Polarisation and conflict: a prologue

From someone who respects both sides, wishing they would respect each other

Reading about a mass disassociation (I choose not to name who is dissociating from whom) this morning fills me with gloom and not a little anger. I like it when people get on with each other; when they see each other's point of view; when they recognise that there are reasons for whatever the other person is thinking, and that (with few exceptions) the people they want nothing to do with have opinions of mixed value, like all of us. Just like the polarisation that we see so much of in contemporary politics, people on either side focus on the unreasonable, damaging, hurtful aspects of the other position, and do not see the reasonable, well-meaning and hopeful sides.

Personally, I do not see this simply as a matter of more evolved versus less evolved. In terms of Kegan's adult development theory, I suspect that either side could have a quite consistent, if imperfect, self-authored (4th order) world view. The danger, which I think is common to many situations in contemporary society, is that a Kegan 5th order self-transcendent view is seen as 3rd order backsliding to outdated (and probably harmful) traditions. I can't see any easy way around that.

I don't think I have the energy – I imagine it is going to take quite a bit – to finish writing about this before the time when I would like to turn off the computer and go to bed, but maybe tomorrow I will try to write a tale of two worldviews. I'll try to write a generous account of both sides, still naming no names. Then I'll see how the tale wants to continue itself. I would like to imagine a generative dialogue. In real life, this seems practically impossible, because the two sides have lost trust, and no longer feel safe in conversation with each other.

I saw this kind of pattern, live, at Lancaster Cohousing, where I was living for seven years. When people lose a sense of psychological safety in the presence of the other, they also usually lose the ability to enter into dialogue; and where there is no dialogue, the difficulties, the misunderstandings, can never be worked through. Sometimes, one or both parties will have their own approach to resolving conflict; but only a neutral approach avoids one side seeing the proposed method as biased in favour of the other, and therefore unsafe. I've also experienced this in couple counselling. Both may prefer different counsellors, and the obvious (though rarely rational) fear is that the other person's counsellor will side with them against you. If that is what happens when communication is face-to-face, how much more room for misunderstanding and conflict there is when the medium is the written word!

Sometimes it feels like children squabbling, and needing a calm but firm parent to sort things out. While people still have some kind of respect for authority, something like this may work, but it seems less and less likely as adults age and settle into different ideological camps. Who has any authority across different ideologies? One of the characteristics of epistemic bubbles, or echo chambers, is that authorities from any ‘other side’ are cast in a negative light, intended to discredit them.

What is hard with individuals is often still harder with groups. In a one-to-one situation with good mediation, sometimes people can at least see each other's genuine humanity, and enough trust can develop though finding some commonality, but with group identity in full play the focus is normally on group cohesion. Any attempt to be friendly and understanding towards the out group could easily come across as being a traitor.

I'd like to blame Facebook, actually. When a business model depends on sucking people in to staying on the site for as long as possible, any trick will be used. What greater need is there to be there, than when a conflict develops between ‘your’ group and someone else's group? When it feels vital that the whole tribe stands together and faces down the out group that are trying to take ‘us’ down? There's no direct intention to seed conflict, of course – that would be a conspiracy theory …

I'll be back with more.

Topics: Complex psychology; Current affairs

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