The problem of polarization continues and is likely to be the defining political characteristic of contemporary United States. The US populace has been polarized before but it is typically over a single issue. Slavery, for example, in the 19th century. Below is some data from the Pew Foundation on the increasing tendency toward rigid opinions and polarized values.
As the Pew report concluded, the fault is structural; it is not the sort of problem that can be solved by an individual or piece of legislation. Political parties are more ideologically coherent than they’ve been probably at any time since the Civil War. As citizens spend more time talking to those who are like them – which is intensified in the current social media environment – they become more easily reinforced for their particular perspective. The literature by Sunstein and others conclude that this mediated world of interaction with others who hold the same opinion as you do causes those opinions to become rigid and increasingly unmovable. And the dynamic of polarization is increasing. But with the realignment of ideologies that started over the issue of civil rights in the 20th century, ideological purity became a bigger factor in American elections.
Ideological purity is a dangerous form of essentialism. One’s beliefs become so strong, and the sense of ingroup and outgroup become so clarified, that perceptions of the outgroup are assumed to be biologically natural.
The Table above shows that from 1994 to 2014 a larger percent of Republicans became consistently conservative. And a larger percent of Democrats were consistently liberal. The two groups – liberals and conservatives – consistently drifted toward more rigid ideological opinions that do not vary and are less subject to moderation and persuasive influences.
The data reflected in the bar graph above shows that the two parties have increasingly unfavorable attitudes about the other. From 1994 to 2014 the unfavorable attitudes about the other party has more than doubled. I don’t need to reiterate the danger of these data. They make working together and solving problems in any sort of bipartisan way almost impossible.
When Donald Trump proposed that Ghazala Khan – the Muslim Goldstar mother of Captain Humayun Khan who was killed in Iraq – was not allowed to speak, ostensibly because of Muslim sexist control of women, he dehumanized Mrs. Khan. Interestingly, Trump dehumanized Mrs. Khan by assuming that Islam was responsible for her dehumanization thus projecting the issue to the foreground.
To “dehumanize” someone is typically thought of as portraying the other person as uncivilized and animal-like. It has historically been used to explain the psychological changes in individuals during times of war or atrocity. In order for genocide and mass murder to take place the perpetrator must see his enemy as less than human and thereby more deserving of being killed. And, dehumanization helps perpetrators justify their behavior since they are not taking the life of a “real” human being.
But in recent decades researchers have been more interested in subtle forms of dehumanization in which human characteristics (such as emotions) are denied to some other individual or group. This can happen on an individual as well as group basis. Freedom of expression, for example, is considered a natural “human” right and it is “dehumanizing” to deny the right. Most research is on racial and ethnic groups. For example, studies show that the association of one ethnic group with an animal (e.g. Blacks with apes) causes significant perceptual distortions such as the overestimation of children ages and criminal culpability. Such research helps explain police violence and the disparities of police violence toward different groups (for a review of dehumanization research see Haslam and Stratemeyer).
Immigrants and asylum-seekers are also dehumanized (Trump calling Mexicans coming over the border “rapists” and “drug dealers”) as well as an increasing number of groups such as psychiatric patients, homeless people, gay men, and older adults. Although dehumanization is related to stereotypes, they are not equivalent since it is possible to stereotype without dehumanizing and vice versa. Moreover, keep in mind that “super humanizing” someone is equally as dehumanizing since it defines them as “other than human.” The ascription of superhuman physical or sexual qualities to an ethnic group diminishes the recognition of their experience of pain and their capacities for sensitivity.
The consequences of dehumanizing are serious and persistent. More than a few studies report how dehumanization leads to increased punishment because offenders are considered less than human, as well as the endorsement of extralegal behavior such as torture for terrorists. Trump’s dehumanization of Mrs. Khan perpetuated a stereotype designed to challenge the authenticity of their sacrifice, and to categorize the Khans in such a way as to make them less deserving of sympathy. Individuals or groups who are dehumanized are assumed to be less worthy of respect and conciliation.
The combination of stereotypes and dehumanization makes for an explosive mixture producing distorted perceptions and easy justification of violence. But even in situations where violence is less implicated (the Trump example) there is a sort of psychological violence that makes it easier to overlook or ignore the potential for aggression and cognitive distortions.
One of the most pressing and distressing cultural and communication problems is how you talk to the “other.” Group and cultural polarization is no longer an interesting insight posed by an academic or intellectual. No, it is common knowledge and easy enough to see even for the most disengaged citizen. It is the problem of perceived incommensurability when the belief that two cultures – especially cultures in conflict – are irreconcilably different. These differences cause distortions in the communication process resulting from the cognitive and political consequences of intergroup contact and the absence of bridging discourse that closes or shrinks cultural gaps. These distortions are apparent in discourses and interactions between the two groups that sustain violence. Although this results in damages and injustices to both sides there are ways to mitigate effects and work to transform the conflict into morally acceptable democratic argument.
The term incommensurability was introduced to refer to scientific values that were so different that they lacked any common unit by which they could be measured. Aristotelian versus Newtonian mechanics is an example. But over time incommensurability became associated with other ideas including concepts related to the humanities and social sciences. Cultures have been termed incommensurable and cultural incommensurability has been associated with diversity and other social agendas. Strong diversity advocates cherish incommensurability as a sign of cultural uniqueness and claim that all group and cultural differences lack some common units by which they can be compared. So, the difference between Palestinians and Israelis, for example, is equivalent to the differences between Aristotelian and Newtonian mechanics. There is no bridging language.
Thomas Kuhn explained that incommensurability referred to “irreconcilable differences” because two or more paradigms involve different sets of problems, definitions, and standards. It is possible to “interpret” the two incommensurable paradigms in a language other than the paradigm, which is what conflict resolution specialists do, but this will always be limited.
Cultures and groups polarize because they engage in a process of increasing differentiation. They develop negative identities such that part of the definition of group or cultural membership involves the rejection of the other. This produces extremes: being Israeli is defined as not being Palestinian, or being a Republican is defined as not being a Democrat.
Increasing differentiation explains how the discourse of difficult conflicts can devolve into contradiction, paradox, and double binds. The natural consequences of differentiation is to gravitate around binaries including binaries of ethnicity (Arab-Jewish), gender (male-female) religion (sacred-secular), history (war of independence-nakba), cultural narratives (victimization-displacement), politics (Republican-Democrat), and so on. Even when groups engage in communicative contact the result can be communication that dissolves into debates, arguments, and blame. These then harden into fixed positions and the sort of interest-based thinking that is not able to deal with identity-based conflicts. The doubly bound messages of conflict groups continue to stimulate the process of differentiation; that is, these groups reify incommensurability through the differentiation described above which results in a type of deformed communication where individuals are trapped by the accusations of the other. Each side of the conflict interprets the other as being responsible for its own oppression and the act of denying such a claim is understood as simply providing additional evidence of the claim in the first place. Thus, you have the twisted logic of group differences.
Attempts to win arguments such as “who started it” or what historical event is responsible for the current situation are typically futile and mostly damage the possibilities for dialogue. These binaries and double binds are so exhausting that the communication resources of both sides are depleted and continuing conflict differences becomes the accepted reality.
There is a well-known study conducted in 1985 that ran a perfectly simple clean little experiment. One group favorable toward Israel and another group supportive of the Arabs were exposed to identical news stories about the violence in Lebanon in 1982. Even though both groups saw the same story, and all conditions of the experiment were the same, each believed the coverage was distorted and biased with respect to their own side; that is, they thought the media was hostile to their side. This is termed “the hostile media effect” and it very simply refers to the tendency to prefer your own group (either pro-Israel or pro-Arab) and distort perceptions of an “out” group and thus believe that the media are hostile to your side but lenient and supportive of the other side.
Given the orgy of news coverage surrounding the war in Gaza, and the inevitable outcry about media bias, I thought I would clarify some distinctions and explain the social scientific foundation of media bias. More journalists and reporters work more diligently to present a balanced view of the conflict then the public gives them credit for. But the same journalists will tell you that their good efforts to be balanced are for naught and they are flooded with mail claiming bias regardless of what they do. This tells you that the bias probably comes from the consumer of the message rather than the producer.
The general tendency to see bias is common enough. One of the most well-established relationships is between message distortion and group identity. If you sort people into two groups (e.g. Israelis-Palestinians) this immediately sets into motion a series of processes that influence how messages are interpreted. And, these interpretations always favor one group or another including interpreting messages as biased against their own side. The results of the 1985 study referred to earlier have been replicated with numerous topics and events. We prefer to think of ourselves as treating people equally or respecting diversity of all sorts but the truth is we strongly identify with groups and define ourselves according to group membership.
From a rather straightforward evolutionary perspective, any exposure of your ingroup to negative information is perceived as a potential threat. This stimulates our sense of self protection, which takes precedence over other cognitive processes, and causes us to question the nature and quality of the information. Claiming that the media are biased against us or the information is substandard allows group members to minimize the inconsistency between their group favorability and information inconsistent with maintaining their ingroup status.
Moreover, the more one intensely identifies with their group – such as a religious group or ethnic identity – the more individuals feel potential threat and the more intense is the relationship between group identity and sensitivity to information threats. These relationships are further intensified when group members consider their group to be particularly threatened or vulnerable. If you ask a strong supporter of Israel or a Palestinian whether or not they feel their group is vulnerable, or threatened, or disrespected they will certainly answer in the affirmative and consequently are more responsive than most to information threats.
There are of course numerous consequences to the distortion of perceptions and information resulting from group identity – sometimes deadly consequences – but the threat to democracy is a problem that receives less attention than psychological ones. There are three of them: one, the quality of information failure. Information is discounted or judged negatively sometimes when it should not be. It becomes difficult to find common information acceptable to both sides which is necessary for conflict resolution. Secondly, group identity distortions result in political polarization. The two sides of an issue see themselves as more extreme than they might actually be and retreat to more extreme positions which makes it even more difficult to manage problems. And third, the sense of being threatened or the recipient of hostile media attention creates conditions that justify more extreme or even violent behavior. The group considers its existence to be in jeopardy and this justifies more extreme behavior in the interest of “protecting themselves.” It is analogous to increasing constraints on civil rights in the face of terrorist activity.
How do we moderate group identity affects? We will pay some attention to that issue next week.
Even during those heavy late-night conversations in college about God the guy with an unmovable opinion, who just couldn’t see outside his own boundaries, was annoying. Extreme voices, and the harsh opinions and rigid sensibilities that accompany them, are always a problem during deliberation or any attempted genuine discussion. The practicalities of deliberation require manageably sized groups that are small enough for sufficient participation in genuine engagement with the other side that is not defused throughout a large network of people. In fact, smaller deliberative groups provide a more empirical experience one that is more easily observed and measured.
Originally, deliberation was associated with existing political systems working to solve problems through liberal democratic means that include all of the normative expectations of deliberation. The “rationality” associated with deliberation is most realistic for intact political systems. Deeply divided groups – groups divided on the basis of ethnicity and religion – were thought incapable of such discourse. But in the last few years authors such as Sunstein and myself have made a case for deliberation and ethnopolitically divided groups on the basis not of rationality but of the “error reduction” that communication can provide. And as the empirical work in deliberation has evolved numerous practical issues focusing on how people actually communicate has been the subject of research attention. Moreover, researchers form smaller deliberative groups that are more practical.
One of the variables or issues that emerged from the research that the smaller deliberative groups make possible is the matter of extreme opinions. Deliberators in the true sense are supposed to be engaging one another intellectually for the purpose of preference formation, along with all of the normative ideals of deliberation. But in the “real world” of deliberation people behave differently and sometimes badly. Individuals with polarized opinions and attitudes are supposed to moderate them and work toward collaboration, but this is an ideal that is not often achieved. There are individuals who do not fully appreciate or respect deliberative ideals.
This difficulty of extreme opinions is particularly pertinent to conflicts between ethnopolitically divided groups where the conflicts are deep and intense. Conflict such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians is characterized by highly divergent opinions and tension. People hold firm and unshakable opinions and discussions between these competing groups are filled with individuals who hold rigid and extreme opinions. At first glance, you would think that rigid opinions would be disruptive and certainly damaging to the deliberative ideal. And, of course, that is possible. Research has shown that sometimes when groups get together and talk the result is a worsening of relationships rather than improvement. Efforts to reduce stereotypes by increasing contact with the target of the stereotype can sometimes simply reinforce already present stereotypic images.
Almost all decision-making groups of any type, deliberative or not, struggle with the problem of members who have extremely rigid opinions and cannot be or will not be moved. Subjecting one’s influence to the better argument is an ideal of deliberation and this is thwarted if group members resist exposure to the other side. Those with rigid opinions typically pay little attention to any collaborative strategy since their goal is the imposition of their own opinions. But the communication process can once again come to the rescue and at least increase the probability of moderation mostly through the process of continued exposure to information, ideas, and counter positions. And although it’s more complex than that the basic communicative process is the initial platform upon which change rests.
It turns out that educating people about how policies and positions actually work tends to increase their exposure to other perspectives and improves the quality of debate. This is one more weapon in the “difficult conversation” arsenal that can serve as a corrective and ameliorate the polarization process. Rigid opinions will not disappear but improving knowledge promises to be an effective unfreezing of attitudes procedure.
Extreme opinions are one of the thorniest issues when it comes to trying to solve problems and the necessary “difficult conversations” required. But related to extreme opinions are rigid opinions; that is, those people who hold firm opinions from which they will not waiver. They are convinced that they are correct and will not listen or engage in communication designed to solve problems or result in integrative solutions to.
A recent study in the journal Psychological Science (2013) found that those who hold extremely rigid opinions often support those opinions by the illusion of understanding. These people believe that they understand things better than they actually do. The study examined how much people really understood a particular policy or issue, and the extent to which the rigidity of their opinions contributed to polarization. The authors then predicted that asking subjects in the experiment to explain political issues would make them aware of how poorly they actually understood issues and hence they would subsequently moderate their opinions. We will get to the results of the study in a moment. But first it’s important to say something about extreme opinions and their deleterious effects on the political process. Polarization, or the increased perceived distances between people’s political opinions and the resulting paralysis with respect to problem-solving, is a serious problem.
After Obama was elected president Mitch McConnell in the United States Senate declared that the only agenda for him was to make sure the president did not succeed. If we take this statement seriously it means that this elected official will subject himself to no communication that upsets his belief system. He has made decisions about where he stands and will not subject them to any decision-making processes to the contrary. This is not much different than the religious Muslim or Orthodox Jew who has a comprehensive worldview and will not depart from it.
Rigid opinions are capable of inciting violence. Such opinions are usually accompanied by intense belief that includes emotions and justifies strong reactions. We can see this operating when politicians or religious people use the “politics as a war” metaphor. It codes into the discourse all of the language of war including the fact that your adversary is your “enemy” and he or she must be “vanquished”. So political leaders have enemies lists and incorporate all of the aggressive and clandestine language associated with such lists. Our culture is filled with individuals, journalists, and talk show hosts characterized by combative personalities who are more rigid than extreme.
Throughout the 1980s conservatives made considerable progress by maligning liberals and turning the word “liberal” into a shibboleth used to attack democrats. Again, I’m less concerned about the content of a political opinion that I am its fixed nature. An opinion becomes extreme and dangerous when it cannot be moderated or there is no sense of perspective and proportion. Politics is not warfare; in fact, it is the antidote to warfare. Politics and communication with those who are unlike you is the alternative to warfare. It is the only consequential and morally legitimate means of solving problems and avoiding violence.
So what did the authors of the study referred to above discover? Interestingly, they found that those people with particularly strong opinions were unjustified in their confidence with respect to how thoroughly they actually understood policies. Very simply, they understood policies and political positions considerably less than they thought. When subjects in the experiment were asked to produce what are termed “mechanistic explanations” they were exposed to their ignorance and thereby moderated their opinions. Mechanistic explanations are explanations about how things actually work such as legal positions and social policies. When subjects in the study were simply asked to list the reasons that they supported something they were less likely to be influenced by their own lack of knowledge and did not moderate their positions. The assumption is that asking someone to list the reasons for supporting or not supporting a political position allows them to tap into values and general principles that do not require much knowledge and are more fundamental emotional attachments.
It turns out that educating people about how policies and positions actually work tends to increase their exposure to other perspectives and improves the quality of debate. This is one more weapon in the “difficult conversation” arsenal (to continue the war metaphor) that can serve as a corrective and ameliorate the polarization process. Rigid opinions will not disappear but improving knowledge promises to be an effective unfreezing of attitudes procedure.