The Polarization Series: A Path Towards Restoring Good Faith Dialogues

Our current age is one riddled with several apparent contradictions and paradoxes.

Despite access to an almost unlimited flow of information, we are less certain of what is true. Further, we have a more difficult time in discerning fact from fiction, and rarely look to sources outside of our narrow ‘information ecosystems’.

The Enlightenment and the rise of objective scientific inquiry was supposed to rid us of superstition and group think. It promised to place reason at the bedrock of society and ensure that rationality and logic would be the basis for decision making.

So where did we go wrong, and why are we currently faced with so much polarization and division unable to come to a consensus on the most basic of facts?

Rather than exercising our freedom to think independently, we are moving closer and closer towards conformity and dogmatic thinking. As more issues become politicized, society sorts into its respective teams or ideologies insisting that those who don’t agree with us on certain issues are either blindly naïve or ignorant. It is the mentality that you are either with us or against us.

Yet, we are all exhausted by all the outrage and constant bickering of who is right or wrong on contentious issues.

Can’t we all just get along, be kind and give each other a hug (well maybe after the pandemic)?

To look at these issues I want to draw from the work of Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided over Politics and Religion and other research to look at why we have such a hard time discussing political issues.

This series of articles will focus on the following themes, exploring how:

  1. We aren’t as ‘rational’ as we think, and we rarely can get someone to change their view with a more logical or coherent argument. Emotion has the upper hand in our thinking and  Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is a good example the fight between reason vs emotion.
  2.  We all share the same moral foundations, but differ in which morals and values we prioritize (Moral Foundations Theory).
  3. Evolution can explain our tendency to sort into groups or teams. As Haidt puts it, morality binds and blinds.
  4.  We can restore good faith dialogue and compromise. The key is transcending the strict dichotomy of black\white or good\evil type thinking and being able understand the wisdom and truth found in many different positions or perspectives.

Hopefully this series will convince you to look critically at your own opinions, and look to others who share different views with a bit more kindness and understanding.

Real dialogue is when two or more people become willing to suspend their certainty in each other’s presence.

David Bohm

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Navigating Polarization: A Roadmap

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One of the things that the COVID-19 crisis has shown us is the interconnectedness of the humanity. Technology has enabled us to develop global networks making the world much smaller. 

This has made it clear that many of the problems we now face are global in nature ranging from climate change to international finance.

Yet, our politics and dialogue have become more divisive. We retreat into our social media echo chambers failing to entertain opposing views.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I think philosophy can play a role here in mending polarization in society through carefully examining our beliefs and using reason and logic to come to sensible conclusions. Crafting the space for dialogue and accepting the degree of vulnerability necessary to have authentic conversations can enable us to be more tolerant of opposing views.

In order to do this however we have to adopt an earnest commitment to seeking truth. Yes, we can ultimately come to different conclusions after our own analysis. However, we don’t need hold resentment or contempt to those who oppose us.

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that

Martin Luther King

Of course, there is no silver bullet response to this issue of polarization but here are some approaches which can help restore more authentic and genuine dialogue.

Socratic Questioning

If you have ever taken an intro to philosophy class you probably have come across the peculiar and intriguing figure known as Socrates. A man of ancient Greece, Socrates would openly challenge conventional wisdom and societal norms through rigorous questioning and dialogue.  

The Socratic method is meant to unpack our beliefs to assess whether they are backed by evidence and logically coherent. Through this we can identify potential inconsistencies and counter arguments for our convictions. 

This approach teaches us to assess our opinions with curiosity and inquiry like a scientist testing out various different hypothesis. Furthermore, it requires us to approach problems with a degree of humility and cultivate the willingness to change our minds if we are confronted with evidence that requires us to do so.  We can peel away the layers to expose the core values underpinning our beliefs, and perhaps start to see those whose opinions differ from ours with a sense of empathy and understanding.

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Socrates
Source : Max Böhme

Mindfulness and Non-Judgemental Awareness

As humans, we are fraught with bias continually jumping to conclusions without a thorough examination of evidence. Mindfulness and self-awareness can play a role here as an antidote to self-deception.  This practice allows us objectively be conscious of our passing emotions and sensations. Under stress, pressure and intense dialogue we often act on instinct rather rational thought.

If we were to take a brief pause to observe our bodily sensations, we can be aware of our racing heart rate, sweaty palms and maybe the fiery burning sensation in our chest. Rather than acting out on this, we can become mindful and accept these feelings and allowing them to pass.

Through awareness and acceptance, we can be in the driver’s seat to have greater control over our emotions during a heated conversation.  We can distance ourselves from these uncomfortable feelings and respond more rationally.  

Rule Omega

The notion of Rule Omega is an idea put forth by Jordan Hall, Daniel Schmachtenberger and Jamie Wheel on the Rebel Wisdom channel. It holds every statement, even if it is contrary to our core values, contains some ‘signal’(truth) and ‘noise’(non-sense). Rather than focusing on the areas where we disagree, we can shift our attention to the aspects of our opponents’ statement that we can understand and sympathize with.

Andrew Sweeny summarizes this idea nicely below,

We desperately need to pay attention to people who are outside of our information bubble or ideological group. A good practice Schmachtenberger suggests we expose ourselves to multiple sources of media on the right and on the left. For example, a liberal could watch Fox News occasionally and a conservative could read The Guardian…………

The point is to venture into the places that make us uncomfortable, and try to see what part of the truth those ‘enemies’ hold. Sometimes a holy grail of truth is buried under a mountain of lies.

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One of the traits I want to cultivate through this blog as well as through my mindfulness practice is to try and look at issues from an unbiased and objective standpoint – to distance myself from my internal biases and judgements. Of course, this is not easy and will take practice and time as I strive towards the virtues of empathy, compassion and understanding.

I encourage all who are reading this, try stepping out of your information echo systems and make a genuine effort to try and understand different opinions and beliefs. You never know, you may see things in different light.