Can polarisation be eroded by design?

How can society encourage more nuance and compromise when entrenched opposition is baked into consumerism and politics? Español

Alice Thwaite Jazza John
16 January 2018

Credit: Pixabay/geralt. CC0.

"People love those who are like themselves” said Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics over 2,300 years ago. In 2018 we’re still tackling the same problem: how can we create cohesive communities that understand each other despite their differences?

Research from the writer Jonathan Haidt  shows that polarisation between Republicans and Democrats has been getting steadily worse in the US for decades. What’s more, it seems that these different groups now regard each other with even more suspicion, and truly believes that the other acts for nefarious reasons.

In the UK, both of us work on projects that aim to reduce polarisation. Jazza is a vlogger and podcaster known for bridging the political divide by interviewing the NRA (among others) on his YouTube channel, and founding the Right Dishonourable Podcast which he hosts with Jimmy Nicholls. Nicholls voted to leave the European Union; Jazza to remain.

Alice is the founder and editor of the Echo Chamber Club which aims to introduce liberal and progressive metropolitans to views and voices they may not agree with. It’s been running now for over 18 months. As time has gone by we’ve both realised that polarisation seems to be something that’s baked deep into our society. What’s more, new communication technologies can amplify how these structures are exploited by politicians and businesses. In which case, what can we do about it?

Debates about polarisation aren’t new. Social psychologists have worked on theories of ‘homophily’ since the late 19th century: the idea that people of similar age, class, gender, race and education, as well as political and values-driven beliefs, are more likely to gather together and network with each other. Now in the internet age, we have the power to network outside of our local geography—which may or may not alter this tendency—but for the moment the status quo usually leans towards in-group connection.

Indeed, 2016 was the year that voters defined themselves along binary lines: unity or independence, remain or leave, Trump or Hilary. And 2017 was the year in which these trenches were dug even deeper and people settled in for a much longer battle. Despite reporting from hopeful liberal commentators suggesting that those who supported Trump in 2016 are growing weary and that Brexit voters are slowly changing their minds, there has been little change in how these individuals identify with opposing viewpoints.

Research from Jonathon Wheatley of the London School of Economics shows an increase in polarisation along both economic and cultural lines among the British public in the run up to the 2017 election when the Conservatives lost their majority, when compared to the voters who rewarded ex-Prime Minister David Cameron with a majority in 2015. In the United States, the Pew Research Centre has been documenting the widening gulf between Democrats and Republicans for at least 30 years.

Polarisation is even cemented into the buildings that house our political institutions. Very deliberately for example, the Houses of Parliament’s Common’s Chamber has two sides facing each other to seat the government and its opposition, with other parties squeezed in beside them. When the building was rebuilt after bombing in the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill insisted the architect (Giles Gilbert Scott) maintain the same adversarial design, which, he said, was key in creating a system that worked because it was dominated by two parties. In Churchill’s eyes the binary structure of politics was key to maintaining stability and power, favouring it above the crescent shape that’s increasingly used by legislatures that aim to be more open to cooperation and compromise.

It’s clear that creating common enemies can reap rewards on the political stage, but the same is also true in other fields of life. Vin Clancy for example, is the moderator of the Facebook group Traffic and Copy (a network for entrepreneurs), and a self-described ‘growth-hacker’ who has built Facebook and Twitter accounts from nothing to tens of thousands of followers in a matter of days. When creating a new online community, he swears by the need to have a common opponent, not just a hopeful message (“Vegans will save the planet!”). “A very good idea if you’re building a following, tribe, or community,” he says, “is to attack an enemy. It can be an idea or person.”

The pages of successful Instagram and Youtube stars often attack those who are ‘opposed’ to their mission. Take Kayla Itsines for example, an incredibly successful fitness instructor who gained recognition through social media. “Before you judge those of us who are committed to the gym as self-centred or superficial,” she said in a recent post, “realise for many of us it is our escape, our sanity and a place where we work not only on becoming strong physically, but mentally as well”. It’s important to these communities that they are working on something meaningful, and they can only attract attention if it’s believed that there is hostility towards their cause.

Clancy’s techniques are aimed at the growth of online communities, but the creation of a community opposed to an out-group is nothing new. Think Marmite, for example, with their highly effective “love it or hate it” campaign, or Apple’s  iconic advertising that divided the population between Mac and Windows users. A study in the Harvard Business Review found that “highly polarizing brands tend to perform more poorly than others, but they also tend to be less risky”. Having a clear enemy provides a defined and loyal base, with a common cause to fight against.

In which case, how can society encourage more nuance and compromise when entrenched opposition is baked into consumerism and politics?

One immediate problem is that funding and support for initiatives which are trying to reduce polarisation is so difficult to come by. There are a wealth of public funds to improve society in the UK like Nesta, the National Lottery and the European Commission (for as long as the UK stays in the EU), but despite depolarisation being a non-partisan issue it is still treated as ‘political,’ and thereby lies outside the guidelines that donors typically set for charities and social enterprises. The Echo Chamber Club has been rejected by numerous funders for being ‘too political,’ and by more political donors as not being political enough.

Crowdfunding provides an alternative source of support, but would you give your money to a cause that will further the goals of those you disagree with, or encourage a dialogue with your ‘enemy?’ In the United States at least, the Obama Foundation is awarding funds to combat echo chambers and fight the ‘balkanisation’ of public discourse:

“[We] now have a situation,” the Foundation says, “in which everybody's listening to people who already agree with them...reinforc[ing] their own realities to the neglect of a common reality that allows us to have a healthy debate and then try to find common ground and actually move solutions forward.”

In addition, our structures of communication are fractured, and perhaps even exacerbate the problem. The British population may no longer be effectively represented by the traditional left/right dichotomy but by what the Economist has labeled “The New Political Divide” of an “open and closed” society, with internationalists and social liberals on one side and nationalists and social conservatives on the other. However, the chasm that split society between 48 per cent of ‘Remainers’ on one side and 52 per cent of ‘Leavers’ on the other in 2016 is still very wide.

When you tune into Question Time or the Today Programme, you’re more likely to hear individuals talking past each other than finding common ground. The BBC aims to practice impartiality, but enforcing a false political binary between left and right is no longer a useful way to achieve this. One of the reasons the Echo Chamber Club has succeeded is that we don’t force any of these false binaries in political discourse, presenting not just conservative points of view but also Hindu voices, perspectives from software engineers, academics on North Korea and lots of other perspectives that aren’t part of the dominant discourse. Establishing a non-linear narrative requires this kind of philosophy.

On The Right Dishonourable Podcast, the format of forcing a Brexiteer and a remainer to understand each other's’ point of view rather than simply debating it helps to counter the combative nature of other talk shows and the regular news cycle. We’ve held conversations with YouTube darling of the alt-right Carl Benjamin, better known as Sargon of Akkad, and were able to get a men’s rights activist to talk about Scottish independence and Parliament’s Brexit bill in 2016. This type of calmer, conversational media exists in other pockets on the Internet too, like Leena Norms’ I’m Not Being Funny But…, Dylan Marron’s Conversations with People Who Hate Me, and the new Kialo site in the US. These are examples of using media to ‘break bread’ rather than ‘cross swords,’ and we need more of them.

But even with greater support and resources, it will be very difficult to overcome polarisation whilst it remains profitable to create niche communities and entrench division in politics.  Nevertheless, we have to act and act quickly. Recognising that anti-polarisation efforts are a deeply political act, but one which is as neutral as political acts can be, is a good place to start in healing the deep ruptures of society.

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