What Could be the Source of Modern Polarization?

From Accord3  Blog, organized with Peter Adler

Everyone’s talking polarization these days. Everyone’s talking the divide, the deep chasm between the left and the right, between one side of the aisle and the other. Democrats and Republicans don’t differ just on policy solutions these days. It’s as if they’re different species. It’s like they’re talking about different problems, not just different ways of dealing with the same problems. Red and blue are now virulent colors. Disagreement has become venomous. Viewpoints are now vitriol. Scratch the surface of disagreement these days and violence may erupt on the streets. The different sides are having trouble living within the same borders, as if we’re no longer of the same nation. Communities are rent. Barricades are erected. We balkanize our public spaces. Differences have become diseases. Don’t touch the other side for fear of contamination.

Ok, I exaggerate a bit, for sake of emphasis. But, by how much? The polarity in our polity is making it harder to exaggerate. Our behaviors are catching up with our exaggerations. Our beliefs have become life and death issues, like there’s some kind of war going on. The divide seems so wide now that we must scream to be heard across the echoing canyon, and even then we are not heard because everyone is busy shouting and people are not listening. And so we get more angry and frustrated and despairing. We blame the other side for the chasm. We become convinced that there’s no point in building bridges because they talk no sense anyway, and besides, if bridges were to be built, they are likely to try to overwhelm us. So we prepare against any approach. We strengthen the walls of our fortress. We fortify our arguments. We plan surreptitious defenses.

I exaggerate again. But is there anything about our beliefs, our understandings, our knowings, our thinking that will help us better understand why dialogue and deliberation are so difficult to engage in?

We don’t carry our beliefs and understandings in our hip pocket. We don’t tow them behind us like a helium balloon on a string. We don’t purchase them at the corner store, gift-wrapped and ready to be brought home in our backpack. The beliefs and convictions that we wield as swords and shields are embodied in neural structures, neural networks, neural matrices of meaning in our brains. They don’t float as some discarnate mist within us. Our minds are body-based.

And what is the significance of this? Like all the other parts of our bodies, the neural structures of what we know, believe, understand, and think (and to remind, these are what we fight over) have certain characteristics. If we are to address and mitigate the polarization about which I have exaggerated, we need to understand these characteristics. Just as an athletic coach needs to know the workings of the body while striving to improve its performance, so also will we benefit from understanding the limitations and capacities of the embodied mind when grappling with competing ideas and beliefs.

In my next blog post, I will consider a few of these characteristics and their significance to any efforts to bridge the divides and reduce the polarization that seem to be ruling the day.


Tim Hicks

Tim Hicks is a conflict management professional providing mediation, facilitation, training, coaching, and consulting to individuals and organizations. From 2006 to 2014 he led the Master’s degree program in Conflict and Dispute Resolution at the University of Oregon as its first director. He returned to private practice in 2015. Tim is… MORE >

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