The Problem of Polarization

“Whichever side we find ourselves on, our innate group identifications arise from the same place: “our intuitive binary instinct that allows us to classify others as ‘us’ or ‘them’ in a fraction of a second.”

Founders Note: This article was originally published under a different title and contained references to “tribe” and “tribalism.” You can learn more about the problematic use of such words here.  Doug and I have edited the article to more accurately describe the phenomenon of group-think, polarization, and choosing sides.  I sincerely apologize for publishing powerful words in ways that can further stigmatize and divide.

Doug Craig holds a bachelors in journalism and a doctorate in psychology. His monthly Op-Ed column for Shasta Scout explores the nexus of tribe, truth, bias and climate from a psychological perspective.  You can read more about Doug here.

I was five years old when I made my first and only vow to assassinate a foreign leader.  It was April of 1961. I was in my bedroom in our house in Inglewood, California.  All I had was a name – Castro – and a place – Cuba – and the certain knowledge that he was a bad man and a threat to me and my family somehow. I didn’t know why he was bad and did not care. That was not important. It was not necessary to know why he was bad. I was only five years old. But I knew that Castro must die and it was my job to kill him if I could. One day, I told myself.

I had sided with my people, as instinct and evolution triggered my brain to react exactly as it had been designed over millions of years. Something in me understood that any threat to my people was a threat to me. My people are me and I am my people. I am required to hate and possibly kill the enemy of my group. And I don’t need any reason or motivation beyond that single understanding. I just needed to be in the room when that grainy black and white image of Douglas Edwards, the CBS newscaster my mother named me after, announced the news about the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion and I heard my dad’s reaction. That’s all it took. I got the message and made my vow.

Seven years later. Another April. I live in Vienna, Virginia now. My dad is a major in the Air Force, works out of the Pentagon and will volunteer for a tour in Vietnam later that year. I am twelve and there has been an actual assassination. Not Castro, of course, but a different, dangerous man, a black man (they called him a negro) named Martin Luther King, Jr. Someone killed him and my brain told me this was a good thing. Thinking like one’s group does not necessarily require intelligence or reason. Only loyalty. My parents were never openly racist. But they were white, conservative Republicans and I imagine King and his fight for civil rights threatened them somehow. And I was their kid. Any threat to my people is a threat to me. My people are me and I am my people.

Two years later. May this time. They were calling it a massacre. Four college students were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University, only 200 miles from my home in Beavercreek, a suburb of Dayton. The late ’60s were bleeding into the early ’70s, drenching it with violence, shock and transformation; a cultural tsunami swept me along with it into an awareness that I had joined a new side, “my people” were now the Woodstock Nation.

I was 14 and my parents’ influence over my political identity had evaporated. Instead, I turned to my peers, my older siblings and the culture itself, especially the music. Those murdered students were my people. I saw that clearly. The men with guns were not. They, and something called “the establishment” were now the enemy. Like Richard Nixon and anyone who supported the Vietnam War. Any threat to my people is a threat to me. My people are me and I am my people.

More than fifty years have passed and I’m now a man without a side. Or so I like to think. My side is truth, I tell myself, not really a side at all, a group without boundaries or walls, a people that includes everyone and everything; while all around me, our bloody nation has been slashed by a jagged, political machete, dividing it into two clear camps, two groups, one red and one blue with no discernible connection between them. And whether I like it or not, I feel forced to choose a side. But must I?

In his recent book, Mending America’s Political Divide, author René Levy, Ph.D., tells us that whichever side we find ourselves on, our innate group identifications arise from the same place: “our intuitive binary instinct that allows us to classify others as ‘us’ or ‘them’ in a fraction of a second.”

Having classified them as members of the other group, or what psychologists call, “the out-group,” our primitive brains react to “them” as a physical threat, resulting in “a profound loss of empathy,” the same loss of empathy that allows us to kill for food, or defend ourselves and those we love.

But what happens next is even more astonishing. This polarization, the connection of perceived danger with a person, party or idea, can now shape what we support or oppose by mere association. One study cited in Levy’s book found that those who strongly identify with a political party will support any policy with their party logo attached to it, even though these policies were not actually supported by their party. Once effectively sorted by group, people “lost their capacity for critical thinking, and gave unquestioning support to any proposal apparently presented by their party.”

Levy explains why this political hatred is so much more potent than individual hatred. When we hate someone we know, we recognize them as a person like us. But group hatred is very different. We fail to recognize members of the other group as human beings with thoughts and feelings and intimate connections with people they love. Our hatred for them is “impersonal and abstract,” can easily “be manufactured by propaganda” and once created, even if driven by lies, “destroys empathy profoundly and almost irreversibly.”

This makes it very easy for propaganda from our preferred news sources to further polarize us. We hate one another because we are told to do so and we obey.

As a psychologist for the last 35 years, I understand the biggest threat to our peace of mind and the quality of our relationships is found within our own minds. Our minds mean well. They are, after all, tasked to keep us alive, safe and secure. In order to do this, however, they often lie to us, deny our responsibility for our own pain and seek the comfort of blaming others for our suffering.

If our minds lie to us, how can we know what is true? And how can we use them to heal the jagged divide across our county and our land?

The solution, though simple, is not easy. It’s the same solution we use to resolve conflict with our partners, children, friends. We open our minds and hearts.  Like curious scientists, we accept that we might be wrong. We become mindful and test the truth of our assumptions, ideas and beliefs. We set our truths to the side and seek to understand those who have different views than we do.

We retrain our brains to see that the real threat is not them, but the mindless paranoia and hatred too easily activated inside of us, all of us, members of the same human group. We don’t have to follow the mendacious alarms of our reptilian brains. Once we recognize that the greatest threat our human family faces is the hate we have for one another, everything can change.

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