Polarization Hangover

This post by Susan Clark first appeared as a Vermont Public Radio commentary on November 15, 2016. You can listen to the original commentary here.

In the wake of one of the most divisive elections in history, a lot of us have a wicked post-election hangover caused by the polarization bender we’ve been on for the past year.

It’s not exaggerating to say that political polarization is an addiction. Many of us, on all sides, have been binging on a diet of confirmation bias. Among our divisiveness “dealers” are the media silos we choose, and social media tools that are designed not to inform or challenge us, but to give us more fuel for our pre-existing beliefs.

Polarization works on the human mind like a drug. Our tribal, even reptilian brains crave certainty. We’re suckers for a simple, good-versus-evil narrative. Brain studies show that when we receive new information that doesn’t fit our worldview, the prefrontal cortex responsible for conscious reasoning may hardly fire. Instead our emotional circuits are activated.

And - get this - when we go through this process of reinforcing our pre-existing beliefs, the reward centers of our brains light up. Like a drug, we get a hit every time we ignore information that challenges our worldview.

Polarization is effective for building tribes. But it’s terrible for processing information or - dare I mention it? - finding solutions.

Many of today’s hot topics - climate change, race, immigration - are what analysts call “wicked” problems. They’re especially hard to solve because of competing underlying values.

Colorado State professor Martin Carcasson explains that most problem-solving models focus either on expertise or on activism. But wicked problems are inherently different. They don’t respond to expert, technical solutions, or to deal-making. They respond to slow, trusting, face-to-face communication.

So for our polarization hangover, the “hair of the dog that bit you” isn’t going to help.

A real cure is to sit down with someone who voted differently from you, and ask them whether they have their snow tires on yet. How are their kids? Just remember what it's like to be human with them.

Later, once you’ve rebuilt trust, you can listen to them about issues. Take a breath. And try to discover the concerns beneath their stances. The interests beneath their positions.

The cure for our wicked polarization hangover begins with patience, listening, and the knowledge that with wicked problems, it’s the problem that’s wicked, not the people.