How to avoid polarization

Our minds are hardwired to generalize and stereotype just about everything in life. It’s the blessing and the curse of the human mind. All of us do it, and if you think you’re somehow immune, well, therein lies the answer to how you can avoid it.

What does generalization have to do with polarization? Generalizations lead to labeling. For example, in U.S. politics, republicans are labeled conservative and democrats are labeled progressive. Labeling applies stereotypically to individuals that are seen as part of a group.

Whether or not they are part of the group and share common characteristics that others in that group also possess, once an individual is identified with a group, stereotypes are applied. For example, merely espousing a policy that one party is known for espousing, is often enough to be labeled a member of that party, and furthermore to be labeled as espousing everything else that party espouses. It’s often an egregious case of misplaced attribution.

Polarization naturally follows generalizations of us versus them. Which party do I fit into followed by what do I believe in followed by supposing that anyone that disagrees with any stance I take then falling into the other party. It’s us versus them at its worst.

Fortunately, there’s a simple way to short-circuit all of this. It relies on the opposite of generalization. It relies on being situational instead of dispositional. Being situational, in the case of politics, means discussing individual issues, finding common objectives and never discussing party affiliation. It requires talking about the purpose of laws, having objective ways to measure performance of laws, and abandoning laws that don’t perform regardless how much you believe in them.

For example, take the War on Drugs. Many people feel it’s a matter of saving lives. I’ve heard people argue for it to save lives lost to drugs. I’ve heard people argue against it, yet again, to save lives to black market violence. I’ve heard people argue alternative laws as a means to save lives as some sort of compromise. And yet I don’t know that anyone has ever conducted a study on the number of lives lost with the various possible policies we could have.

Instead, I routinely hear generalizations of people who use drugs and generalizations of the effects of the War on Drugs. Generalizations won’t save lives. The situational approach suggests that we consider individual people. Take one person at a time and consider their plight. Not in order to make generalizations, but instead, to understand the ramifications and considerations that must be a part of any policy.

These techniques don’t just apply to polarized politics, they apply any time polarization is present. Perhaps at work there’s an initiative that people seem to be lining up on opposite sides of, support versus opposition. What could people on all sides of the initiative learn by dismissing labels and stereotypes and instead focusing situationally on the issue at hand. Perhaps, there’s an alternative approach that nobody is aware of.

The reason I said “if you think you’re somehow immune, well, therein lies the answer to how you can avoid it” is because we’re often situational with ourselves. We dismiss our own dispositional behavior through justification of our unique circumstances. If you’ve seen many lives turned upside down due to drug use, you don’t see yourself as stereotyping when you label drug use as destructive. If you’ve seen many lives turned upside down because of black markets, you don’t see yourself as stereotyping when you blame the entire black market on anti-drug policies.

If we all try to be a bit more situational instead of dispositional, we might be surprised by what we can accomplish when the polarization fades and we’re left with clarity about the complexity of the issues at hand and an understanding that our efforts would be better spent engineering and adapting creative solutions instead of hatred for the “opposing” viewpoint.