Discover more from Lean Out with Tara Henley
On polarization, complicating the narrative – and retaining the right to be wrong
A few years ago, I interviewed the novelist Zadie Smith. There’s lots to like about Zadie Smith, starting with the fact that she’s a brilliant writer, that she’s interesting to talk to, and that she interviewed Eminem for Vibe magazine in 2005 and wrote one of the best cover stories of the era (and one of the earliest rejections of identity politics I can recall reading).
But there’s this, too: Zadie Smith is not on Twitter because she’d prefer not to be told by a bunch of strangers what she can and cannot read, write, think, or say. How she put it to Jia Tolentino at a public talk some years back? She wants to retain the right to be wrong. Smith would like to be able to sort through things in her own soul. She would like to be free to make mistakes, which, she pointed out, can sometimes become novels.
I think about those comments a lot. I also think a lot about the title of Smith’s 2018 book of essays, Feel Free, and what she said to me about it. “I’m thinking about freedom always when I’m writing,” she told me. “I’m hoping to make myself feel free. And to make others feel free.”
How does one go about feeling free, and encouraging that feeling in others at the same time? How do we do that in a climate of extreme polarization in which everyone’s certain that they are right?
I have some thoughts.
We might also want to start complicating the narrative. Amanda Ripley, author of High Conflict, has a life-changing essay at Solutions Journalism about this, arguing for a strategy that involves amplifying contradictions, widening the lens of a story, asking questions that get at people’s motivations, listening more — and better, exposing people to the other tribe, and carefully countering confirmation bias.
Here’s a key passage that describes the hyper-polarized state we are in right now:
Researchers have a name for the kind of divide America is currently experiencing. They call this an “intractable conflict,” as social psychologist Peter T. Coleman describes in his book The Five Percent, and it’s very similar to the kind of wicked feuds that emerge in about one out of every 20 conflicts worldwide. In this dynamic, people’s encounters with the other tribe (political, religious, ethnic, racial or otherwise) become more and more charged. And the brain behaves differently in charged interactions. It’s impossible to feel curious, for example, while also feeling threatened.
In this hypervigilant state, we feel an involuntary need to defend our side and attack the other. That anxiety renders us immune to new information. In other words: no amount of investigative reporting or leaked documents will change our mind, no matter what.
Intractable conflicts feed upon themselves. The more we try to stop the conflict, the worse it gets. These feuds “seem to have a power of their own that is inexplicable and total, driving people and groups to act in ways that go against their best interests and sow the seeds of their ruin,” Coleman writes. “We often think we understand these conflicts and can choose how to react to them, that we have options. We are usually mistaken, however.”
I see this happening all around me, all the time. Canada is becoming more and more polarized. Everything is being divided up into with-us-or-against-us tribalism.
What’s the way out? How do we get back to sane discourse? How do we complicate the narrative?
One of the best books I’ve read on all of this is by Peter T. Coleman, whom Amanda Ripley quotes above. I will leave you, for now, with an interview I did with Coleman last year. And with the hope that we can all, this weekend, turn down the temperature just a bit — and reclaim just a bit of our humanity, and that of our neighbours, by admitting that we might just be wrong about some things, at least some of the time.
In his new book The Way Out, psychologist Peter T. Coleman examines political polarization — and how to bridge the divide
It’s the rare book that you finish reading only to begin immediately re-reading it. But Peter T. Coleman’s The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization is that kind of riveting — and timely — title, combining personal anecdotes with years of research into conflict resolution. The professor of peace and conflict studies at Columbia University has lived a unique life, raised in middle America in a working-class home by a single mother who had to go on welfare to make ends meet. After starting to work at the age of ten to help out at home and subsequently holding more than 50 jobs over the years, many involving menial labour, Coleman got a PhD and became an Ivy League educator.
As such, he writes, “I feel a genuine connection with, and concern for, both Americas: rural and urban, poor and well-off, progressive and conservative.” Such a perspective is vital at this juncture in history, as politics become increasingly volatile, and our society more divided than ever. I spoke with Coleman about his insightful new book, and how we might be able to come together despite the current disunity.
You write in the preface to the book that you feel deeply shaken. Give us a “state of the nation” — where is America at when it comes to polarization?
This is something we see in long-term protracted conflicts around the world. There is this tendency, particularly when you become so insulated from the other side that you don’t really interact with them. Then there’s just a lot of in-group rumination. Your assumptions about them become very simplistic. When we are in conflict, and passionate about those conflicts, our feelings and thinking become more black-and-white, and our behaviours toward them become more standardized, in that we either ignore them, or, if we engage with them, we attack. So, we lose the options that we have in most relationships that are more nuanced. I think it’s highly concerning that there is still so much enmity and animosity that is publicly espoused in the media. I do think that we are still at a dangerous precipice for more violence, continued polarization and increased intensity in polarization.
What happens to us, as individuals and as a society, when we have this level of polarization?
The reason I call it toxic is because it is physically toxic to us. If you live in a place where you feel passionately alienated from your neighbours, from members of your family, from people that you work with — unable to feel compassion or empathy for them, and really feel a sense of contempt — it’s toxic. In the U.S., we’ve seen spikes in suicidal ideation, anxiety, depression. That’s not all from political polarization, but it’s definitely a feedback mechanism that contributes to people feeling alone, isolated, frustrated and angry. And as a society, it’s acutely problematic — because, as we see, it becomes extremely difficult for governments to function.
Who is “the exhausted majority,” and why have you dedicated this book to them?
There’s a group called More In Common that studies polarization and has been trying to disabuse us of the notion that there are just two tribes. They have identified seven — more and less engaged, moderate, middle, all the way to the extremes of both parties. They estimate that somewhere between 86 and 93 per cent are sufficiently exhausted, fed up, tired of the vitriol, tired of dysfunction, and really want some other way of engaging politically and solving problems.
Let’s talk about the way out. What is the power of a reset — and will the pandemic qualify?
One of the things that’s promising about our time is that it is a destabilizing time — to a degree that I haven’t experienced in my life before. It has forced us to rethink what’s important to us, how we spend our time. Real basic decisions have been challenged. That’s fertile ground for a nation like ours to regroup. And there is some evidence that there’s positive inclinations in that direction. But political shocks of this nature do not guarantee change, and they can make things worse. What has to happen is a sufficient reckoning and a set of adjustments, both locally and nationally, to move in a different direction.
You write in the book about Watertown, N.Y. What can we learn from that example?
Watertown is one of the most politically tolerant cities in the country. This is based on research by a group called PredictWise. I focused on it because [of] a piece in The Atlantic. One of the things you see is that Republicans and Democrats, for various reasons, mix there. They tend to spend more time together. There are more mixed political marriages than in other parts in the nation. They have community spaces where people come together and talk about these issues every week over breakfast. So, they build relationships, and an understanding and appreciation for not only the other side, but also the issues. As one reverend who cooks a Monday breakfast said, “We talk long enough about an issue until we realize what we don’t know.” And that’s when people start to learn.
How hopeful are you that America is going to be able to get out of this current state?
It depends on the day, and the news. I guess I am hopeful. We are a fairly resilient nation, and we have come out of difficult times before — one of them took a civil war. And there are historians like Jon Meacham who are seeing parallels with today and America in the 1850s, right before the Civil War. There was a contested election, there were secessionists that didn’t trust the government any more, there was a lot of disinformation in journalism at the time. So there are parallels to that time. And one of the reasons why I wrote this book is that that’s my concern — that January 6th is just a picture of what could happen, particularly when we have 400 million guns. So we really need to figure out ways to bring the guardrails in — not to embrace white supremacists on the other side, but to find ways to tolerate each other enough to not move into violence. I do think it’s likely we’ll do that — but I think we’re going to have some harder times before that happens.
This interview has been edited and condensed.