True or False? Political Passion Is at Odds with Depolarization

Many people think the work of reducing toxic polarization is at odds with political activism. The thinking goes, “We need to be polarized because our political opponents are so bad.” Or: “We need our animosity to defeat the bad guys.”

But these objections miss some key points about the dangers of and remedies for toxic division. One can work toward any political goal while trying to reduce toxic polarization. 

In fact, taking less polarizing approaches can aid one’s political activism. 

When you say “polarized”…?

First, when we talk about the problem of polarization, we’re not talking about just disagreeing — or even disagreeing strongly. Every country has serious issues that its citizens debate. This is normal. 

What’s abnormal and destructive is when many citizens have contempt and fear of their fellow citizens. This is what leads to dysfunction and chaos in a country. 

Do we need our righteous fury?

When we’re in conflict, we often feel we need our dislike and rage toward the “other side.” 

And there’s a reason we can have these instincts. Hate, contempt, and righteous judgment are powerful forces. They can effectively fire people up and get them to take action. That is, after all, why so many political leaders and activists attempt to harness these emotions. 

Anger and judgment aren’t always bad things. We all perceive harm being done by our political opponents on various political and cultural issues — and this understandably makes us angry. Anger is not the problem. 

The problem is contempt. The Oxford English Dictionary defines contempt as “a feeling of dislike or hostility towards a person or thing one regards as inferior, worthless, or despicable.” It’s thinking that not only are someone’s ideas bad but that they are a bad person

Our highly negative views of our adversaries amplify the conflict. When we engage in contemptuous ways with our opponents, they’re more likely to engage in contemptuous ways with us. We become less willing to compromise — and compromise is the lifeblood of a plural democracy. 

In these ways, we can unknowingly contribute to the cycle of toxic conflict. We can unknowingly help create the angry pushback and extreme behaviors that upset us.  

Working hard to see ourselves as our adversaries see us helps us get a firm grasp of their fears, worries, and concerns. We can then more easily speak in ways that address their fears while also working toward our vision for a just and fair society. We can use compassion and perspective-taking to channel our political passion while at the same time promote the importance of disagreeing in better, less toxic ways

Powerful tools for political activism

Avoiding behaviors that deepen animosity and resentment helps you persuade others and form broader coalitions. You’ll be more likely to achieve your goals — or, if not, to reach compromises you can live with.

Political activists and leaders must ask themselves, “How can I inspire passion and concern about the issues I care about while avoiding painting all of my political opponents as worthy of contempt? How can I persuade more people and avoid driving people away?”

People who want a just and fair society must also consider the dangers that come with demeaning and dehumanizing one’s political adversaries. Dehumanization leads to humiliation, which has been called the “nuclear bomb of the emotions,” due to how it makes reactions like rage, extremism, and violence more likely. For this reason, we must see reducing contempt for each other as necessary for sustaining a healthy democracy.  

Despite some people’s perceptions, conflict-resolution concepts are not weak, “let’s all get along” ideas, but powerful tools for change. With more depolarizing, de-escalating approaches, changes you achieve are less likely to be temporary and prone to reversal (for example, policies overturned by your political opponents when they gain power). Change will tend to be more lasting because you’ve done the work of calling people in and getting their buy-in. 

There are ways to inspire passion and action that don’t involve polarizing, dehumanizing framings. To find them, one must first have the desire to seek those messages.

If you’re thinking at this point, “But my political opponents are mostly bad people,” you might appreciate this piece about our distorted, overly pessimistic views of each other

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