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Facing the Elephant in the Room


We, as Americans, cherish the freedom and right to disagree—which we do, often deeply about important issues that need resolution. But polarization undermines that freedom by tightening prejudices rather than opening thought, thus diminishing the chances for finding resolutions and moving forward.  So while polarization may feel like a righteous champion of freedom and right, it is in fact just the opposite—a stick jammed in the spokes of the democratic discourse of freedom. Here are some of the common ways it does it:

  1. SEDUCES with loaded, heated language and childish name-calling that appeals more to emotion that reason.
  2. BLINKERS by using cherry-picked facts, and ignoring or mocking opposing arguments and evidence rather than actually addressing them.
  3. TRIVIALIZES by focusing on “straw-man” issues whose value in re-enforcing biases is clearly greater than their substance.
  4. BULLIES by making you feel like a dupe or a traitor if you even listen to the other side.
  5. FLATTERS with language and a tone that makes you feel like an insider, who, of course, agrees with them because you “get it” … just like they do.
  6. FRIGHTENS by portraying the other side as not just wrong, but a dangerous, evil enemy, replete with wicked hidden agendas.
  7. “CLANS,” that is, plays the “us vs. them” identity politics game of associating the other view with groups or people (implicitly) “inferior” to “us.”
  8. “TRIBES” by using the knowing winks and nods of sarcasm, coded language, words in quotes (suggesting they’re misleading) and innuendo which you, as a member of the tribe, of course, will understand without explanation or justification.

This week it’s time we faced the elephant in the room. To discuss polarization without mentioning Donald Trump is like talking about Christmas without mentioning Christ. You may hate or love him, but it is inarguable that Donald Trump embodies the art of polarization. It is his chief political tool, beginning with his nicknaming. “Crooked Hillary, “Lyin’ Ted,” “Pocohontas”, “Sloppy Steve,” “Rocket Man,” “Dicky Durbun”…the list is endless. Nicknaming, like name calling, is quintessential polarization. By antagonizing and insulting it pushes the two sides apart rather than trying to bring them together – the definition of polarization.

The problem is that polarization is antithetical to functioning democratic government. The value of democracy is that it preserves freedom by not demanding authoritarian obedience—which inevitably means people will disagree. But the genius of the democratic form of government that it survives and adheres in that environment of controlled conflict by establishing ”rules of engagement” (e.g., our Constitutional checks and balances) that act as shock absorbers for disagreement through such techniques as bargaining, compromising and persuading. Polarization undermines and short-cuts those soft (and admittedly slow and often frustrating) freedom-preserving tools, pushing for the hard win by dividing and conquering. And as Mr. Trump amply demonstrated, it works. And it’s infectious. Looking for the common ground, if course, is the ideal approach. But your opponent must share your vision. But what do you do if the polarizer doesn’t want to let go? It’s very hard not to want to either pile on or fight back in kind (depending on where you stand). But to do so feeds the beast of division, turning fracases into feuds that take on a corrosive life of their own. So how can you defend your position (pro or con) in a hail of polarization without becoming part of the problem? It’s admittedly not easy. But here are some suggestions.

  1. Stand above, stand tall. Don’t get seduced by the heat of polarization and respond in kind. Even if you “score a point”, the “victory” is Pyrrhic. Keep your language and arguments on the high, inclusive road.
  2. Keep your eye on the prize. Remember there are three components in the polarizing process – 1) the polarizer, 2) the issue, 3) the audience. It’s tempting to respond mano-a-mano to the polarizer. But that’s a red herring that lures you into the polarization game. The content of the issue is what’s ultimately important…and wins the audience.
  3. Keep the long view in view. Polarization may score short-term wins — a bill, an appointment, an election. Don’t get discouraged. In the longer term, the power of polarization burns out. And you’re left with dealing with real issues and real solutions.
  4. Don’t cede the power of emotion to the polarizers. Politics without passion is weak politics. Polarization is almost by definition emotional. But don’t let the polarizers set the tone. There is emotional content in virtually every political issues and argument. Find and leverage own emotional palette in support of your position.
  5. Use ideological jiu-jitsu. Every political issue is grounded on a principle. Show how polarization actually undermines the principle the polarizer ostensibly supports.
  6. Go for the high ground…but don’t give up the low ground. Leverage “higher values” against your opponent. But don’t make it an either-or situation. For example, a typical argument against partisan polarization is to not put party over country. But why give up party loyalty? Spell out that what’s good for the country is consistent with the principles of your party.
  7. Re-tribe. Polarization often plays the tribal card–playing “your group” off “the other.” But remember we’re all members of several groups – tribes. Religious, political, ideological, financial, cultural, geographic, generational, gender… Appeal not just to the braver angels…but the better tribe.

When reading these examples, check the above list and ask yourself: regardless of whether you agree or disagree, is this really advancing an intelligent resolution through the persuasive, rational arguments of advocacy…or simply fueling the fire of conflict through the divisive, emotional manipulations of polarization?

Here are some of the week’s most polarizing articles…all about Donald Trump…from the left and right:

More to explore

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