Travels in a Polarized Country
In the lead-up to the U.S. election, I had the opportunity to travel through several states along the East Coast, visiting friends and university campuses. Even before the final, surprising twist on election night, the polarization amongst Americans was palpable. In Boston – perhaps America’s most educated city – I tuned into the local NPR station to listen to a political call-in show; in three successive conversations, I heard that Hillary should be locked up, that Hillary was this generation’s Jackie Robinson, and that any women whom Trump had insulted deserved their ridicule.
I also had long conversations with many of my closest university friends about how the election was affecting them personally. Though they came from different political orientations, each person testified to how vicious and polarized political conversations had become. Not only were they disgusted by the campaign ads and speeches on TV, but almost everyone could cite an example of how the election had damaged a friendship or family relationship in recent months.
Broader societal studies seem to confirm that these examples are the rule, rather than the exception. In an update to a study that’s been previously cited on this blog, the PEW Research Center finds that political polarization in the United States is at its highest point in a quarter-century: more than half of supporters in each major party view their counterparts not just as “unfavorable”, but “very unfavorable”.
A Gordian Knot
Like many others, I’ve struggled to deal with the shock of election night, not only intellectually (“How did Donald Trump come to be the next President?”), but also emotionally (“How should I respond to this situation?”).
I am heart-broken by the numerous examples of white nationalism and sexism that have emerged in the election aftermath, from elementary school students shouting “Build the wall!” to their Hispanic classmates, to women being harassed in public spaces by men emboldened by the President-elect’s campaign rhetoric. And I’m livid that Steve Bannon, who published inflammatory language on just about every minority group in the United States as chairman of Breitbart News, will now be one of the most powerful advisors in the White House. This situation should never be acceptable (regardless of whether Bannon actually believes his rhetoric or just uses it as click-bait), and I’m afraid that it will become normalized through the day-to-day drudgery of politics. From a human rights perspective, it seems like the appropriate response would be to double down on progressive politics, oppose the Trump Administration whenever it appears to condone or actively support discrimination in any form, and start organizing now to defeat Trump and his supporters in the 2018 and 2020 elections.
And yet, I more naturally gravitate towards defusing conflicts and seeking to better understand those who think differently than me. I see this as important for two reasons: It is more reflective of the society I want to live in (one that is collaborative and mutually understanding, vs. antagonistic and oppositional), and from a self-interested progressive perspective, it seems like the surer route to locking in long-term gains for social justice. One could argue that with enough organization, it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which progressive Democrats run roughshod over their opponents in the next elections, taking control of Congress in 2018 and/or the presidency in 2020. But, if that strategy is not accompanied by a genuine effort to understand the reasons for which 60 million Americans voted for a President Trump, it risks provoking an even stronger backlash in 2022, 2024, or later that could undo any progress made in the intervening years.
Essentially, the dilemma is this: Is there a way to seek mutual understanding across political divides, while not normalizing what one believes to be unacceptable political behaviour? Put another way, is polarization desirable under certain circumstances, and if so, what purpose does it serve?
An Example from South Africa
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom – a spell-binding account of deep polarization and the struggle for social justice during the apartheid era in South Africa. During this turbulent week, I’ve found some comfort in his story, and that of the “freedom fighter” movement more broadly. Mandela is mostly remembered for his willingness to make peace with the white Afrikaner government that imprisoned him for nearly 30 years, and for his egalitarian belief in a “rainbow nation”. But an essential part of Mandela’s story is also his role in establishing an anti-government milita known as “Umkhonto we Sizwe”, or “Spear of the Nation” (MK for short).
The MK was formed by members of the African National Congress (ANC) party in the early 1960s, out of a belief that its previous policy of nonviolent civil disobedience would be no match for an increasingly harsh Afrikaner Nationalist government. As the ANC’s non-violence movement proved ineffective in an increasingly polarized environment, the MK’s initial mandate was to stage acts of sabotage against South African government installations, in order to “fight the enemy on its own terms”. And while this mandate sought to limit impacts on civilian life, Mandela was clearly ready to escalate the MK’s tactics. In his own words: “If sabotage did not produce the results we wanted, we were prepared to move on to the next stage: guerrilla warfare and terrorism.”
Because the political and judicial institutions of 1960s South Africa did not permit them to effectively make a case for black African rights, Mandela and other ANC leaders believed that political militancy, up to and including threatening civilian life, was a necessary step on the ultimate path to reconciliation and social justice. Indeed, in the years immediately following the MK’s first acts of sabotage, the Afrikaner government became increasingly harsh in its suppression of black Africans, imposing martial law, jailing political opponents and completing its goal of complete physical separation of the races.
But during his final years in jail, even as the MK and Nationalist government each escalated their violent tactics, Mandela searched for opportunities to talk with the enemy. By the late 1980s, he secretly initiated discussions with government ministers, even against the will of some of his closest ANC friends and colleagues. As Mandela stated, “often, the most discouraging moments are precisely the time to launch an initiative. At such times people are searching for a way out of their dilemma.” Though Mandela and the MK had actively sought to polarize the political environment in order to demonstrate the ANC’s resolve in fighting for equal rights, he kept an eye open to an exit ramp that would resolve the conflict.
The Role of Cognitive Dissonance
Mandela’s political genius lay in recognizing that one could affect social change by attacking nefarious ideas and oppressive systems, while at the same time affirming the latent humanity in the people espousing these ideas. He recognized that people were not two-dimensional, static characters; they came to believe a set of ideas through the systems that surrounded them, and possessed the capacity for change if exposed to a different set of ideas and given the psychological space to wrestle with them. In fact, Mandela believed that was the only way to achieve a sustainable transformation of South African society.
This still holds true in 2016. While a fraction of Trump voters were undeniably motivated by racist ideology, it’s likely the majority of his supporters were driven to him by other factors, such as economic concerns or disgust with politics-as-usual. For these people, a vote for Trump did not necessarily represent a full endorsement of his more unsavoury statements. Like many Hillary voters, they grappled with multiple factors in their decision, and sometimes suppressed contradictory feelings in order to select one of the two main candidates. (For one of many helpful portraits of Trump supporters, see this recent profile of a community in Ohio that broke in Trump’s favour.) This isn’t to deny the potentially frightening impact of a Trump presidency on minority communities, but it also isn’t accurate or helpful to categorize all Trump voters as racists or misogynists.
To generalize this perspective, I think an underlying force that has driven much of the political polarization we’ve experienced is that of cognitive dissonance. In their illuminating book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson define cognitive dissonance as “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as ‘Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me’ and ‘I smoke two packs a day.'” Holding contradictory thoughts simultaneously is a painful experience, and our minds typically shut down part of our reasoning in order to make sense of the messy situations we often find ourselves in – especially if we are exposed to criticism. Hence we do things like continue to smoke, even if we fundamentally know it’s not good for our health; double down on a bet in order to justify our initial investment; and blame victims of our own wrongdoing in order to convince ourselves that we aren’t inherently mean people.
The pernicious effects of cognitive dissonance are amplified by a snowball effect – the more we are morally or mentally uncomfortable, the more we seek to reduce dissonance by justifying our discomfort, which can lead to a vicious cycle of enabling more dissonant behaviour, which then elicits more justification. As Tavris and Aronson note:
This process blurs the distinction that people like to draw between “us good guys” and “those bad guys”. Often, standing at the top of the pyramid, we are faced not with a black-and-white, go/no-go decision, but with a gray choice whose consequences are shrouded. The first steps along the path are morally ambiguous, and the right decision is not always clear. We make an early, apparently inconsequential decision, and then we justify it to reduce the ambiguity of the choice. This starts a process of entrapment – action, justification, further action – that increases our intensity and commitment, and may end up taking us far from our original intentions or principles.
Cognitive dissonance is certainly not a new concept – the above paragraph was actually written in reference to how members of the Nixon Administration justified their actions in what ultimately became the Watergate Scandal. But, there are characteristics of our digital, social media-ruled age that I think have amplified our responses to cognitive dissonance, and in so doing have contributed to furthering political polarization.
I believe some of these characteristics include:
- Information overload – Whereas political news used to be the domain of a limited set of traditional media e.g. newspapers, radio, and network channels, there are now thousands of websites reporting news on a daily basis. While in theory this diversity would expose us to stories and viewpoints that expand our boundaries, in practice, it represents way more information than what we can mentally process. More often than not, our reaction is to retreat to the comfortable few sites that confirm our existing beliefs.
- Echo chamber – Much of our digital lives are now governed by social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, that curate our feeds based on what we like, share, and click on. This creates a snowball effect where we see more of what we like, and continue to like and share what we see. The social media “echo chamber” often gives us an easy out when we seek to escape dissonance and confirm our beliefs through a like-minded community.
- Politicization of communication – While digital communication promises to help us learn about different people and cultures through direct, peer-to-peer relationships, our platforms are increasingly structured to reward a more “politicized” form of communication (defined here as declarative communication meant to prove a point, establish a brand, or win a virtual argument). Commercial media sites are often financially rewarded for “click-bait” articles that espouse a simple rumour or sharp point of view. Meanwhile, on our social media platforms, we risk becoming conditioned to crave the psychological boost of a “like” or “share”, which tends to favour self-conscious communication that we think others in our circle will like. While politics certainly has its place, my sense is that we now often skip the stage of communication where we fundamentally seek to understand each other more fully in order to develop broader perspectives and make better decisions.
Toward an Embrace of Cognitive Dissonance
What if, instead of structures that limited the time we spend in cognitive dissonance, we made a conscious societal choice to embrace this state of thinking – at least long enough to allow for our boundaries to be expanded before we harden into our polarized positions?
One benefit is that it could allow for a more flexible society. It took Mandela and the ANC multiple generations to nudge South Africa towards a multi-racial society. With the challenges we face today – climate change, immigration, education, healthcare for an aging population, economic growth and innovation, and many others – we don’t have the luxury of waiting another generation to come together and solve these problems. Moreover, each of these issues asks us to wrestle with complex tradeoffs and put ourselves in dissonant situations.
Embracing cognitive dissonance could start with small steps that might help normalize this way of thinking. Some examples include: allowing for multiple reactions to a post (e.g. “I think I like, but have further questions”, or “I’m frustrated but hopeful”); using social media algorithms that expose us to a more diverse sampling of reputable media; and more funding for “domestic exchange” programs, where students and workers are provided with opportunities to experience the parts of their own country they are less familiar with (e.g. an urbanite studying in a rural community, or a suburban resident working in an inner-city community).
Embracing cognitive dissonance does not mean abandoning action on one’s political beliefs, but rather doing so in a way that gives psychological space for people to work through the dissonance this may cause, rather than shut it off. As Mandela recognized, this involves an acknowledgment that people are more dynamic and complex than the ideas they espouse at any given point. And as social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Ravi Iyer note in a recent column, nurturing dissonance within our own circles can also help us become more effective change agents. Ultimately, we may come to cherish cognitive dissonance as a necessary tool to effectively manage the governance challenges of our times.