, this bite-size analysis is incredibly low-resolution and must be explored further by both sides, but if both sides wish to come to a successful solution then they had better adopt the principles described above.

We may feel that the big problems in the world are global warming and terrorism, but these are secondary to our inability to rationally discuss their potential solutions. To thrive in pluralistic societies requires that we not only allow others to speak, but that we understand their language and hear their humanity. Indeed, when anxiety ceases to be a barrier to connection we will change the world by ensuring there is always space for conversation.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Martin Yearley