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What is Polarization Anyway? – BCB #53
And how do people get polarized? And what to do?
We use the word “polarization” a lot, but it’s a word that might mean many different things. This week: one article that tries to define the word, another that explains how polarization increases through escalation, and hints of a path forward by thinking about complex systems.
In this new article, the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT) defines polarization as,
A prominent division or conflict that forms between major groups in a society or political system and that is marked by the clustering and radicalisation of views and beliefs at two distant and antagonistic poles.
To get to this definition, IFIT identified eight hallmarks from research, interviews, and meetings organized by The Global Initiative on Polarization. The report cautions that these “should be read as an interconnected whole, in which the alteration of one hallmark could potentially result in the alteration of others.”
Distance – The poles are somehow far away from each other.
Binary – “Unlike radicalisation, extremism, sectarianism or tribalism, polarisation is typically understood to connote a binary relationship between two poles or extremes”
Critical mass – People gravitate toward the poles, leaving the middle ground less populated.
Centrifugal – People are actively moving away from the center.
Horizontal – “It is a story of conflict between two comparably sized clusters (whether in power, numbers or influence).”
Impermanent – It is not a forever state, as it “can be entered into and exited from.”
Threat – It involves at least the perception of real threat, not just a rivalry.
Othering – “Viewpoints radicalize, complexity declines, allegiance trumps ideas, and a combination of in-group romanticisation and out-group demonetisation prevails.”
It’s a thoughtful and thorough article and well worth reading. But it mostly defines the end state, not the process.
In a word, escalation. That’s the topic of Heidi and Guy Burgess’s most recent newsletter. Escalation is the gradual shift from disagreement to polarization.
It drives hatred; it drives wars; it drives genocides; it could start a nuclear war that would end most life on earth. Yet … we continue to drive it, both intentionally (to gain supporters or to overpower "the bad guys,") or unintentionally, when we treat others with disrespect, blame them for things that aren't their fault, and look for win-lose solutions to problems when we could be looking for win-win approaches instead.
Their chart illustrates the gradual climb of conflict. Although this uses a different conceptual framework than the IFIT report, it also describes the hallmarks of polarization above.
It starts with an “in-group/out-group” mindset, where the in-group gravitates to those who think and look alike and further isolate themselves from the outgroup. No real hostility yet, but it’s already binary. Paying more attention to in-group media causes the factual worlds to start to drift apart, creating distance, driving the “us” versus “them” or othering dynamic. Polarization begins.
Next is what Heidi and Guy call “recreational complaining,”
the tendency we all have to enjoy sitting around (physically together or on social media) complaining about ‘the other.’ … This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the more we complain (and act out against them), the more we are validating their sense of victimhood and their grievances against us. So then they complain and act out against us, and that proves to us they are even worse than we thought!
This is where anger, fear, and distrust set in. Fear creates a zero-sum game where “them” winning is a threat to “us.” People continue to move further and further from the middle (centrifugal). When people start saying things like “If you're not with us, you're against us. You have to take a side” the poles gain critical mass. Those who try to de-escalate are “discredited and marginalized,” making the center look less appealing. Again the media further divides the groups as they “play to their base.”
This is where things start to become intractable. “Once you pass a certain point, it gets extremely hard to back down… ‘We can't possibly give up now, it would be a waste!’” Shame sets in as we don’t want to admit our faults, so we keep going down the spiral of polarizing conflict. Violence becomes likely, and when it happens it leads to “a strong desire for revenge and self-defense, and this just keeps escalation intensifying even more.”
Yet Heidi and Guy also say “there is a lot we can do to slow and ultimately reverse the processes of escalation,” echoing the hallmark of impermanence, the idea that polarization is not a perpetual state.
The above IFIT article on polarization reports that the Global Initiative on Polarization mapped out “all major organisations and projects that had the explicit intent of preventing or combatting polarisation.” They found three big categories:
Outreach and dialogue efforts – this is the obvious thing to try, and many peacebuilding and conflict resolution efforts operate through discussions of some sort.
Fact and narrative interventions – this is the underlying logic of everything from labeling misinformation online to “truth and reconciliation” processes.
Structural reforms – structures include institutions, laws and policies. This is often where justice efforts focus.
So which strategy should we try in the American conflict? All of the above, in many different ways at many different levels. In an article last year the Burgesses warn that top-down approaches don’t work for complex systems. Instead they suggest using “massively parallel problem-solving.” This is more of an ecological approach where many efforts interact and adapt, giving rise to a division of labor where local alliances and small tasks add up to large accomplishments.
IFIT breaks down five different ways that depolarization efforts can vary, as axes to think about when considering what to do:
Peacebuilders, mediators, bridge-builders, conflict transformers – whatever each person or organization ends up calling themselves, and whatever work they do, we need all sorts. But we still need to be able to work toward some common purpose, which is why a basic agreement on definitions is so important. This is what it means to be a field, a “set of individuals and organizations working to address a common social issue or problem, often developing and using a common knowledge base.”
Quote of the week
We will need a new generation of conflict professionals willing to commit to doing for the conflict field what a previous generation did (and is trying to do) for climate.