All conflict boils down to a question of self and other. Conflict is about getting stuck in the false dichotomy of needing to choose between self-expression and self-protection, on one hand, and the choice of connecting with and gaining the mutual support of those around us, on the other. Paraphrasing the theologian Paul Tillich, all living things motivated by two drives: the drive to express their self more and in more places, and the need to reconnect with the separated. These are not either/or choices. There is space in the world for us and them, because we are all us. We must learn to work together or the very idea that we need to choose our self or our team at the expense of others’ will literally kill us.
Division, separation and polarization will kill us by making us collectively ineffective in facing the complex and important challenges in life. Division will kill us by undermining our ability to claim and enact shared values, and separation will kill us by driving more and more people into the dark well of loneliness that is the precursor of suicide. We either can learn to embrace the complexity of life, do the difficult work of finding our common cause or we can choose to collectively die alone.
A brief anecdote: During my freshman year of college, I was on school trip in a wintery and windy place. About 20–30 of us were waiting in the cold for our next tour to begin. There were two or three couples who were with their boy/girlfriends and were in mutually warming embraces. The rest of us, all single apparently, were freezing our patooshkies off. I came up with the idea of hug treaties. I asked my fellow students if they would be willing to join me in platonic hugs to keep each other warm. I was met first with hesitation, then, consensually, I found a friend to hold for mutual protection from the cold. Some others followed suit. Nonetheless, most people chose to remain cold and alone rather than risk the intimacy required to be in a warm embrace.
To me, the current state of polarized politics looks a lot like two people trapped in a blizzard choosing freeze to death alone, afraid to share each other’s warmth. In the world today, we seem to be more ready to die separately than we are ready to trust that we could find common cause with others around us. Nationally, in the US and many other countries, people seem more ready to dig into their partisan perspectives than to find ways to address the common needs arising from having a shared history and future with their fellow citizens. Internationally, across cultures and religions, there is also a rising tendency towards isolation even as our global interdependence grows.
In my observation, there is a trend towards division- the political left and right emphasize their incompatibility and define their own success by the failure of other. I also see that there is a trend towards separation- arising from the mundane day-to-day erosion of basic human interaction. There is plenty of documentation about how schools, neighborhoods, cities, and Facebook feeds are becoming more and more segregated. There are fewer opportunities to interact with people of diverse perspectives and life experiences. That is a structural change, and it is our choice.
The hard work of finding ways to bring us together is something that we have to struggle for generation after generation. Our survival literally depends on it. As my friend and colleague Kenneth Cloke says, “If the boat is sinking, it doesn’t matter what side of it you’re on.”
Division and polarization are popular and ineffective
It's important to name that it is completely natural to seek the comfort of familiarity and predictability that comes from connecting with our own tribe. It is natural for us to distrust those who are unfamiliar and who have interests that seem divergent from our own. It is in our human nature. In his book The Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg elegantly lays out how modern society (since the enlightenment and definitely since World War II) is an elaborate system designed to help us overcome our natural tendencies to divide and only care for our tribe or in group. The enlightenment technologies of democracy, nation-states and liberal capitalism are tools designed to get us to work together with people who we otherwise would not want to interact with. In the absence of these man-made and unnatural tools to hold us together society can quickly unravel into massive violence. The 20th century is full of examples of the times when the choice to favor one group at the expense of another led to the loss of millions of lives.
A second reason that it is tempting to cultivate division across political, ideological and cultural lines is that is powerfully mobilizing. Separating the world into “us and them" affirms our sense of rightness and our identity. It is always popular to be told that the way that you see things is the "right" way, and it quickly follows to say that the others must see things the "wrong" way. When the world is organized into right and wrong it becomes much easier to make posters, slogans, talking points and soundbites that have clear messages.
It even seems logical to be fixed and divided in our world views, because we are increasingly exposed to different information and stories. The mainstream media (where serious journalism is a dying industry) is learning that it can get spikes in ratings by being more polarizing, but this is coming at the cost of journalistic integrity. That further feeds the trend of polarization by dividing the information that people are exposed too. How many people who are against Trump have ever seen him speak? How many people who are angry about people kneeling for the national anthem have spoken with a black family about their experience with policing in their community?
Dividing and polarizing is natural, it has short-term advantages and seems to make sense based on the information we have, but in the long term it is deeply ineffective. Ideas born out of polarization don't work for many reasons. Firstly, choices and decisions that are made by a single homogenous paradigm will be too simple. Multiple and diverse perspectives allow for a clearer understanding of a situation. Secondly, any single idea taken to an extreme (without checks and balances) will tend towards destruction and degeneration. Thirdly, if the people involved in a conflict are in an ongoing relationship then any solution where someone wins or loses will be unsustainable. Processes and outcomes that are based on winners and losers will corrode the entire system with resentment and resistance.
Life is complex, and the problems that we need to face these days require an understanding of nuance. Whether the goal is to manage the oceans, address climate change, transform racial politics or just try to keep an effective economy going we will need everyone involved in the problems to actively contribute to the solutions.
What's possible when we embrace our common cause
We have to recognize that we are all in this together. We are bound up with our families, our fellow citizens, our fellow humans, and even with our enemies. There is no way around this fact no matter how hard it is to imagine. But the upside of this truth is that more perspectives open the door to better and more precise solutions to our problems. Sure it is more difficult and takes more time to engage with ideas that initially seem incompatible, but that is a small price to pay.
By engaging with diverse groups whose fates are bound up together we are able to find ways of living that are more durable, more inclusive and more agile. Including everyone forces us to engage with the nuances of a situation and to anticipate life's inevitable contingencies. The issues that the United States and the world are facing these days are extremely complex and cannot be addressed with simple and fixed solutions. We are in need of nuanced and complex conversations. The secret is that wherever there is polarization the poles tend to have within them the antidotes for each other's shadows. The opposition and resistance to any cause is usually armed with critiques that the other side needs to hear.
Fortunately, both sides are usually eager to offer their criticisms to the other side. If one is able to hear and integrate the wisdom held by the other side their own perspective will be strengthened. Neither politics nor life are zero-sum games. This means that one doesn't lose out when they acknowledge the validity of the other's experience, and one can't say that another is wrong simply because they believe that they're right. Conversely, the incorporation of more perspectives contributes to an ever clearer vision of a problem.
Another advantage of taking a pluralistic approach to a problem is that it can compel the participants to look beyond the surface issues and find the actual source of a conflict. When people find the heart of a persistent conflict they are then able to redesign the foundations that create the conflict and prevent future repetition of chronic problems. As people work together to address the core issues behind a challenging situation they become active participants in ensuring the success of the outcomes.
Furthermore, as people recognize their responsibility for supporting the shared cause they are then able to once again lift up the value of their relationships and authentic connections. As people embrace the legitimacy of their shared humanity the collective energy naturally shifts towards peaceful, sustainable and dynamic experiences that everyone wants to be part of. Including diverse voices forces everyone to lay aside what they want their desired outcome to be and put their focus on how they want to do it.
How to transcend polarization and division without losing yourself
Your voice is important. Your interests and needs must be met for any system to be successful. And it is also necessary to address the needs and interests of others. Even when it seems impossible for everyone to get the outcome they want, we still need your voice in the game. We need need the voice of every stakeholder to participate in the change. To accomplish this paradoxical feat you may need to reassess what you think you want. You may need new skills, you may need to reassess who you are and you might need to rethink the entire question that you want to answer.
To get what you want you need to understand what you really want. Every position, solution or idea is a tool for meeting a deeper need. It is worth asking yourself, "why do I want what I want?" "What needs of mine are not getting met in the status quo?" This is a deep question, but it is worth digging into. Positions are solutions that are born out of isolation and fortify it. If, on the other hand, you can turn your attention toward expressing your underlying interests in a situation (not your strategy for meeting them) you will be able to focus on the universal themes that everyone can empathize with.
There is a good piece of advice that's relevant here. Some are more predisposed towards empathy, while others tend to be more assertive. Both are important, so whichever you are most inclined towards learn first how to do that. Don't fight yourself. But once you are good at caring for others or asserting yourself, go learn the other skill. The most powerful people are the ones that can recognize and forge an interdependent connection between their own needs and the needs of others.
It can also be useful to rethink who you are. Everything in life is a holon. Holons are whole/parts. That means that everything is a whole made up of smaller parts and everything is a part of a larger whole. If you can't figure out how to meet your needs as an individual look to see what shifts if you focus on your needs as part of a team, a nation or as the whole human race. What happens if you focus on your role as a biological conglomeration of organs and cells? There are many ways to rethink who you are, and there are definitely versions of your identity that include your perceived enemies. In almost any conflict there is a way to rethink what's going on by abandoning the idea of being an "us vs. them" and looking towards the ways that everyone involved is part of a "we," a team trying to collectively address a shared problem.
A great strategy for accomplishing this is to find the right question. The right question is one that everyone involved is eager to answer. To do this, let go of "either/or" questions that lead to yes and no answers. Instead consider questions that ask how there can be space for "Both/And" approaches. Or even better, consider asking what the solutions could be if neither solution is valid. These kind of questions and the answers they produce are inherently dynamic and ever changing. Often they lead to solutions that embrace the interdependence of the various perspectives. Both/And thinking leads to situations that look more like breathing. Every inhale is balanced by an exhale which creates space for the next inhale.
This kind of work requires determination & flexibility, experimentation & patience. We can do this so much better.