One need look no further than watching campaign ads on television. Splashy and sensationalistic headlines with language intended to stir fear of what will happen if a particular candidate gets elected is commonplace. Rather than speak about policy and performance, the goal is to evoke disdain and disgust toward this person and by extension, those who would vote for them. Emotionality can subvert clear thinking.
The tendency to demonize and dehumanize those who see the world through a different lens is not limited to the two-party system here in the United States, nor to this time in history. It is a plague that infects nearly all cultures across time.
When people view each other as competition for precious resources, violence ensues in order to gather the best for those we perceive to be ‘us.’ Those we see as ‘them’ fall into the category of enemy. The concept of replacement theory has fueled racially motivated massacres.
Charlottesville, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, El Paso. What these locations have in common is that conspiracy believers became shooters, feeling justified in taking up arms with tragic results.
How do we escape this seemingly never-ending downward spiral?
Professor Peter T. Coleman has written a guide through the morass called The Way Out, in which he proposes scientifically informed techniques to address the divides in personal, professional and socio-political realms. In a 2012 TED talk, called Why we are stuck - the attraction of a polarized America, he focuses on the dynamics that entice people to feel certain ways and exhibit specific behaviors. He contends that we are attracted to patterns that have us finger pointing and blaming the ‘other’ for our dissatisfaction and then justifying our feelings.
In 2019, an event called America in One Room brought together 526 people across the political spectrum to communicate person to person and not merely ideology to ideology. Although many didn’t change their minds about their fundamental and deeply held views, some admitted that they rather than going head-to-head, they were able to communicate heart to heart and make friends with people they would never have encountered socially in their daily lives.
National Public Radio (NPR) hosts a podcast called Story Corps in which people have a conversation about a particular event in their lives. Under its auspices is a project called One Small Step. People are matched with others who are of varying socio-political views so that they may get to know and understand each other.
On their website is a beautiful explanation of the nature of the project. “One Small Step is based on contact theory, which states that a meaningful interaction between people with opposing views can help turn “thems” into “us-es.” One Small Step’s scientific and systematic approach is supported by a group of advisors that includes social scientists, researchers, and psychologists.” People can sign up to be part of this project.
In 2017, a television station in Denmark conducted an experiment in which they gathered together people from all walks of life, all demographics, and beliefs to discover All That We Share. I dare you not to cry as you watch it and see yourself mirrored in it as you may realize that at the core, we are not so different after all.
A good exercise to do is to take some time during the day to notice when your thoughts and feelings are polarized—judging others as “enemies”. We each need to do our own inner work on this in order to heal humanity’s polarizations.