How we heal
Hint: it's not about depolarization. Healing requires inclusion. Inclusion requires celebrating, not just tolerating difference.
Part four of a four-part series on polarization in American media and politics. To begin at the beginning, start here.
The first three parts of this series attempted to contextualize what we really mean by and how we quantify our national political polarization as well as lay out some of its sources and costs based on research from Gallup, More In Common, and Pew.
If inspiration and access are the building blocks of participation and if collapsing trust, especially amongst conservatives who perceive themselves to be out of step with their communities ideologically, is accelerating civic disengagement, how do we begin to push back on the tide of polarization’s effects on society? The answer is in the question. Three steps: one, intentionally and proactive build rebuild trust by directly confronting the perception of ideological distance; two, ensure easy access to and greater transparency into civic opportunities; and three, develop an authentic civic narrative that not only tolerates, but respects, celebrates, and requires genuinely diverse participation in community.
A national debate focused on conflict and blame that frames all disagreement in existential terms and that points to opposing sides as enemies rather than opponents and that is fanned by media systems optimized for attention (read: outrage and confirmation bias) rather than truth puts constant pressure on our faith and trust in others. But why do conservatives react so differently to feeling that they are in a political outgroup? How liberals use power when we have it and who we use it for also contribute to the perception that conservatives should not or even cannot trust us. Much of this is about narrative, not policy: how we talk about justice, how we talk about fairness, how we want to lift up and include people who have been actively oppressed and excluded, what we mean by inclusion. Each of these conversations can be framed as efforts to expand, elevate, and improve community, to make amends, to reduce friction in systems that hold back people, or in the language of punishment and preference. Too often liberals have made ourselves easy to blame, easy to be suspicious of by opting for the latter.
Systemic exclusion and oppression are bad for everyone, everywhere. Equity and justice are better for everyone, everywhere. A more inclusive society where all people thrive and all are valued is better for every member of that society, not just for the people who have been previously excluded or oppressed (who clearly and obviously suffer the most) because the total capacity for creativity, opportunity, and thriving is increased. Anti-racism is better for white people, too. Feminism is better for men, too. But because how divergent people feel their beliefs are from their community is what matters in the study we looked at on polarization and community attachment (not how divergent their policy preferences are), the language we use when we talk about justice matters. Focusing on how interdependent we are on each other, how we are committed to and benefit from the same equity, justice, and community, and how we care about each other’s safety and thriving matters.
We must get beyond the cliched pablum about our similarities being greater than our differences and reveal and embrace our interdependence. We don’t need weaker opinions. We are not desperate for moderation or milquetoast policy. What we need are strong opinions that we are willing to discuss and explain, that we are willing to question openly, and that we are willing to hold while remaining in community with people with whom we disagree. We need our neighbors. And our ideas get stronger when we engage with people with whom we disagree. Expanded perspective is a gift we give each other. But how we share, how we find ways to be curious matter. Engaging the world with curiosity requires trust and safety. That required safety depends heavily on the health of the systems and spaces where we engage (looking at you Facebook, Twitter, cable news) and how we engage when we’re there (looking at everyone but most especially people with privilege of any sort myself included). And that required trust must be actively and proactively rebuilt.
We can start to rebuild trust immediately by narrowing the perceived distance between us and others by elevating the reality that only 6 states in America are majority self-described liberal (regardless of party affiliation). Many of these more conservative community members are less in the minority, even in places that are actually majority liberal, than they feel. Second, we can rebuild trust the same ways we build trust in any community or in any relationship. Show up. Listen first. Assume the best in people. Be useful. Be transparent. Be kind. The first step back toward each other is an act of forgiveness we do for ourselves — holding on to rage and resentment harms us. The real question is whether we are willing to take the responsibility of rebuilding trust. In the wake of the last few years and especially in the wake of the events of January 6th, many on the left seem comfortable theoretically writing off large segments of the American polity. But practically, our neighbors are our neighbors. Who are we willing to deem irredeemable? We can continue down a path of questioning (or outright impugning) each other’s motives in a descent of contempt and mutual distrust into parallel realities, dueling civic institutions, and fragmenting community where we are all less safe, where we feel more alone, and where we cannot rely on community to make us stronger. Or we can embrace our own principles of treatment over punishment and reengage with patience.
If what that same study from part three of this series tells us is that folks on the Left tend to retain our sense of community attachment AND trust despite ideology gap and if we genuinely care about the health of everyone in our communities, if we are as inclusive as we claim, we must put our efforts where our hearts are and not allow our minds to get in the way. We must actively and proactively work to build trust in our communities across ideological lines, overcommunicating about our work and our intentions, actively inviting people to gatherings, events, opportunities to participate openly, consistently, explaining our thinking rather than taking agreement (or acquiescence) for granted, and meeting people where they are in the same ways we do whenever we organize anywhere.
No matter how righteous we may feel on either side, conversations that ask people to consider (or reconsider) their worldviews are challenging. A consequence of elections and campaigns dominating so much of our political attention and driving so many of our civic habits is the idea that all political conversations are about either turnout or persuasion — in other words confirmation or conversion. We also need to engage in respectful, curious discussion and productive conflict within our ingroups and with outgroups where exploration — of our own ideas and new ones — is the goal. The goal of conversations focused on rebuilding trust across our communities is not persuasion, but recognition that productive coexistence is possible, that trust is possible, that collaboration is possible. And that conversation requires patience and kindness. For it to really shift our civic culture, we’ve got to want to heal and want to celebrate the diversity of idea and perspective that will result.
If this sounds like a roadmap for including any group that is or feels excluded, it is. And while systemic exclusion affects everyone everywhere, who feels excluded at a local level varies everywhere — both are true, and both must be taken into account when we look to rebuild community. And if everyone, besides a tiny group of elite insiders, feels excluded to some degree — either historically, systematically everywhere, or specifically in the moment within a smaller community — then perhaps this posture ought to be our default, and we can stop taking any communities for granted.
Rebuilding is probably up to the folks who still trust institutions and each other, regardless of our ideology, whether we like it or not — so let’s rebuild.
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