Fighting Against Polarization


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 . . . I’d like to look at how to fight against, rather than just observe, polarization. The simplest advice I know for de-polarizing a heated political argument is: “Listen not to respond, but to understand.” But that assumes you and your adversary are willing to at least look for common ground.

But what if that willingness is not there? What if you’re facing angry intransigence that’s more interested in “winning” than reconciling? The temptation is to respond in kind. But counter-punching with insults and anger means losing before you begin because that only feeds the polarization beast. So if neither extending an olive branch nor upping the anger works, what does? How do you fight back against an intractable polarizer?

A clue was suggested in a recent Washington Post article (printed below) about a study of a Congressional campaign this past November that shamelessly played the anti-Muslim card. It’s summary conclusion: “People’s own biases are less likely to be activated when they are told that the message violates societal norms.”

That resonated with a thought that came to me while recently visiting the Civil War battlefield in Manassas. Standing on that blood-soaked open field made it easier to imagine how terrifying it must have been to be a soldier in that (or any) savage conflict…and amazing that more soldiers didn’t just turn and run away. Never having served, I wondered how, precisely, that worked. So later that day, I asked my father-in-law who was a paratrooper in the invasion of Japan in WWII. His answer was simple and humble: You didn’t want to screw (not his exact word) up. You didn’t want to let your country down. And even more immediately, you didn’t want to let your buddies down.

I think the connection between the election study and the battlefield experience can be summarized in one word: Shame. Voters retracted their bigotry—and soldiers stood their ground—because even greater than their anger and terror was the fear of shame.

Search the word “shame” in Amazon books and most of the titles have to do with the evils and toxicity of shame. Which is a shame, because shame can serve a critically useful societal purpose. According to psychoanalysts Ladson Hinton and Hessel Willemsen in their book Temporarily and Shame,

“.shame can be a teacher, and a crucial one in evaluating our ethical…position in the world. Granting the fact that shame can be toxic and terrible, we need to remember that it is also what can orient us in the difficult task of reflection and consciousness. Without shame we would become amoral psychopaths….[Indeed], the nearly universal use of scapegoating is a pathological manifestation of getting rid of shame and fear and has been used by tyrants throughout human history.

The political potency of this kind of “good shame” was demonstrated famously in the televised Army-McCarthy “Communist activity” hearings when defense attorney Joseph Welch asked Senator Joe McCarthy “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” That moment of public shaming is widely seen as the turning point in finally ending the McCarthy witch-hunts.

In the angry heat of polarization, we have lost sight of this “good shame.” We have become literally shameless. We need to bring it back.

The key to using shame to fight polarization, I think, is to leverage weaker values against stronger ones, showing that running roughshod over the stronger value is shameful. In California, it meant reminding voters that the value of “protecting” themselves against a so-called “dangerous Muslim” resulted in the shame of violating the stronger societal value of the norms of fairness and decency. To soldiers on the battlefield, it meant remembering that the value of saving your own life resulted in the shame of violating the stronger societal value of standing up for your buddies and country. In this case, the fear of shame was literally stronger than the fear of death—a reminder of its power.

Shame is the moral link between societal values and our behavior. And it’s a particularly useful tool when dealing with the hot rage of polarization because shame, like revenge, is a dish best served (“…sir, at long last…”) cool.

Is it possible to combat appeals to prejudice? Here’s new evidence from Duncan Hunter’s ‘anti-Muslim’ campaign ad.

The Washington Post
Maneesh Arora
November 26, 2018

In the days leading up to the midterm elections, the Trump campaign released an ad that featured Luis Bracamontes, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who had been convicted of murdering two police officers, and blamed Democrats for letting him into the country. The ad was deemed so offensive that CNN refused to air it, and NBC and Fox News eventually pulled it off the air.

Trump’s ad was one of many in 2018 that appealed to voters’ prejudices. Antonio Delgado, a black congressional candidate in New York, was cast as a “big-city rapper.” Andrew Gillum, who was running to be Florida’s first African American governor, was described in a robo-call as a “negro” and “monkey.” In other states, mailers depicted Jewish candidates with fists full of cash. The Guardian asked: “Is this the most racist U.S. midterm campaign ever?”

Perhaps a bigger question is whether these ads actually worked. Weeks after the election, pundits and analysts debated this question. My research sheds light by examining one of the most controversial ads of 2018.

How I did my research

The ad was by Duncan D. Hunter, a Republican incumbent in the House who narrowly won reelection in California’s 50th Congressional District. Hunter’s opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, is half Arab and half Latino. In the ad, Campa-Najjar was described as a “security threat” working to “infiltrate Congress” with the help of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave the ad four Pinocchios for its false or misleading claims and its “naked anti-Muslim bias.”

My research involved an experiment conducted among a national sample of 1,010 Americans recruited through the firm Lucid and interviewed between Oct. 31 and Nov. 8. The sample was nationally representative in terms of age, gender, race and region.

The survey respondents were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group read a short biography of Hunter that detailed his conservative credentials. The second group read the biography and then viewed the campaign ad. The third group read the biography, watched the ad, and then read an excerpt from an article in which Republican and Democratic elites condemned the ad as a “racist and bigoted attack.”

Then everyone was asked how likely they would be to vote for Hunter if they lived in his congressional district.

What I found

Simply watching the ad did not increase or decrease Republican support for Hunter. But among Democrats, those who watched the ad were nine points less likely to support Hunter. This Democratic backlash is consistent with research showing that Democrats have become significantly more supportive of Muslimssince Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

But reading the condemnation of the ad did have consequences. Although opinions among Democrats did not change much, Republicans’ support for Hunter dropped 22 points after they read criticism of the ad.

This finding fits with past research that has shown that explicitly identifying a political message as biased against a minority group can mitigate that message’s impact. People’s own biases are less likely to be activated when they are told that the message violates societal norms. This is particularly true when condemnation of the message comes from leaders of one’s own party. The earlier research has focused mainly on racial bias, but my findings suggest that the same may apply to messages targeting Muslims, as well.

To be sure, real-world campaigns take place in a different environment than a social science experiment. Even if elites condemn appeals to prejudice, many Americans may not receive that message. This may help explain why Hunter won reelection despite bipartisan condemnation of this campaign ad.

Nevertheless, this condemnation may have made a difference. In a district in which registered Republicans outnumber Democrats almost two to one, Campa-Najjar almost pulled off an upset. The implication is clear: When political leaders push back against campaign tactics that play on voters’ racial, ethnic and religious prejudices, the backlash can outweigh any gains.

More to explore

The numbers are in…

As the leader of the Braver Angels Evaluation Team, I’m excited to say that the numbers are in, and we can report that our workshops are proven to help depolarize Americans.

Read More »

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