so we’re a polarized nation. Now what?

Half of Democrats say they are ‘afraid’ of the Republican Party, and half of Republicans express the same feelings towards the Democratic Party. Majorities on both sides hold not just unfavorable, but very unfavorable views of the other party (Pew Research Center). Society is polarized, divided and in opposition. This isn’t news. And like any cultural poison, it doesn’t isolate itself to one realm – it seeps into other part of our environment; science, religion, social justice, you name it.

However a study by Matthew Levendusky and Neil Malhotra revealed something interesting. This study, “Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes?” explores how we, the people, respond when partisan polarization is drawn to our attention in the media. Among many other key takeaways, the one that jumped out at me is the following:

“In response to these increased feelings that society is polarized, voters soften their own positions, seeking to compromise and see themselves as more centrist. ‘When media depict the mass public as polarized and divided, citizens moderate their issue positions.’” (Shorenstein Center)

Despite a Washington Examiner blog post that rather egregiously misrepresents the study’s findings (the headline reads, Study: It’s the media’s fault the nation is polarized), this is not what the study finds.* It finds that media coverage increases the belief among voters that the electorate is polarized (perception, not reality – big difference). Additionally, and very importantly, they concluded that it does increase voters dislike for those who hold extreme views – and they will come to see these voters as representative of members of the opposition party and will dislike them on a personal level (it’s called affective polarization).**

I draw two inferences from these findings. One, being aware of our polarization can spur us to try and mitigate it. Two, being extreme and argumentative makes you less likable on a personal level (you’re welcome for that stunning insight). But in today’s environment, you’re not just making yourself unlikable, you’re making your whole political party or group unlikable. With this in mind, we might stand to be a bit more thoughtful in our words and actions (although reason dictates that most extremists would not be reading a post with this title, therefore perhaps being aware that the extremists don’t represent the whole other side might just be enough for today).

Apropos of awareness, I have found that ‘being aware’ is an alluring catchphrase. Yet it leaves many people feeling uneasy and confused about the ‘what next.’ Even those of us who adore being aware of all kinds of things, just for the wonder of awareness, can often do with a refresher on the actionable items this awareness might spark. In this vein, I have aggregated five very simple phrases that can change the way you converse about heated and polemic issues with those who disagree with you or who hold a different perspective. They are simple, but exceptionally effective and exceptionally underused.

  1. “I would like to hear your perspective.” Invite the other person to share with you. With just this one phrase, he or she will instantly feel like you value his or her opinion because you are politely asking to hear it. This translates to a feeling of respect. Your conversation partner will be less defensive and more open from the get-go.
  2. “What makes you feel that way?” Invariably, your conversation partner will say something that triggers a nerve. Don’t respond in anger, instantly add your clever rebuttal or jump to a conclusion about his or her intelligence level. Dig a little deeper. Get to the ‘why.’ Some people aren’t eloquent. They might need an opportunity to explain in more detail what they meant, or they may actually have a valid reason for feeling the way they do.
  3. “Do you mind if I share my viewpoint?” For Pete’s sake, don’t assume anyone wants to hear your opinion. Check in first. If you ask, and they agree, then they will listen. If you ask and they say ‘no,’ then don’t waste your time. If someone doesn’t want to hear it, they’re not going to hear it – even if you’re blowing hot air in their face.
  4. “Diversity of opinion is a good thing, it’s part of the democratic process.” Point out that you’re on the same team. This unites you in a common goal; contributing to said democratic process. And you’re framing your differences as something positive. Say this enough, and you might actually start to appreciate those who disagree with you.
  5. “Thank you for sharing with me.” Be gracious. Thanking someone for sharing with you does not mean that you agree with them. It implies that you recognize the time they took to share with you and that you value the effort they made to communicate. This conclusion to a conversation is far preferable to a hurled insult. And any time you insult someone you generally justify it, and justifying it means convincing yourself that you’re superior. And this is a serious problem contributing to polarization.

The my-way-or-the-highway attitude is present, pervasive and enveloping us in an insidious, poisonous fog of polarization. The cure starts with you.

*That blog post title would better read Study: The Media Commonly Draws Absurd and Inaccurate Conclusions from Studies to Enhance Viewership So They Get More Advertising Revenue

**Curiously, ‘polarized’ was more commonly used in reference to sunglasses. Now it’s us, not sunglasses, who are polarized.

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