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Can we bridge society's deepening divides?

Read an extract from 'Poles Apart: Why People Turn Against Each Other, and How to Bring Them Together' for this month's book club

The Depolarization Project
23 September 2021, 1.32pm
'Poles Apart' explores why people turn against each other – and how to bring them back together
Cottonbro / Pexels

This is the prologue to 'Poles Apart' by Alison Goldsworthy, Laura Osborne and Alexandra Chesterfield – the team behind openDemocracy's 'Changed My Mind' podcast. We're discussing it this month on our book club – follow the link at the bottom of the extract to buy the book, then head over to Facebook to join in the conversation.

At a camp in Lebanon in the 1960s, the psychologist Lutfy Diab sought to recreate one of social psychology’s seminal studies: the ‘Robbers Cave’ experiment. Devised back in 1954 by a husband-and-wife team in America, it had been designed to test the extent to which groups would naturally compete for resources when they were scarce but then co-operate when presented with a shared goal. For his version, Diab mimicked the design of the initial study. He brought together a collection of eleven-year-old Muslim and Christian boys and divided them randomly into two groups. Each chose a name: ‘The Blue Ghosts’ and ‘Red Genies’. The plan was to assess first the two groups’ tendency to compete, and then their ability to co-operate. In the event, though, the experiment never reached phase two. Diab had to abandon the study when the ‘Red Genies’ team stole the pen-knife offered as a prize to the more successful group, and threatened a member of ‘The Blue Ghosts’ with it.

Rather more recently in the United States, three friends were looking for rooms to rent in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a city famous for its steel production, bridges – and universities. Their advertisement on Craigslist gave all the usual details about rent, cleanliness and house rules they desired. It then gave an indication of the sort of flatmates they were hoping to find there. One might have expected a list of desired personal qualities and habits. But apart from a buried reference to cost, the main thrust of the advertisement was as follows: ‘We are all open-minded, fun individuals, are open to all religions, genders, sexual orientations and races. No judgement here! However, we hate Trump.’ Such a sentiment isn’t a one-off. According to a 2019 study among university students in the US, partisan preference is the biggest factor in determining who gets chosen as a room-mate. Students said that they would rather live with someone who was ‘not at all clean and tidy’ or preferred ‘going to bed early’ than someone who supported the opposing party.

Both the Lebanese children and the American students demonstrate a fundamental truth: that we form groups and craft shared identities sometimes according to the most trivial, often seemingly irrelevant, criteria. It’s a concept that has been widely studied and remarked upon down the ages. One of the earliest enquiries into the phenomenon, by the north-African polymath Ibn Khaldun, even coined a term for it: asabiyyah. In his Muqaddimah of 1377, in which he sought to ‘understand the forces that inform the rise and fall and developments within societies and political structures’, Ibn Khaldun identified the way in which views and values spread over time beyond individual tight-knit family groups to incorporate other people. He also identified how, as an ‘ingroup’ develops, so it comes to create in its collective mind an ‘outgroup’ of people who are different. Khaldun argued that we seek to both maintain our collective solidarity and fight those we think threaten it.

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Rooted in our evolutionary development, the notion of asabiyyah survives to this day. As Aimen Dean, who dramatically left al-Qaeda and became an informant for the British intelligence service MI6, told us, ‘The word asabiyyah [is] the solidarity that one feels with the group that they identify with. But sometimes we use the word asabiyyah to mean tribal solidarity, but in a negative way: you’re not going to marry my daughter because you are from a different tribe.’ Once a group identity is adopted, it changes what we think and do. It also makes it harder to let go of beliefs as they become entwined with who we are.

We can all view ourselves as holding multiple identities that may cross-cut one another: ‘mother’, ‘British’, ‘nurse’, ‘progressive/conservative’, for example. As these identities become subsumed within labels that carry with them implications about wider attitudes and values – for example, ‘gun owner’ or ‘latte drinker’ – they can make us feel either attraction to or repulsion from others. And this attraction or repulsion can be so strong that, in the words of the academics Murat Somer and Jennifer McCoy, it has the effect of creating ‘otherwise unrelated divisions, emasculating cross-cutting cleavages, and dividing society and politics into two separate, opposing and unyielding blocks’. Issue-based differences rapidly become differences of social identity. When that happens, people increasingly dislike and distrust those from an opposing side, irrespective of whether they actually disagree on a specific issue. Feelings become more important than facts. Partisan labels come to act as proxies for differences in beliefs, values and behaviour that go far beyond political considerations. This phenomenon is known as affective polarisation, and we’ll delve into it throughout the book.

Groupishness can affect people’s judgement in unexpected ways. You are more likely to vaccinate your child if the presidential candidate you voted for is elected. If you’re a doctor, the course of treatment you recommend for a patient may well be influenced by your own politics and perception of their likely political leanings. If you’re a manager, the same consideration will shape your hiring decisions – more so, in some circumstances, than considerations of race. We select those we choose to listen to, from individuals to the media, according to their political viewpoints. We are more likely to find attractive and fall in love with people who support the same political party as us. In the same way, we are less likely to believe a criminal allegation, such as one of sexual assault, if it’s brought against someone who belongs to our ingroup. There is no part of our lives, in fact, that goes untouched by the influence of these identity-based partisan labels. So insidious is this that often we’re not even aware it’s going on.

No one can be blind to the dangers of a perniciously polarised society. The political theorist and scholar of the Holocaust Hannah Arendt rightly said, when considering the impact of totalitarianism, that we have to deal with the problems we face in the present, rather than hark back nostalgically to an earlier time or look forward to a better future. Polarisation, as she so powerfully noted about totalitarianism, is part of the reality in which we live; we ignore its causes and effects at our peril. Polarisation leads to suspicion and distrust. It undermines and gridlocks institutions. As the storming of the Capitol Building in Washington DC on 6 January 2021 demonstrated only too well, partisanship can exacerbate the tendency of those already prone to violence. But violence is far from the only inevitable consequence of polarisation. Where does polarisation leave the intellectual diversity that leads to innovation? Or good governance and decision-making? A society in which trust has broken down can be simultaneously volatile and ineffective. Healthy conflict – where different views can be aired, debated and resolved – is a vital part of how we live, and it occupies a place at the core of a modern democracy, but there are huge risks if partisan conflict becomes all-encompassing, as it eliminates space to engage across the divide.

Humans, like other species, have an innate need to belong to a group. And, as Yale Professor of Psychology John Bargh points out, while the precise form of that group may have changed over time as family and village identities have been overlaid or replaced by others, that doesn’t make the groups we belong to any less powerful. Membership confers a feeling of safety and helps us make sense of the world around us. It also brings significant emotional benefits in the forms of pride and self-esteem. It reduces uncertainty. At the same time it fulfils the natural human inclinations to, on the one hand, be superior and win, and, on the other, denigrate and defeat.

While there’s nothing new about such tendencies, our propensity to polarise has, thanks to socio-economic circumstances, technological changes and a rising sense of uncertainty, deepened in numerous countries in recent years from the levels seen immediately after the Second World War. Financial shocks have left many people insecure and exacerbated the divides between the haves and have-nots. Access to ever-increasing quantities of information, often of dubious provenance, has left us uncertain and suspicious. Trust in our institutions has plummeted, often enabling populist leaders and governments to step in and fill the void. Our online world, while creating the opportunity for many new networks and connections, has also set up virtual barriers and a distancing that allows us to reject or avoid, rather than engage with the views of those with whom we disagree. To make matters worse, the partisan online world has been monetised, rewarding those who put out emotionally charged content designed to attract attention. The short-term benefits of polarising can offer significant immediate paybacks in money and power, but at what hidden and longer-term social and political costs?

The everyday consequences are there for all to see. In the US, hostility between Democrats and Republicans (as measured on a ‘feelings thermometer’) has doubled in the last twenty years. Thirty years ago, most Americans said they didn’t care whether their child married someone of a different political persuasion to their own. Today, nearly half of Republicans, and about a third of Democrats, say they would be ‘displeased’ if their child married a member of the opposing party. In the UK, the Brexit issue caused splits across voter groups and often within families (progressive activists are the likeliest to have a politically narrow friendship group). Acrimonious disagreements about the best way to deal with financial deficits have divided citizens in Greece and Portugal. Debates over climate change have split Australians. Hostility to minority groups has driven a wedge between voters in countries from Romania to France. Broad partisan labels that identify ‘us’ – the ingroup – and ‘them’ – the ‘outgroup’ – are bandied about in all sorts of contexts, and not just political. In the process, emotion rather than argument has come to the fore. People will often express more strongly how they feel about another group than what they think of the issues that divide them. Indeed, it can be quite possible for them to dislike each other strongly while not disagreeing much on specific issues. Our loyalty to the group poses a huge challenge to society, causing us to interpret the same sets of facts in entirely different ways, and creating entirely different visions of the same realities.

Polarisation distorts our perceptions of the world. Italians believe unemployment rates are more than four times higher than they actually are. British people overestimate the immigrant population of the UK by 54 per cent. People think they hold accurate views, but the odds are that they don’t. They believe themselves able to process and evaluate information objectively, but in reality struggle to do so, particularly if an objective assessment would place them out of step with their group. They find it very hard to change their opinions even when they are demonstrated to be wrong or if the situation has changed. These are not failings unique to particular groups. They’re common to almost all of us. And they can cause huge damage to us as individuals and to society as a whole.

Are societies destined to pull further apart, or can they find a way to bridge the divide? That is the fundamental question this book seeks to answer. It is also the question that inspired our Changed My Mind podcast. We wanted to find out, among other things, whether the tendency to judge others by their assumed partisan identity is spreading to new areas and, if so, how. We wanted to know why strong views on one subject so often shape opinions on seemingly unrelated topics, and why these beliefs are so hard to relinquish. And we wanted to establish whether it is possible for people to change their minds and, if so, what causes them to. This book has its genesis in that podcast and in the enthusiastic response from our many listeners.

Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • When was the last time I changed my mind on something substantial?
  • When was the last time I challenged myself on why I think what I think?
  • When was the last time I spoke to someone who has a different political or world view to mine?
  • Does anyone in my circle of friends have a different political or world view to mine?

We expect some of these questions gave you pause for thought. This book explains why, and seeks to offer some answers. In Part One, we go back to first principles, explaining how our beliefs are formed, how those beliefs influence and are influenced by the groups we belong to and form, and why an ‘us-and-them’ dynamic is so often created. At the same time, we take apart the comforting myth that, both as individuals and as members of a group, we are the enlightened creatures we like to believe, and that those who sit in the opposite camp are ignorant, unquestioning slaves to a false view of the world.

In Part Two, we look at how our polarising tendencies interact with, and are exacerbated by, the world around us. In particular we seek to pinpoint how economic shocks and feelings of uncertainty can cause us to gravitate to extreme positions. We consider the part played by our political systems and our politicians, and the ways in which the institutions designed to protect us can come under threat.

And we explore the ways in which the media and social media trigger more partisan identities and extend conflicts into new areas.

In Part Three, we look at what can be done to tackle pernicious polarisation. How can we reshape our institutions, our groups and, ultimately, ourselves?

It’s telling that, historically, much of the most useful research on polarisation has been undertaken by scholars who have witnessed at first hand what its terrible effects can be: Hannah Arendt and the social psychologist Henri Tajfel lived through the era of the Holocaust; the psychologist Muzafer Sherif grew up in a region that experienced the First World War and the Armenian genocide. Today, much valuable work is being done in the US, and is often underpinned by laboratory experiments involving comparatively privileged student volunteers.

Poles Apart graphic
Figure 1: Our interdependent systems | Alison Goldsworthy, Laura Osborne, Alexandra Chesterfield/Random House Business

The contrast is noteworthy, and a caveat is therefore required, not least because American students are not necessarily the most diverse group politically, racially or socio-economically. Put bluntly, there is a danger that, amid the research, important voices are going unheard in a country where, for example, some senior figures in social media companies have expressed concern at how political polarisation can dovetail with long-existing prejudices against black Americans. It’s an issue that requires further study. It’s also an issue that inevitably involves the authors of this book directly: we know we are not immune to our own groupishness and to the illusion of our own objectivity. We have employed many of the techniques described in Part Three in our attempt to present a balanced picture, but we are aware that while we come from different political, professional and socio-economic backgrounds, the narrative and analysis you will read is written by three white British women.

It’s easy to take a pessimistic view of our polarised world, particularly in the light of recent events – from the Covid crisis to the American presidential election of 2020 and its aftermath. It’s certainly the case that division will never go away completely. We should not expect it to. Nor, actually, should we want it to. A degree of division and disagreement is healthy. It stimulates debate and innovation and challenges groupthink and a desire for the status quo. For some, particularly those structurally excluded from access to the levers of power, adopting a more extreme position is a crucial weapon in what for them is a limited armoury of options to bring about change. But, without a doubt, a high level of polarisation can be destabilising and dangerous. It’s this we have to counteract. Arguably, though, since we are all part of the problem, we all have the capacity to be part of the solution.

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