I was at a think tank event recently on the topic of polarization, exploring the question: How do we navigate divisions that are becoming more, not less, intense? Only two days after this event, I was working with a group of healthcare professionals, also on the topic of navigating polarization. I asked the group how they are being impacted by polarization. Immediately, a heavy silence fell over the room. It has been and continues to be profoundly difficult for those on the front line of our social divisions. Polarized differences have become personal and painful. At best, they are exhausting. At worst, they are life-threatening.
Polarization, as I am defining it here, is more than two very different perspectives on a topic: If people can deeply honour and respect one another despite differences, we simply disagree. Disagreements shift into conflict and from conflict into polarization, however, when our differences generate resentment and become laced with an us-them way of dividing the world into those who are good and right versus those who are bad and wrong. We know we are becoming polarized when our dialogue is increasingly ideologically driven when we cannot stomach the other when we see only the lunacy of the other’s point of view and only the wisdom in our perspective.
The hard reality is that polarization begets polarization. As one side digs in, so also does the other side. As one side moves to the extreme, so also does the other – and even if the other does not move to polarization, the temptation to do so remains great. Polarization does not simply make conversation difficult; it robs us of seeing the other’s humanity – and it robs us of our own humanity. After all, hanging onto resentment is like drinking poison but expecting the other person to die.
As our society divides further and further, the hard question is not, “How do we live with polarization?”; the question is “How do we survive?” Whether for health care professionals on the front lines of vaccine mandates; those seeking to redress racism and other prejudices in our classrooms and the workplace; politicians on the receiving end of death threats; or individuals whose family divisions have caused them to lose their community of belonging – polarization is painful. In some cases, polarization produces trauma; in extreme situations, polarization causes fear for one’s own life, whether that fear is rational or not.
Part of what makes polarization so difficult is that the issues under discussion feel as though they are a matter of life and death – and indeed, some issues over which our society is polarized are profoundly serious. In these matters, polarization creates experiences of personal harm – and it raises fundamental questions of who we want to be as a society and as global citizens.
As I reflect on polarization, I am reminded of our five foundational human needs, belonging, recognition, self-determination, security and meaning. Polarization violates each of these needs: (1) breaking apart erstwhile friendly relationships (loss of belonging); (2) rejecting the thought and care we (or they) have put into an issue (loss of recognition); (3) creating a competition of wills (loss of self-determination); (4) generating fear for one’s life and the future of our communities (loss of security); and (5) deepening a sense of despair (loss of meaning).
What balm is there for those experiencing the pain of polarization? What wisdom is there for a world breaking apart? These are not easy questions, as even our best answers quickly sound trite – yet we must lean in, we must find a way forward together.
What balm? What wisdom? If polarization violates our foundational human needs, then perhaps these needs can also help us find the pathway to wholeness once more.
- For example, regarding belonging: We know that polarization thrives on isolation and echo chambers where we only speak to those with whom we already agree. How are we reaching out to the other side? How are we creating communities of belonging that includes a diversity of people? How are we caring for one another? For those on the receiving end of polarization-driven harm, how are we tending to their wounds – while also refusing to hate the other?
- Regarding recognition: How are we allowing ourselves to truly see the other – especially the ones with whom we disagree? How do we offer one another the type of recognition that is deeply honouring and that listens well? We cannot wish our way out of our current polarized reality: We must learn to have better conversations with one another; we need to disagree better! A kernel of wisdom, however, buried, is present in most perspectives. How do we equip ourselves for staying with the other long enough to get to that kernel?
- With regard to the human need for self-determination, can we forego one-upping one another? Can we honour a need for voice and agency, even as we invite one another to balance self-determination with a commitment to community and belonging?
- The human need for security is what injects so much urgency into our polarized conversations, especially when we are in the midst of multiple global and social crises at the very same time. The need for security invites us to dig deep, honour our fears while moving beyond them to embrace trust, hope, courage, and unconditional positive regard – core values that allow us to care for one another and to lean into the hard work ahead of us.
- And finally, meaning. It is tempting to despair. For those in the thick of navigating polarization, who has not been on the edge of giving up? Sometimes I think that the gift of living during this time is that we have front-row seats to a society in transition. Can we embrace this moment as our moment? Can we rise to greater heights of the human soul, committing ourselves to being agents of transformation and hope in a world desperate for healing?
Perhaps this post is about inviting each one of us to join a metaphorical think tank, to commit to leaning into the space between us together, wrestling together, listening together and yes – even dreaming together of a world where disagreements are met with tender care and grace, and where differences become life-giving.