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Under the dome

Beyond Polarization

How to have productive conversations in an era of extremism.
October 23, 2018
David Biskup

This past June, I attended a conference in New York City with colleagues from around the world. After our three days together, my European, Indian, and Latin American friends were a bit vexed. The conversation kept getting pulled into the lightning storm of American politics. We struggled to pay attention as our phones flooded with alerts about congressional primaries, Supreme Court decisions, executive orders, and the flurry of terrified, furious, indignant, or despairing comments ping-ponging between political extremes.

Over beers, a few of us “coastal liberal elite” academics and journalists huddled and commiserated about our extended family members in South Dakota, North Carolina, Florida, and Indiana. How could they deny the reality of Sandy Hook, climate change, and science in general? I suspect those same relatives are similarly confused—why are we so eager to support illegal immigrants, anti-police protests, and lawlessness in general?

This polarization is only increasing as we head to the midterm elections. With our country split into factions like anti-fascists, progressives, moderates, libertarians, evangelicals, and Trumpists, it’s increasingly difficult to know how to engage with others who don’t share our views.

I am deeply torn on this question. On one hand, my friend Gabriel Grant and I wrote a book called Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World. As a proponent of dialogue, civility, and exploration for common ground, I’ve done my share of conversing with people I disagree with. Toward my left, I have stepped into Facebook debates with an anti-fascist friend, pushing back when he sounded too permissive of violence and riots as a resistance tactic, and when he dismissed everyone supporting Trump as “subhuman racists.” Looking toward my right, I have called and visited my cousins who voted for Trump because they thought he would stack the Supreme Court against abortion and drive foreign criminal gangs and terrorists out of our country. Talking with them about how we can keep our family and our country together is challenging and sometimes even painful. But these conversations are gratifying and transformational when we can take a step together in a new direction.

Courtesy of Jason Jay

On the other hand, I am not neutral, and I am not patient. I am often outraged. I think I lose a few more hairs every time “climate change” is removed from another federal website. As a parent of young children, I read stories about families suffering through separation at the border, and I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. I am prepared to send money to any organization or political candidate that I think has a fighting chance of upending this administration. I want to reach out to everyone who thinks like me, and get them out in the streets. And yet I know that this amplified anger sometimes strengthens and rallies the other side and makes rational debate impossible.

So how can I stand against the administration and for dialogue, for a policy change and against polarization?

At moments like this I remember Martin Luther King’s words: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

I believe a correlate of King’s emphasis on love is that we have to start with strengthening relationships. Whether our goal is to converse with the “other side” or to draw someone in from the sidelines of our own group, we can’t storm into the conversation, guns blazing. When I spoke with my cousins, the first half-hour of the conversation was about our kids and the recent death of our grandmother. Only then did we get into the domain of politics. Love means leading with inquiry: How do you deal with the noisy news landscape? Where are you getting your information these days? What is the future you want for yourself, your family, your community, our country? What are your fears?

In conversations like this I’ve heard a fascinating mix of confusion (“What news is real?”), ambivalence (“I held my nose when I voted”), regret (“I didn’t know how bad it would get”), and defiance (“Fault lies on both sides for the sad stories we see”). We don’t always find common ground. Sometimes the common ground is just the mess we feel inside and around us, a shared sense that polarization is the enemy. In those moments, we can feel a breath of fresh air as we step outside our echo chamber.

Tips for engaging with the other side

  • 1. Prepare your self

    When we prepare for a debate, we tend to organize our data, our arguments, our clever retorts. Instead, focus on your way of being. If you come in hot—angry and self-righteous—you’ll immediately put the conversation on a defensive footing where no one can reflect or learn. What would it look like for you to be both powerful and loving?

  • 2. Get clear on what you want

    Often the real reason we engage in political conversation is to vent our feelings, to prove we are right, or to signal to others in our faction that we are committed advocates. From that standpoint, it makes perfect sense to come in hot! Instead, focus on what you want for the relationship, and what action you want the other person to take on the issue. Visualize yourself achieving that dual goal, and you may find yourself approaching the conversation differently.

  • 3. Establish relatedness

    People can learn from and influence one another when they see each other as being in the same social reference group. Start the conversation focused on shared concerns, experiences, and relationships before moving to areas of disagreement. Advanced tip: acknowledge and even apologize for past frictions or blow-ups that may have happened around hot-button issues. That vulnerability creates connection.

  • 4. Stay with it

    Sometimes first attempts will fail, but when people see you are genuinely concerned with both your relationship and the issue you care about, they will start to engage. 

While seeking common ground is important, we also need advocacy to balance inquiry, and power to complement love. To look at myself in the mirror, I have to take a stand for what I care about. I share the personal experiences that led me to care about the issues that move me. I commit to taking real action, and to having the conversations where I ask others to commit—to get out and vote, to contribute money and time to the organizations and candidates we believe in.

How should we allocate our energies to these different kinds of conversations—within or across the lines, centered on advocacy and power or inquiry and love?

I think we need to add a third, MIT-inspired element to Dr. King’s quote: without data, power and love are blind. For me personally, climate change is a central concern, so I looked at the data. I was stunned to learn from the Environmental Voter Project that 15.78 million environmentalists did not vote in the 2014 elections. These are people in my extended community, with whom I can make a difference. Or consider this finding from the Yale Program on Climate Communication: as of March 2018, about 21 percent of people were “cautious” about global warming—as many as the “doubtful” and “dismissive” combined. Those people aren’t skeptics or deniers, just our friends, relatives, and colleagues with other concerns top of mind. Engage them and we tip the scale.

In the end, we can choose how we want to apply our own mens, manus, et cor—mind, hand, and heart. Whatever issues and people we choose to engage, let’s get to work.

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