Polarization in American culture is nothing new. In fact, it seems to built almost intentionally into our two-party system. For a very long time now, many of us have assumed that are basically two answers or “sides” to issues and questions in our public discourse. But we are now more polarized than at any other time in our nation’s history since the Civil War. And with the obsession this current Presidential campaign has had with negative ads, rather than talking about positive proposals to solve problems, it looks to get even worse in the coming months.
But our broader culture need not cave to how its media and other public institutions present the world to us. We can resist. Based on my experience working to push back against polarization, I published an Op-Ed with the Seattle Times describing five relatively simple practices that may help this effort:
• Humility. We are finite, flawed beings and are prone to making serious mistakes. We need to enter into discussions and arguments with this at the very front of our minds — not only in being comfortable with someone challenging our point of view, but also reserving the right to change our mind when our argument is shown to be problematic.
• Solidarity with our conversation partner. This involves active listening, presuming that one has something to learn, and (if possible) getting to know them personally beyond an abstraction. Never reduce another’s ideas because of their gender, race, level of privilege, sexual orientation, or social location. Similarly, never reduce them to what you suspect are their “secret personal motivations.” Instead, give your partner the courtesy of carefully responding to the actual idea or argument that she is offering for your consideration.
• Avoiding binary thinking. The issues that are seriously debated in our public sphere are almost always too complex to fit into simplistic categories like liberal/conservative, religious/secular, open/close-minded, pro-life/pro-choice, etc. Furthermore, it sets up framework in which taking one side automatically defines one against “the other side” — thus further limiting serious and open engagement.
• Avoiding fence-building and dismissive words and phrases. It might feel good to score these rhetorical points, but doing so is one of the major contributors to our polarized discourse. Let us simply stop using words and phrases like: radical feminist, war on women, neocon, limousine liberal, prude, heretic, tree-hugger, anti-science, anti-life, and so on. Instead, use language that engages and draws the other into a fruitful engage of ideas.
• Leading with what you are for. Not only is this the best way to make a convincing case for the view you currently hold, but this practice often reveals that we are actually after very similar things and simply need to be able to talk in an open and coherent way about the best plan for getting there.
Based on my experience with Gen Y, I’ve been very hopeful that many of these practices could gain a stronger foothold as they come into their own. But many of the e-mails I’ve received in response to the Op-Ed have me heartened that other folks are on board as well. From the National Institute for Civil Discourse, to the Compassionate Listening Project, to Focolare Dialogue, there are many powerful movements out there that are resisting polarization.
Let us go confidently, then, into the fray: resisting the polarization that has so damaged our ability, not only to solve our problems, but simply to love one another.