Habits for Depolarization
1. Criticize from within.
In other words, criticize the other—whether person, group, or society—on the basis of something you have in common. The political philosopher Michael Walzer describes this approach as “internal criticism.” He writes: “We criticize our society just as we criticize our friends, on the assumption that the terms of the critique, the moral references, are common.” As Walzer and many others have observed, besides being depolarizing, criticizing from within is typically much more effective than criticizing from outside.
2. Look for goods in conflict.
Some conflicts are entirely about good versus evil or right versus wrong, but many (probably most) are more about good versus good or right versus right. Each side, at least in part, is likely to be defending a goal or value that both recognize as worthy. Political philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin and William Galston have referred to this type of disagreement as one of “goods in conflict.” The challenge in such cases is to recognize and weigh competing goods—a challenge that is different from (and may be harder than) distinguishing good from bad. Looking always for the possible existence of goods in conflict not only contributes to depolarization, it also contributes to achieving valid (as opposed to phony) disagreement.
3. Count higher than two.
Of all the mental habits that encourage polarization, the most dangerous is probably binary thinking—the tendency to divide everything into two mutually antagonistic categories. Sometimes an important phenomenon actually does divide naturally into two and only two parts or sides, between which one all-or-nothing choice must be made. But in most cases, this way of thinking about the world is not only polarizing, it is highly simplistic and leads mainly to pseudo-disagreements as opposed to real ones. One may be the loneliest number, but in the area of social criticism and conflict, two (which is far from lonely today) is probably the most harmful. In thinking through any challenge or conflict, the highly depolarizing person’s first question to him- or herself is, “Can I count higher than two?”
Doubt—the concern that my views may not be entirely correct—is the true friend of wisdom and (along with empathy, to which it’s related) the greatest enemy of polarization. The playwright and political leader Václav Havel famously said that he would rather have a beer with someone who’s searching for the truth than with someone who’s found it. Now, Havel was a man of the firmest convictions. He went to jail for them and helped to start a revolution on behalf of them. So he was certainly not advocating, even in jest, a way of thinking that leads to passivity or an inability to choose; quite the opposite. He was advocating against the type of certitude that breeds smugness and contempt for one’s opponents, and which gradually transforms the natural appetite for empathetic engagement and the free play of intellect into an appetite for lecturing and pointing out to others the error of their ways. In today’s polarized environment, doubt is often treated as a weakness or even a sin (as is its cousin, changing one’s mind). But the opposite is more likely to be true. Doubt often supports true convictions based on realistic foundations, just as doubtlessness is nearly always an intellectual disability, a form of blindness.
Because generalization is both an ally and a frequent indicator of polarization, highly depolarizing people tend to be connoisseurs of the specific. This dedication to specificity can express itself in at least four important ways.
The first way is a persistent skepticism about categories. Of course, categories and the process of categorization are essential to human thought and expression; we can’t do without them. But all categories are abstractions, and when we turn the healthy need to categorize into the sloppy habit of categorical thinking—applying abstract labels (such as the political labels “Left” and “Right”)—to everything and everyone on the grounds that we have accurately separated them into non-overlapping categories, the result is personally and socially harmful.
A second way to favor specificity is to consider each issue separately and on its own terms, as opposed to assuming the validity of a governing ideological framework, such as “conservatism” or “liberalism.”
A third way to specify is to privilege the specific assertion (including the empirically valid generalization) over the general assertion. As Jonathan Rauch observes, a turning point in the development of modern science was the discovery—in geology around the turn of the 19th century, and soon recognized by other fields—that shifting the argument away from abstract and often philosophically charged questions (“Can miracles be invoked to explain natural phenomena?”) and toward specific empirical questions (“Are fossils found in the same order throughout the Devonian shale?”) can help to diffuse paralyzing controversies and even turn ideological foes into fellow researchers.4 Scientists can be as stubborn and ideological as anyone else, of course, but the field’s focus on specificity and empirical inquiry (“Show me!”) has done much to foster more constructive conversations.
The fourth way to favor specificity is to rely first and foremost on inductive reasoning, which tries to build conclusions from the bottom up by accumulating specific data points, as compared to deductive reasoning, which tries to build conclusions from the top down by exploring the implications of true general premises or statements. Deduction is the great friend of ideology (especially “total ideology”).5 Induction specifies.
6. Qualify (in most cases).
To qualify something you say is to make it less definitive, less comprehensive, and more nuanced, and thus to acknowledge the possibility that some pieces of the puzzle may still be missing. To qualify, then, is almost always to announce—even if indirectly—a willingness to engage further with the other side in pursuit of getting it right.
Another meaning of “to qualify” is to enumerate the qualities or characteristics of something. In this sense, the habit of qualifying is cousin to the habit of specifying.
A third meaning is to be or become competent for a task or position. (As in: “She’s qualified for the job.”) The act of qualifying, then, is broadly associated with the condition of being duly prepared. In this sense, we might suggest that persons who “do not qualify”—either in the sense of lacking needed credentials or in the sense of making claims without duly qualifying them—are likely neither fully competent nor ready to fulfill the requirements of office or trust.
7. Keep the conversation going.
At the very heart of democratic civil society is the idea that we don’t stop talking to one another, even when—perhaps especially when—the conversation is frustrating and seems futile. Why? Because ending the conversation is tantamount to ending the relationship, and when the relationship ends, everything hardens, polarization reigns, and your opponents turn into your enemies. When we end a conversation, we typically fill the void with accusations, name-calling, exaggeration, and the striking of poses.
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