How to Avoid Fueling Affective Polarization

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Another contentious election year is upon us, and the political machines fueling mutual contempt across the aisle are heating up. On top of our political divide, the past weeks have shown us the ugliness of just how racially divided we remain as a nation. The heartbreaking events in Minneapolis last month revealed again how today’s contemptuous impulse to divide will hijack and politicize any headline grabbing event for its own gain. (I offered words of unity to the citizens of Minneapolis in an open letter.) We’ve also seen this since the outbreak of COVID-19. 

In his bestselling book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of ContemptHarvard professor and social scientist Arthur Brooks explores the political and religious ideologies that divide us today, and offers provocative, inspiring ways for us to rescript a toxic we-they narrative into a more caring ethos of common ground. I interviewed Brooks about his passion (wonderfully documented in his Netflix special, The Pursuit) to pursue a world that creates opportunity, prosperity, and happiness, starting at the margins.

“America is addicted to political contempt,” Brooks says. “While most of us hate what it is doing to our country and worry about how contempt coarsens our culture over the long term, many of us still compulsively consume the ideological equivalent of meth from elected officials, academics, entertainers, and some of the news media. We wish our national debates were nutritious and substantive, but we have an insatiable craving for insults to the other side. We indulge our guilty urge to listen as our biases are confirmed that the other guys are not just wrong, but stupid and evil.”

As leaders, parents, and neighbors, how do we learn to stop reflexively assuming that a presumed ideological difference makes others the enemy? Brooks offers several important and practical tactics each of us can take to turn the tide of contempt to one of greater unity even within our differences. 

Get out of your own bubble.

I recently sat around the table with a “diverse” leadership team. The leader was an African-American man. The team had three women, two of whom were white, and one who was Asian-American. One of the women was openly gay. There were three men, two of which were Hispanic, one white. People politely joked about the latter being the “token white guy.” After watching them for a couple of days, I confronted the elephant in the room: “There isn’t an ounce of true diversity at this table.” They all knew it. Sure, they had achieved diversity of gender and race. But that’s easier to achieve than diversity of views. It wasn’t that there weren’t fundamental differences among the team—there were. It was the degree to which they worked so hard to hide them that gave it away. At the first sign of even mild dissent, their catch phrase was, “Well, I guess we agree to disagree.” The organization they led had major problems and I expected heated exchanges over how to address them. To the contrary, it was a very pleasant day and a half of “taking issues offline,” waiting for more data, and agreeing to disagree….without making any decisions.  

Who do you spend regular time with at work or outside work, with whom you have heated disagreements and then have coffee or a beer? If you don’t have people around you who comfortably and routinely exchange differing views without fear of retribution or estrangement, you’re in trouble. It means there is critical information you aren’t getting about decisions you are making, relationships you are participating in, and priorities you are pursuing.

“People should regularly ask themselves: Do I go places where my ideas are in the minority? Do I hear diverse viewpoints? Do I have personal friendships with people who do not share my politics?” Brooks says. “Answer honestly, and make an ideologically wider social circle this year’s project.”

Spend time with your “they.” 

When we disagree with people, we concoct versions of them that conform with, and justify, our disdain for them. We “other” them. In one client organization, the heads of Supply Chain and Sales were known enemies. When you asked them about each other, they would talk of respecting the other, having a good “working professional relationship.” A look deeper revealed that the Supply Chain head believed that the Sales head was driven by greed, driving “bad” sales that made forecasting nearly impossible. The Sales head believed the Supply Chain head to be lazy and risk-averse, working hard to avoid progressive change. As they discovered how wrong their mutual assumptions were, they were able to work more collaboratively and productively. But it took a lot of work to get them there. 

On a piece of paper, jot down the names of those in your organization with whom you regularly work and with whom you have fundamental disagreements. How have those disagreements impaired trust? Or your ability to collaborate or lead? These are the people (and we all have them) to whom you nod politely in meetings but inside you’re convinced they’re wrong and you’re right. What if you spent time vetting your assumptions and engaging the ways in which you are different? Might you share more common ground than you imagine? I dare you to pick one person from your list and invite them to lunch, and find out which assumptions you hold about them to be profoundly inaccurate. 

Brooks says, “We are called to find common ground where it genuinely exists, improve our own arguments, and win over persuadable Americans by answering hostility with magnanimity, understanding, good humor, and love. We cannot do that while hiding in our narrow ideological foxholes. This is especially true for leaders…”

Say “no” to contempt and treat others with love. 

In a conversation with the Dalai Lama, Brooks asked what to do when someone approaches you with hostility. The Dalai Lama’s answer was, “Practice warm-heartedness.” Note the word “practice.” To love others, especially those we differ from, is an active choice. It takes work. If we passively assume our divided culture is our destiny, we’ll help fuel it with our resignation and eventual indifference. Our political landscape has mastered mockery, sarcasm, extreme hyperbole, sharp insults, condescending dismissal, and mass ridicule as the norm for coping with differences. It will take intentional, sustained effort to counter the deep conditioning of this culture. And we can each do our part. 

Brooks suggests gratitude and dignity as great places to start. When people feel unneeded, unimportant, or don’t sense equal dignity, they become angry. Brooks says, “The opposite of dignity is despair. And when there is despair, people lash out. Dignity is like air. If you feel like you have been undignified, you will look for a perpetrator, and when a politician says, ‘I will go after your perpetrator,’ people divide. We can all restore someone’s dignity—listen empathically to people you disagree with. Listen with love and compassion. You’ll strike a blow against contempt by treating their views as if they have merit. Gratitude is one of the easiest ways to show others dignity. You are expressing compassion and love by showing them they have worth. Gratitude means you feel someone is worthwhile. Just ask a homeless person for something you need from them and watch how they respond.” 

If there is any hope of reversing our increasing divisions, it must start with each of us. Especially leaders. Brooks urges, “For leaders who truly desire the common good—as opposed to manipulating the public for personal gain—repudiating contempt and embracing love for others means adopting a trustworthy leadership model. Coercion, division, and polarization are ultimately counterproductive and never to be used. Rather, the goal should be to work to inspire others with a vision of hope and a model of inclusiveness toward others’ ideas.”

Our fundamental identities come to light when they reflect off those who don’t see the world as we do. To look honestly at what reflects back can be unnerving when it doesn’t match who we’ve thought ourselves to be. People who differ from us reveal who we are. When we avoid them, we stop discovering who we are. If you want to become the best version of yourself, and if you genuinely want to see our septic tank of contempt recede, go find someone to be in relationship with who doesn’t see the world as you do, and learn to love, and be loved by them.

Ron Carucci is an Advisory Board member of Ethical Systems as well as cofounder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the bestselling author of eight books, and his work has been featured in Fortune, CEO Magazine, Harvard Business Review, BusinessInsider, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, and Smart Business.

This post was reprinted with permission from Forbes.