How to break the argument habit
Whatever side of the blue-red chasm you sit on, dialogue can clear the smoke of polarization obscuring the divide
Polarization is an equal opportunity phenomenon - hardly the monopoly of political candidates, activists, paid lobbyists, and televised "shouting heads." Given the fevered pitch of this election season, many of us may want to award politics and the media the polarization prize. However, few if any sectors of our society are immune from its temptation. Polarizing behavior compromises the health of some of our nation's oldest, most respected voluntary associations, social service agencies, and faith communities.Skip to next paragraph
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Despite our best intentions, the odds are that we all have contributed to polarization at some point, in some area of our lives. Each of us plays our part in polarization when we paint those whose views differ from ours with a broad brush; when we assume that everyone who uses the same label to describe themselves has the same concerns, values, and goals; when we act as if there are two, and only two, ways to think about an issue; when we ignore questions that might uncover new ground. Many of us have been using polarizing speech for so long that we're no longer aware of doing it.
It can be easier to recognize polarizing practices when we're on the receiving end. For example, you may recall times when you felt stereotyped, silenced, or unseen by those who have different views. Or when you were dismissed as muddled for expressing a complex perspective. Or when the language or tone of a discussion became so intolerably offensive or painful, you lost your cool, tuned out, or walked away.
The process of polarization is easier to spot when you have a practiced ear. Notice when participants in a discussion share only their certainties and none of their doubts; when they speak as members of a group rather than as individuals with unique experiences and thoughts; when questions are rhetorical challenges or veiled statements rather than genuine invitations to share perspectives and gain understanding. These are some of the telltale signs that a conversation is moving toward an unproductive, polarizing style of debate.
Further, when listening to "experts" on radio and TV or speaking to your neighbor, ask yourself whether speakers offer only predictable "arguments," or whether new information and ideas surface. Do they express only pat positions, or do they also share underlying values, assumptions, hopes, and fears? Do they interrupt and make personal attacks, or do they listen to others with respectful interest? Do they simply attempt to persuade and refute, or do they seek to understand? These questions highlight some of the factors that help determine whether discussions are negative, attacking, and stuck in the same old unproductive exchanges, or whether conversations can become affirming, exploratory, and solution-focused.
There are good reasons to be concerned about the cumulative impact on our democracy of polarizing private and public conversations. I am alarmed by how polluted the atmosphere of our public squares has become. The smoke generated by polarized debate and advocacy has become too thick for our civic health.
In this vulnerable moment, each of us has a responsibility to stop using polarizing rhetoric and to oppose its use by others. Also we need to have constructive conversations with those who are "ideologically" different from us, even though it feels unnatural.