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Relieving polarization

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Relieving polarization

John Jensen

Polarization boils down to the determination to protect one's present thinking and resist anyone's attempt to challenge it.

While in our national values people have a right to their viewpoint, polarization carried too far can damage the social fabric. Fantastic notions run free can generate hostility and violence. Voltaire summed up the danger succinctly, his Europe of the 1700s having just put behind it a couple centuries of religion-inspired carnage: "If you can make people believe absurdities, you can make them commit atrocities."

The danger to us is not just from others elsewhere. The United States has never relinquished its right to damage itself. Before someone shoots another, they buy a weapon, think about using it, talk about using it, receive support from others about using it, and then" Large numbers of U.S. citizens have recently passed through those stages, so we should not be surprised when the last one occurs.

That some are more inclined to receiving others' ideas, however, opens a route to relieving polarization. Walking this morning, I received a cheery "Hello" from a nearby neighbor whose yard decorations tell me is a committed conservative, but I know we could easily connect about many issues. Such folks would help others spontaneously, participate in community events, and accept others regardless of their political leanings although "conserving" their own. But despite their good will, they can assist in the spread of polarization.

It increases in force from approval or acceptance by others who have less of it, who might agree with an idea but lack the antagonism with which others project it. Peer support can affirm to some that their resistance to others' ideas is the right thing to do, while by themselves they might temper their certainty. Intense emotions remind us intuitively that we are at risk, that we have stretched ourselves beyond our customary attitudes and hence welcome reinforcement from the like-minded.

We can approach the more receptive individually, even though they remain attached to their polarized group. Our means of doing so, fortunately, are ready to hand. Because differences have always endangered humans' well-being, our race evolved a way to get past them and installed it in everyone. From our earliest awareness we are designed to connect with others and, once having words, to use them to connect better. Regarding something differently than do those around us, our natural recourse is to air the differences, trade perceptions, and gradually align our ideas. With polarized thinking, people switch off this capacity but they can restore it with a few choices.

Let us say your neighbor, Hank, enjoys arguing politics but you and he disagree about everything. Because he welcomes expressing his ideas, you hope change is possible although he is stuck in his silo, and you, you must admit, are as firmly embedded in your own. You decide that for any progress at all, you will have to alter your approach:

You: "Hank, I've been thinking about our exchanges these last few months, how we both seem even more deeply embedded in our own views than when we started, so evidently we have not been able to learn anything from each other."

Hank: "Yeah, gotta admit it. You're still way over there and I'm way over here."

You: "As I've thought about it, we tend to talk past each other, so some ground rules might help. People tend to fall into a pattern, like trading insults is a pattern or giving a speech the other ignores. We repeat things that don't work, like cherry-picking flaws in each other's thinking."

Hank: "You lecturing on how we should even talk is a pattern."

You: "Got it. You got me. Well, I have another suggestion."

Hank: "Lay it on me."

You: "If we want to make any progress at all, I think we first need to be talking about the same idea. Instead what we do is you make a point and it reminds me of a point I want to make. My words then remind you of a point you want to make, and a subject we might focus on bounces around like a loose ping pong ball. We each may be talking about a different aspect and never agree on the smallest detail. That's a kind of system we both contribute to, and we may feel it works for us because we each walk away with the ideas we had at the beginning. We succeeded in defending ourselves."

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John Jensen is a clinical psychologist, former Catholic priest, and author of We Need a Movement: Four Problems to Solve to Restore Rational Government (2017) and Civilizing America in a Post-Trump Era (2020).
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