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8 Signs of Polarization in Your Context

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Many people think of polarization exclusively in terms of politics and partisanship. There's no doubt that political polarization is a major challenge. But polarization is a distinct social dysfunction: it's a self-perpetuating cycle of communication and relationship dynamics that breeds mistrust, misunderstanding, and dehumanization. Almost any difference of values, perspectives, or identities can become polarized.

So what are the signs of polarization where you live, work, worship, and learn?

As behavioral health researchers and practitioners, our founders had both a theoretical and a practical expertise in the dynamics of polarized conflicts. From their insights as well as four decades of experience interrupting polarized cycles—about abortion access, Israel-Palestine, and the role of guns, among other topics—we have identified eight common patterns:

  1. Discussions about the issue are dominated by people who are passionately certain. They leave no room for complexity and drown out other voices.

  2. The most vocal individuals and groups portray themselves as the protectors of virtuous values / objectives and paint the “other side” as ignorant, reckless, or motivated by malicious purposes.

  3. Interruptions, angry outbursts, and personal attacks are increasingly common.

  4. People selectively cite evidence that supports their views while searching for evidence of lies, ill intent, and ignorance in the assertions of their opponents.

  5. People use slogans, shorthand, canned talking points, and buzz words whose meanings and contexts are rarely unpacked.

  6. Few genuine questions are asked. Assumptions about the meanings, intentions, and values of the “other side” go untested and unexplored.

  7. Little new information surfaces in conversations. Discussions of the topic take the form of a repetitive, well-rehearsed performance.

  8. Silence hides significant differences.

When these other dynamics are suppressed by a silence that hides significant differences, people may avoid conversations about a given topic, avoid certain people, or feel too anxious to share their views (even on other issues). This can be as toxic as more direct, dramatic conflict. It stifles authentic human connection, healthy discourse, and collaboration around unrelated or less controversial challenges.

Distinguishing Professional Politics from Community Norms

Professional politics offers many clear examples of polarization dynamics. In public, political advocates and elected officials are certain of their positions. They repeat carefully constructed talking points over and over. They ask few genuinely curious questions and they hand-select evidence to support their views. They often mobilize supporters by stoking fear of the other side.

Since they're political professionals, we expect this. Message discipline, clarity of purpose, and mobilization are part and parcel of political organizing in a democracy. But these same behaviors are deeply destructive when they happen among neighbors, colleagues, family members, students, and parishioners. It is important to differentiate the way we want to relate to one another as community members from the way professional political actors behave.

In less polarized situations, the dynamics are quite different—healthier, less rigid, more collaborative, more inclusive. People enjoy a variety of connections and affiliations. No single identity, viewpoint, or difference defines friend and foe. People still disagree, but inclusive deliberation and decision-making processes are able to identify resolutions. At that point people can return, more or less, to their more complex, nuanced, varied, and flexible ways of relating to one another.

Polarization is most obvious across marquee differences of ideology or identity—but it can also occur within groups that share an identity or a set of values, especially when people have different visions, strategies, or priorities for achieving their shared goals. We have encountered some of the most entrenched cycles of polarization within political movements, intentional communities, and mission-driven organizations where people appear, on the surface, to agree.

The First Step Already: Hope

If any of the eight signs above feel familiar, your community or institution may be stuck in a cycle of polarization. These can be hard to break. You need effective interventions that can encourage a shift in relationships, assumptions, and norms. Luckily, you've already taken an important step toward interrupting these cycles. 

Just by searching for the tools and knowledge to make things better, you're inviting hope into your context—and hope is a powerful force against polarization. When we don't believe a future together is possible, the tactics of polarization look like the only option. But a better way is possible. We can turn our differences into strengths in the spaces where we live, work, worship, and learn. Here are a few more steps you can take:

Everyday people are the first and final stewards of democracy. You are, truly, the most powerful force for good in your community—and we are here to help.

A writer, translator, and editor, Daniel Pritchard serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications for Essential Partners.