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International conflict expert writes a masterplan for stopping polarization

The reasons behind polarization are so complex that a strategic masterplan is needed. Here is what must be done, according to professor Peter T. Coleman, international expert on conflict resolution.

Peter T. Coleman is a social psychologist in the field of conflict resolution and sustainable peace at Colombia University in New York. He has written several books on conflict resolution and is now finishing “The Way Out – How to Overcome the Toxic Polarization”.

Professor Coleman finds the situation urgent.

“According to political research the U.S. congress and senate are at this point more polarized than at any time in our history. Since about 1980 we have been on a trajectory of increasing polarization by this measure”, says Coleman.

The widening gaps are also shown in different sociological research.

There is more and more sense of hate

“They found more and more a sense of hate across the divide. People feel the other side is selfish, stupid and that they are intentionally trying to hurt the country. Dislike and cold feelings towards the other side have increased considerably, while love and loyalty for one’s own party have risen.”

People’s attitudes towards complex issues like immigration, abortion, gun control and environment are no longer thought about independently. They are more and more correlated within the tribes on the right and the left, within conservatives and liberals.

“This is particularly concerning because it tells us that people are less attentive to the specifics of these challenges. They are more inclined to go with the leaders, the politicians, the parties or just people they are hanging out with. Belonging to our groups is more important than accurate information or judgements about our challenges.”

Complexity makes dialogues difficult

One common action against this polarization are efforts to start conversations and dialogues between people so they might understand each other better. Coleman is not a fan of that.

“What western people do when they have a difference of opinion is that they move into debate. We challenge each other. I listen to you to find flaws in what you say. This is a process that is completely different from what is needed in this time. I think it is unethical under these conditions to tell people to just get together with others across divisions and talk.”

One reason behind this, according to Coleman, is that issues that polarize are deep, important and complex. There are no simple solutions to immigration, climate change, racism, islamophobia, socioeconomic differences, protectionism etcetera.

“This isn’t about my attitude or your attitude or even our relationship. It’s structural, it’s bigger than us”, Coleman says.

“The many different components start feeding each other. They create strong patterns that are beyond us and feel impossible to escape from. I think an understanding of this complexity is key when searching for solutions.”

Call for strategic visionary plan

In order to stop the growing structural polarization, Colman calls for a sort of strategic visionary plan as well as a grass roots level of execution.

“We need a movement that works strategically with depolarization on all levels”, he says.

Coleman illustrates what he means with the work of the Koch brothers, billionaires in the fossil fuel industry. Over years the Koch brothers have built a network of wealthy influential individuals that have targeted the acquisition of local media outlets across the U.S. With a strategic network, paired with this communication capacity, they can control the public discourse about fossil fuels in the US.

“They may be evil, but they are smart”.

To address the growing level of structural polarization a similar approach is needed. A lot of good work is being done by activists, foundations, NGOs, and other organizations. But no one has the overview and knows who is doing what, where and how. All these initiatives on different levels need to be mapped, categorized and visualized.

“To achieve change we also need to move from dialogue into action. People are best able to take action around things they understand. It might be experts in sectors like the media (Solution Journalism) or the internet (Rabbit Hole) or education. People who understand and have influence their field can change the complex structures behind polarization within them”, Coleman says.

“It’s about utilizing what is already working within the community.”

There are initiatives in this direction. Work is done by political interest groups, academics, wealthy philanthropists, and NGOs. But a wider and more structural approach is needed in order to scale up their impact, according to Coleman.

Hear Coleman talk about a promising polarization fatigue:

Peter T. Colemans book “The Way Out – How to Overcome the Toxic Polarization” is due next year.

More withPeter T. Coleman here:

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