Ending our ‘Uncivil War’: How to reduce polarization

Opinion August 18, 2011 0 Comments

by Judy Morgan

Every new opinion poll seems to bring more evidence of the deep divide between liberals and conservatives in American politics. Many of us uncomfortably experience that gap within our own families in get-togethers punctuated with sarcastic asides if not verbal battles.

Judy Morgan

This polarization not only is challenging in our relationships, it also is an obstacle to developing carefully thought through solutions to pressing social problems in our country. Each side demonizes the other’s positions, leaving little room for compromise, collaboration or mutual understanding.
Is there any way to end this ideological “uncivil war” with family, friends and fellow citizens?
I am a veteran of many fruitless political arguments. I sailed into these believing I had the truth on my side; if I could just use the right facts to shake the other out of their smug certainty that they had the truth on their side, they would come to their senses and thank me.
After repeated failures, I began to use what I was learning about conflict resolution and about the ideas of George Lakoff. He is a noted linguist who has written extensively on the current ideological conflict. He has concluded that the Left and Right each see the world through a lens of values and a moral narrative that are deeply rooted psychologically.
Conservatives, according to Lakoff, see the world through a lens of values such as moral order, strong leadership, individual responsibility, competition and faith. These are framed with an overarching metaphor of a world with much danger and evil in which the strict father appropriately protects and disciplines his children to keep them from harm or immoral behavior.
Liberals see the world through a lens of values such as community, collaboration, nurturing, fairness and communication. These are framed within a metaphor of an evolving and mostly safe world in which the nurturing parent appropriately encourages children to explore and develop their own understandings.
These world views are continually strengthened by repetition of key phrases and reinforcement from others who share the same views.
Lakoff says it’s not possible to dialogue between these two world views using facts and logic, as each side has their own facts and logic, incompatible with the other.
Rather, the way to bridge the gap, he says, is to talk at the level of deeper values that both sides share, and to create a story of deeper meaning that both sides can relate to.
Other widely used approaches to conflict resolution resonate with Lakoff’s approach, including “win-win” conflict resolution developed by Roger Fisher and William Ury, and “nonviolent communication” developed by Marshall Rosenberg.
Following are some specific tools from these approaches that I’ve found helpful in reducing polarization:
• Respectful curiosity and listening.
It is helpful to move to an inward state of respectful curiosity about how the other came to such different views from your own.
If I am having a strong emotional reaction, this shift can be challenging — but taking deep breaths helps!
I can then ask open-ended questions, such as “That’s interesting; I’m wondering what led you to that view?”
• Empathy
Nonviolent Communication’ (NVC) focuses on connecting with the other person’s core human feelings and needs and communicating our own as a way of building constructive dialogue.
For example, a person who is upset about government control might be feeling an underlying threat to their need for freedom. So an empathetic response might be “Are you feeling fearful that we may lose some of the freedoms that you value?”
This might or might not be accurate, but it opens the door for the other to clarify what their underlying feelings and needs are.
• Seek common ground
I look for areas where I do agree with the other. This helps strengthen a sense of trust that I am not just trying to build a case against the other, but building dialogue. Even if one disagrees with 90 percent of what they’re saying, one can still say, “I do agree that in those cases it would be good to ….”
• Express one’s own views respectfully
To keep from triggering an aggressive reaction, it’s helpful to use language that stays with one’s own experiences and observations, rather than making sweeping generalizations or putting down the other’s conclusions, e.g.,  “What led me to my view is …….”
• Share a story
People are moved by stories more than facts, so it can be very effective to share a personal story that gives life to a viewpoint.
• Talk about your values
As Lakoff points out, if I frame my views in ways that connect with values that the other has, my views are more likely to be heard. For example if I am passionate about reducing fossil fuel use and talking to someone who values patriotism, I might say, “I’m proud of our country, too, and I feel it’s important to use our great American ingenuity to meet our own energy needs rather than being reliant on other countries.”
What would it look like to use these tools?   Imagine the following:
SANDY: My son just lost his job. I’m so glad the new health care law will make it possible for him to get health insurance.
MEL: Yeah, now the government’s taking over health care, too.
SANDY: Are you worried that you’ll lose some freedom of choice with the new law?
MEL: I sure am; pretty soon the government will control everything and that will be the end of freedom in this country.
SANDY: I definitely value freedom, too. What are you seeing that makes you think that is happening?
MEL: Every year there are more government programs. Government spending is out of control, and it’s going to wreck our economy. My brother’s been unemployed for a year, and he doesn’t know what to do.
SANDY: I hope your brother finds something soon. I worry about my son, too. I’m wondering; I have a different view from yours, because I think that government is doing some important things.
I very much value the freedom we have, and I also value compassion. Government seems to me a way to make sure people who need help get it.
I’m curious about whether you think there are any areas where government programs make our lives better?
MEL: Well, maybe Social Security. And of course the military has to be run by government.
SANDY: I sometimes wish we could get conservatives and liberals to work together in finding fresh solutions with the best mix of good government and private sector programs. To me that sounds like the way to go. What do you think?
MEL: I guess that would help if it could be done. We sure need some new solutions. I have come to believe that reducing political polarization in relationships, and in our society, requires a strong commitment to seeking to understand the other, and to communicating one’s own thoughts, feelings and values in a respectful and caring way.
It is very challenging, but it is at the heart of all conflict resolution and is at the heart of building the civil society we want to see.
Mt. Airy resident Judy Morgan has an M.A. in Sociology from Johns Hopkins University and was an education and public participation specialist for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection until she retired. She is now involved as a volunteer with Health Care for All Philadelphia and is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Germantown.

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