How Can We Fix Polarization? By Making A Start With Conversation.

5 strategies to counter polarization.

It is a truism that the surest way to resolve conflicts is through dialogue. But on some important issues—politics, social movements and governance among other areas—we are such a sharply divided lot, that dialogue seems impossible. Indeed, it seems that our polarization is so acute that we have forgotten how to have a conversation.

The fake news landscape and the speed with which hate speech zips from device to device has made this situation worse. Particularly in our politics and on television news, there seems to be no dialogue and no one listening to the other.

It is time to reclaim conversation.

Time to find a way to have a dialogue with each other. And treat the other side with courtesy and empathy.

India has a millenia-long tradition of dialogue, so there is plenty of precedent to draw upon.

As the scholar Amartya Sen notes in his essay The Argumentative Indian, even the Mahabharata can be viewed as a long conversation on what is the right path in any given scenario. The Bhagavad Gita, part of the Mahabharata, presents an argument between the warrior Arjuna and the god Krishna as to whether it is right to go to war. But it’s not the only part of the book which represents this argument. Indeed, as Sen writes, the entire Mahabharata presents “each of the two contrary arguments with much care and sympathy.”

Even outside the epic, Sen argues, India has a long tradition of dialogue and argumentation.

The female sage and scholar Gargi interrogates the scholar Yagnavalkya. Matreyi, Yagnavalkya’s wife raises ‘motivational questions’ about wealth.

The caste system was challenged by Buddhism, Jainism, the Bhakti movement, and so on. (It is equally true of course that gender, caste, and class continue to be a source of hideous inequalities even today.) Moreover, Indian emperors Ashoka and Akbar both encouraged public dialogue.

Seen from this perspective, the sharply divided rhetoric in the last few decades can be seen as a blip.

Indians can, in other words, learn to have a dialogue with each other. It is in our genes. But where to start?

One-chair conversations and more

Sherry Turkle has the answer: We have to begin with ourselves. And by going inwards. Turkle, who is a professor of sociology at MIT, also says that we have been ‘silenced by our technologies’.

Writing in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Turkle employs the image of chairs as a metaphor for conversation. In doing so, she cites the great American naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

In 1845, Thoreau moved to a cabin in a forest in Massachusetts for a two-year experiment in simple living. This experiment wasn’t a retreat from humanity however. Turkle writes:

the cabin furniture he chose to secure that ambition suggests no simple “retreat”. He said that in his cabin there were “three chairs—one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society.”

According to her then, one-chair conversations are with ourselves. When we get to know ourselves better; what our fears and anxieties are; what motivates us; and what makes us angry, we’re better equipped to handle conversations with other people.

Two-chair conversations are with friends, family, and romantic partners. But increasingly, we’re not able to do have those conversations. Even dinner times are interrupted because we’re with our devices.

Three-chair conversations are with society. Conversations that we can have with a group of people. Or from one to many, or many to one.

Turkle adds a fourth chair. About us talking to machines or through them. (And increasingly with them.)

Turkle’s point is simple. Like Thoreau, we must get to know ourselves really well, which will help us talk to our friends and partners and to groups of people.

“Afraid of being alone, we struggle to pay attention to ourselves. And what suffers is our ability to pay attention to each other. If we can’t find our own center, we lose confidence in what we have to offer to others.”


Learning how we behave in groups

If the first step towards de-polarizing ourselves is to look inwards, then the second step could be to understand how we behave in groups.

Here’s a thought experiment. Since we all are part of some ‘tribe’ or the other, imagine yourself as an enthusiastic member of that tribe. Then think of the other, the ‘tribe’ we are encouraged to hate or think less of. So for example, if you were born into an upper caste Hindu family, think of what you were told (or absorbed indirectly) about Muslims or Dalits. If you’re a supporter of the BJP, think of Congress supporters or ‘secular’ people. If you think of yourself as a nationalistic Indian, think of Pakistan.

Think about the images and emotions that come up. Think of the stereotypes that arise in your mind.

Research has shown that the stereotypes that come to mind are quite similar whether your other is Muslim, Dalit or Pakistani. Or Bosnian (for Slovenes), or immigrants of colour (for white Americans). And so on.

The journalist Ezra Klein makes this point in his book Why We’re Polarized. He cites the research of Polish social psychologist Henri Tajfel:

“Discrimination varies in its targets and intensity across cultures, but it is surprisingly similar in its rationalisations.”

The point here is that people tend to gravitate towards groups or tribes, no matter where they are, and this leads to looking upon the other with suspicion and fear.

Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale University makes a similar point in her book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.

She also notes that just being exposed to other groups and tribes is not sufficient. She cites a study that showed that simply being a commuter with two men speaking Spanish on a train in America led white people to harbour attitudes against immigration. What is needed instead is engagement, not just exposure:

What is needed is one-on-one human engagement, which is hard precisely because of how divided we are. But anything worth achieving is difficult. When people from different tribes see one another as human beings who at the end of the day want the same things—kindness, dignity, security for loved ones—hearts can change.”


Identity Mindfulness

We now have more clues about what is to be done to deal with polarization. Ezra Klein’s book is on why we’re polarized, not how to counter it. He does nevertheless include a few suggestions.

Most important, he discusses the idea of ‘identity mindfulness’. This will be immediately apparent to those of us who practice mindfulness meditation. But for those who don’t, it’s about simply practising awareness. Identity mindfulness therefore, leads to constant awareness that we all have multiple identities.

For example, some of my identities are: journalist, parent, Bangalorean, upper caste Hindu and left-hander. Some of these identities of mine are more easily ‘activated’ than others. I’m unusually susceptible to language politics but not to caste or religion-based identity politics. If there is a conspiracy theory going around that left-handers are being targeted, I’m probably just going to roll my eyes and leave it at that.

But organised movements are very good at activating some identities, as seen by the rise of nationalism-and Hindutva-based politics. Klein writes: “the thing about the organized identities promoted by political coalitions is that there is a massive apparatus for defining, policing, and activating them. If you want to get out of that superstructure, it takes work. But it is possible.”

The first step then could be to be aware of our multiple identities. If we are “mindful of which of our identities are being activated”, Klein writes, “we can become intentional about which identities we work to activate.”


Summing up, we have at least 5 strategies ahead of us to counter polarization:

  1. Learn more about ourselves before we start a dialogue with others.

  2. Realise that devices may be inhibiting our ability to connect with others.

  3. Be aware of how groups identities work.

  4. Make a regular friendship (or renew one) with people from other groups or tribes with the knowledge that mere exposure to them is not enough. Rather, engagement is needed.

  5. Be aware of our multiple identities, and be wary of organised movements that seek to activate certain identities.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.

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Notes

  • The first line of this piece is drawn from Octavio Paz’s In Light of India: “…in politics as well as in private life, the surest method for resolving conflicts, however slowly, is dialogue.”

  • Henry David Thoreau ought to be a more familiar figure for Indians. His writing about civil disobedience directly influenced one Mr. M.K. Gandhi.

  • Cover illustration: I based it on the cover of Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation.

  • For the copy editors out there, my use of the American spelling of polarization with a ‘z’ is deliberate.