Nearly everywhere I look I see communities, families, and friends mired in division, derision, and despair. Increasingly, we talk about those who are working toward different outcomes not as our opponents but as our enemies. And when it comes to enemies, we feel self-justified in doing whatever we must in order to win.

We live in polarized times. Many of us have been asked to pick sides, to align with those we see as allies, and to treat everyone else as obstacles, adversaries, or irrelevancies. That is where the hard work —the work of coming back together (and learning to disagree respectfully) — begins.

Part of coming back together involves asking how we got here in the first place. Why do we so easily become swept up in the dynamics of polarization? How do we get sucked into the vortex of division and escalation?

We stop communicating and increasingly isolate ourselves from those who represent the other side. This sounds like: It’s not possible to reason with these people. I give up.

We talk about everyone from “the other side” using oversimplified stereotypes. This sounds like: We are right and they are … uninformed… naïve… confused… crazy… immoral… dangerous…

We focus on the differences between the sides rather than searching for and acknowledging common interests. This sounds like: If we can’t agree on these issues, we can’t work together.

We pressure people who are neutral to join our side in the battle. This sounds like: You’re either with us or against us.

We try to silence, ostracize or eliminate moderate voices from within our ranks who suggest less divisive options. This sounds like: Someone on our side would never make a suggestion like the one you are making. Are you really one of us?”

Do these dynamics sound as familiar to you as they do to me? As a nation, we have spent a lot of energy over the past years picking sides, widening the divide, demonizing others, and burning bridges.

Polarization may be a natural and necessary process for social and political change. But we can’t stay stuck in that place of division. It’s not sustainable. Nor is it safe. So what lays beyond entrenched division? I believe it’s a form of conflict that never loses sight of love. In healthy conflict, we engage each other in an environment where we can express anger and frustration in safe ways. Some agreements that can set up this environment are:

We understand that we will each advocate hard and candidly for our interests.
We accept that our conversations will be animated and that we may argue passionately for what we believe.
We agree to bring an equal measure of passion and energy to understanding each other’s ideas and motivations.
We recognize that finding a way forward means avoiding the demonization of others. Evil does exist but more commonly people who hold ideas that threaten us have good intentions.

Where do you see yourself becoming swept up in the dynamics of polarization at work, in your family, and in your in-person or online community? How does it impact you?

Image credit: Jordan Rowland on Unsplash

Share This