Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Polarized and Polarizing Times

It’s not hard to recognize that we live in polarized and increasingly polarizing times. As an American, I’ll reflect on the U.S. context, but it’s not hard to see these trends and tendencies elsewhere.

The Polarization stage of experiencing difference, according to the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC), is characterized by a negative experience of difference. In Polarization, we are threatened by difference; we stereotype our own (values, ways of being, etc.) as good and right, and other ways as bad, wrong, incomprehensible, even alien – and we push away the difference, and build walls or trenches to keep the negative, threatening differences away from us. We express a polarized response to difference when we react by thinking of others as “idiots” for their views or practices; when we find ourselves thinking things like, “I can’t believe anyone in their right mind would…” (think or do such and such); or when we say things like, “I can’t believe those people could…” (again, fill in the blank – think a certain way, act a certain way, etc.).

In the U.S. these days, polarization is happening all over the place – around pro-life/pro-choice, “Black Lives Matter,” women’s rights issues (whether there is an issue, for example; the “egalitarian”/“complementarian” debate in certain Christian circles regarding women in leadership; and more), “liberal”/“conservative,” LGBTQ issues, and of course, pro-Trump/anti-Trump. On any of these, it’s easy to see and hear people talking with exasperation about “those people” (on the other side).

Polarization is essentially a negative phenomenon, i.e., it has a negative impact on individuals and society. When we polarize, pushing away from others, and building walls of various kinds (in our minds and hearts, or otherwise), we grow distant from those others we disagree with and find hard to understand, which leads to even less understanding (and to greater misunderstanding). Along with this there is a tendency to “dehumanize” those different others – to consider them less human than “we who have the right views or practices.” Polarization also tends to be accompanied by fighting those others who we disagree with (whether verbally, politically, socially, etc. – in the extreme, we go to war).

As the Arab proverb says, “who is ignorant of something, becomes at enmity with it.” Polarization both grows from and increases ignorance of and enmity with, different others. And raises an urgent question, in the U.S. (and other) context(s), of how we can live together in society, in a way that is positive for everyone (“with liberty and justice for all,” in theory), when we have growing ignorance and enmity between significant groups of people, along multiple fault lines?

If we recognize that we are experiencing polarization, and want to grow beyond this essentially negative way of experiencing difference, what can we do? Stay tuned for more…

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