“Negative polarization (or negative partisanship), as I’ve written many times, is the term for politics that is fundamentally motivated by animosity for the other side more than affection to your own party’s leaders or ideas.
“Under the malice theory, the key to electoral victory is unlocking that anger. That means highlighting everything wrong with your opponents. That means hyping their alleged mortal threat to the Republic. Because of pre-existing animosity, your message will fall on fertile soil.
“In this context, it’s easy to see how kindness and graciousness are seen as weakness, or at least as a lack of conviction.”
Basically, if we think of our political opponents as a ‘them’, an other, we make them an abstraction. If we paint them with broad brushes in various shades of ‘evil,’ then we make ourselves fundamentally susceptible to tyrants who manupilate that fear and hatred for their own purposes. We follow blindly out of emotional hijack, deluding ourselves that we are being totally rational. The ultimate tool of such tyrants is dehumanization, making ‘the other’ a thing rather than a person, something we could not possibly relate to or care for.
One potent antidote to dehumanization and malice politics is emotional validation. I found this article while writing Monday’s post on how to be less shitty to one another. If you read any of the essays from this post, read this one! More highlights:
“Emotional validation is the process of learning about, understanding, and expressing acceptance of another person’s emotional experience. Emotional validation is distinguished from emotional invalidation, when a person’s emotional experiences are rejected, ignored, or judged.
“Validating an emotion doesn’t mean that you agree with the other person or that you think their emotional response is warranted. Rather, you demonstrate that you understand what they are feeling without trying to talk them out of or shame them for it.”
When we talk about people on the ‘other’ side of politics from us, what do we say? Do we speak in generalizations? Do we assume nefarious motives, declaring that they are just bad people? Maybe we say we ‘can’t imagine,’ ‘don’t understand’ how anyone would vote the way they do? What assumptions do we make about how they live their lives and how it must be completely different from us? Validation requires us to put down these generalizations and see each other as individuals, humans, people with whom we are in relationship (and we are all in relationship)–to move in closer, as Brene Brown asks us to do. It’s a practice in empathy and ultimately, a neutralizer of negative partisanship.
Why should we validate one another’s emotions? Because it helps us connect, especially across difference. When we feel validated, we let our guard down. When we feel seen, we de-escalate. Then we are more likely and able to engage in discussions, even disagreements, with more openness and curiosity, respect and collaboration. But someone has to take the first step on the path to de-escalation, to lead by example and invitation.
The Butterfly Effect
In my Quirky Nerd post, I mentioned this idea at the end, in passing. I like to include links to interesting ideas, and found the essay on Farnam Street by Shane Parrish and/or his team. Parrish hosts The Knowledge Project, one of my favorite podcasts. Ever since learning about the self-organizing nature of culture, I have felt validated (ha!) and increasingly confident to point out how the impact of any given node in any system both impacts and is impacted by that system–because everything is connected! I define myself as a node, and I am a member of multiple systems at once (we all are). Some systems are nested (family, neighborhood, city, state, nation); some overlap (Chinese-Americans, physicians, working moms). Looking from the most complex and simultaneous perspective, we can then see how the state or movement of any one node may have direct and indirect ripple effects that propagate and eventuate in dramatic multi-systemic change.
Or, it may not. It’s a paradox–anything you and I do can have transformative effects or no effect at all. I wrote about this as the Optimistic Nihilist. From Farnam Street: ” John Gribbin writes in his cult-classic work Deep Simplicity, ‘some systems … are very sensitive to their starting conditions, so that a tiny difference in the initial ‘push’ you give them causes a big difference in where they end up, and there is feedback, so that what a system does affects its own behavior.’
“We like to think we can predict the future and exercise a degree of control over powerful systems such as the weather and the economy. Yet the butterfly effect shows that we cannot. The systems around us are chaotic and entropic, prone to sudden change. For some kinds of systems, we can try to create favorable starting conditions and be mindful of the kinds of catalysts that might act on those conditions – but that’s as far as our power extends. If we think that we can identify every catalyst and control or predict outcomes, we are only setting ourselves up for a fall.”
My point here is that when I start to feel too small to make a difference, I just remember my role as node. I may not see the waves that my attitude, words, actions and relationships create in the world. But I believe wholeheartedly that I can and do make a difference–a big one, potentially. I just don’t know exactly which day, which conversation, which post, which relationship will incite the shifts I agitate to make–toward mutual understanding, accpetance, cooperation, and connection. Thus, anything and everything I do matters, so I keep it up. I commit to playing the infinite game of human connection, and my just cause is to de-escalate, defuse, and disarm us, in service of interpersonal peace. But anything I do could not matter at all, so I don’t have to burden myself with perfection and exhaustive hamster wheeling.
“There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. I therefore award ten points to Mr. Neville Longbottom!” ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Strength in numbers. Walking onto the volleyball court, toward a protest march, and the living room at Thanksgiving, consider how much braver we feel when surrounded by people on our own ‘side’. The other school is bigger and richer, but we are scrappy and go after every point together. Counter protesters look hostile and potentially violent, but we outnumber them. Our loud cousin carries a foil of sharp political attacks, but my sister and I parry together with aplomb. Though I still feel tension entering these conflicts, the balance between threat and challenge feels more equal with my companions than if I were alone. Comradery makes me brave… It may also make me susceptible to mindless group think, oversimplified binary labeling, and impulsive dehumanization of out groups and their members. There are risks to strong tribal solidarity.
This is why every tribe needs its loyal, internal critics. They make us more thoughtful and help us recognize gaps and inconsistencies in our rationale and actions. They keep us honest and hold us accountable to our professed mission and values. We recognize them by the discomfort they cause in our conscience. It’s worth assessing regularly how we treat these individuals; and most often they are just that—individuals—standing alone, raising warnings and braving our collective resistance, dismissal, rejection, and backlash.
What would it take for us to welcome our internal critics and their valuable dissent more generously?
Doesn’t it ultimately go back to our own inner work? What happens when each of us is just a little more willing to be depolarized? What are we like to be around? How do we act? In my best moments, I feel peaceful. I present as grounded and secure, unwavering in my core convictions, and yet flexible and curious about approach, method, and innovation. As we open our minds, manifest through posture, expressions, and energy, we invite others to speak their minds more often. We hold space, pay attention, and make it safe for diverse perspectives to comingle, integrate, and transform. Our own personal openness lays the foundation for collective inclusion and belonging of each individual, thereby facilitating each person’s signature contribution to the collective growth and good. The We gets stronger as our connections across difference thicken; our weave tightens; our courage grows synergistically.
For a striking example of how putting down our spears can lead to connection and peace, without betraying our beliefs (and in fact making them stronger), read this excellent piece by Columbia psychology professor Peter Coleman, written for Divided We Fall, about the time when Pro-Life and Pro-Choice leaders met in secret in the 1990s:
“…Out of concern over more violence, three pro-life and three pro-choice leaders came together for secret dialogues. They were six women activists who had been fighting against one another over abortion for decades.
“The talks were initiated by Laura Chasin and Susan Podziba of the Public Conversations Project, who reached out quietly to these leaders and urged them to consider meeting with the opposition. They eventually agreed and although the process was initially excruciating, with expert facilitation they managed to continue meeting together for years. Over time, they learned to work with each other despite their concerns for their careers and personal safety. Then, on January 28, 2001, they went public by co-authoring an article in the Boston Globe called ‘Talking with the Enemy.’
“One participant noted, ‘We never talk on our own sides about the shades of gray. When you are involved in a political movement like we are, we are focused on mobilizing the troops and the way you do that is we paint things in the starkest possible terms so that people are moved to act, so they know what to do. We don’t have conversations about things we have doubts about or are more murky.’ The challenges posed by the conversations and the quality of engagement opened the leaders’ minds to previously neglected aspects of their own views, which ultimately changed their approaches to advocacy.”
Consider Liz Cheney, Lisa Murkowski, and Adam Kinzinger, and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. We may or may not agree with their respective positions and actions. And we can still all admire their courage in standing up to their own teams in service of their convictions and commitments. Of note, they do this mostly without spreading toxic disrespect and vitriol. Such self-control is to be lauded these days, no question.
* * * *
Depolarizers practice self-awareness, self-regulation, and excellent query skills. We train to not only tolerate and withstand disagreement, but to embrace and wrestle with it. We do not wish to vanquish our opposition; rather we seek to understand and connect, to find the win-wins whenever possible. We hold relationship in shared humanity above all, and we connect through deep curiosity, humility, empathy, generosity, and respect. We understand the value of internal dissent, and the importance of holding ourselves accountable to our stated mission and values.
These skills apply in politics, and also in every other life domain. How are you already a depolarizing, de-escalating, and connecting force across difference in your life? Who benefits from this contribution of yours? What does it cost you? What makes you willing to pay it? What would make it easier and more rewarding to expand this practice to other domains of your life? What would that look and feel like?
How else should we continue this discussion and practice?
**So sorry for the weird font/formatting, friends–I cannot figure out how it happens or how to fix it!