"Polarization" isn't the problem; it's about power
We desperately need bold visions... and strategies and tactics to get us there
Increasing polarization is one of the defining features of the modern era. I’m encouraged that funders are directing more resources toward the problem, like this partnership with the Ford Foundation. And that initiatives are springing up to try to respond, like this compilation of efforts in the U.S.
And: I think we grossly misunderstand polarization, in ways that are harmful to our movements for justice and our aspirations for a world where everyone belongs. I want to use this post to reframe how we think about the problem of polarization, and to propose a new direction for our energy and resources in this space.
TL;DR: Polarization is not the problem. It is the symptom pointing to the cause: the failure of governing elites (the global “center”) to offer a compelling vision and strategy to navigate the global crises we face. In the face of uncertainty, many people with historically privileged identities find themselves drawn to the seductive simplicity of ethno-nationalism: a binary world of us vs them, and authoritarian leaders who promise to look out for “us.” Responding to the threat of authoritarianism—and the failure of governing elites that gave rise to it—means both refusing to resort to dehumanizing tactics… and offering an affirmative vision of the future world we long for. People are hungry for an invitation to transformation; it is our responsibility to make that invitation irresistible.
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Polarization is the wrong metaphor
For three reasons:
It problematizes people moving to the poles, and therefore implicitly offers a solution: back to the center! Toward moderation! It doesn’t acknowledge the possibility that perhaps the very cause of polarization is the failure of the center.
It sets up a false equivalency. The term implies two poles, which conceptually conjures a perception of equal responsibility. It imagines that perspectives that diverge from the “center” are (a) somehow harmful, and (b) equally harmful.
It mislabels the actual issue: the threat is not polarization, but dehumanization.
The problem is not that people are taking different perspectives/positions relative to some imagined “center.” It’s not the fact of the divide: rather, it’s about “what” those positions are (your vision), and how people communicate and advocate for that vision. I’ll say more about the “what” shortly; here I want to talk about the “how”: the tactics and strategies used in pursuing your vision.
Polarization isn’t the problem; dehumanization is
Bridging actually invites a sense of empathy, deep listening, and connection. Breaking sees the other as a threat, sees the other with fear, as somehow attacking who we are. And most of the stories, most of the practices that we engage in in our society, even in progressive communities, are breaking. We’re constantly defining ourselves in opposition to the other. We’re constantly defining the “we” in a narrow way.
The difference is this: when you disagree with the “other,” do you still imagine them as a legitimate other? Or do you dehumanize them? This is the slippery slope to violence: dehumanization is a necessary precondition to our ability to cause harm to others. In this framing it is not polarization as a phenomenon that’s a problem; it’s dehumanization (Eli Pariser reached a similar conclusion). I’m a fan of the work the Horizons Project has been doing in this space; this is a helpful primer distinguishing what they call “healthy” and “toxic” polarization.
Michelle Maiese explains how dehumanization leads to “moral exclusion,” removing others from our circle of care:
Dehumanization is the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment… dehumanization makes the violation of generally-accepted norms of behavior regarding one's fellow man seem reasonable, or even necessary.
Even the language of “enemy” here has already started the process: viewing someone different (by identity, ideology, etc.) as an enemy is already a dangerous step into binary us/them and good/evil thinking. Brené Brown draws an appropriately bright line:
We must never tolerate dehumanization.
It’s not about tactics; it’s about power
This is the piece that we miss in our focus on the fact of the divide, or even narrowly on “how” that divide is expressed: the “what” also matters. Yes we should bridge rather than break; we should never dehumanize. That’s about how we communicate; it’s about strategy and tactics. But polarization is also ideological; it’s about the vision we hold for the world we want to live in, and the worldview that informs that vision. This to me is where most well-intentioned efforts to combat polarization fall short: we over-anchor on the “how” (at its best: a call for bridging; at worst, a tepid “civility politics” that only serves to constrain our leading activists) and don’t devote enough energy or resources to the “what.”
It’s easier to see in hindsight. In the run-up to the Civil War here in the U.S., we could have blamed polarization: a nation increasingly divided! But it’s not the fact of the divide that should give us pause; it’s what we’re divided about. Because that determines how we address the problem. The answer to Civil War polarization was not to return to the center, to the false unity (and brutal injustice) of antebellum life. It was to move decisively toward one of the poles in the direction of justice.
Today the poles agree on two things: the current system isn’t working, and radical change is needed (and now I’m speaking globally, to include the U.S. context). Where the establishment “center” continues to push for reform (incremental progress for the center-left; conservative roll-backs for the center-right), the poles are seeking transformation. And it turns out: most voters seem to agree. We are living through the era of the most mass protests in human history, and it is this call for radical change that unites them: a pox on both your houses. This anti-establishment sentiment (variously decried/celebrated as populism) to me is the most compelling explanation for increasing polarization.
Mainstream discourse doesn’t even consider this possibility. Instead, elites either problematize the fact of division and mistake symptom for cause (social media! Fox News! the “great sort”), or how those differences are expressed (we need more civil discourse!). Focusing on “how” allows those who currently benefit most from the system to avoid talking about power, or taking responsibility for transforming systems. Let’s not talk about the structural racism built into our system of mass incarceration: let’s talk about taking a knee during the National Anthem. When the “other side” makes this critique it’s easy to see how disingenuous it is; we know they don’t share our goals. This Daily Show mashup makes the point beautifully:
But it’s more confusing when that same tone/tactic-policing comes from our supposed allies (this is happening right now, with liberals—including President Biden himself—critiquing those reproductive justice activists protesting in front of Kavanaugh’s house). Is it really just a disagreement over tactics?
We desperately need a new narrative: a bold vision
My starting point is this: any vision for the world must offer solutions adequate to the major crises of our time. The climate crisis chief among them, but also racial violence, rampant inequality, widespread alienation, and the rise of authoritarianism. The vision must work for everyone; or at least, it must seek to address the needs of everyone. I’m not interested in half-measures. If your vision can’t solve or meaningfully address these central challenges… you need a new vision. Establishment leaders—politicians and economic elites alike—have no serious answers to these challenges. Our current system is incapable of resolving these crises, because our current system created them.
To be clear: I am profoundly hopeful. Not optimistic, but hopeful, because I spend virtually all my time with people actively co-creating this better world. But we have to be honest: most people today who take a clear-eyed look at the world feel scared and uncertain. I don’t think I’ve met anyone in my generation who genuinely believes that our children will live in a better world than we do: the trend lines are daunting. Nicolas Guilhot’s essay remains my favorite take on this fundamental truth:
Never before has our existence as individuals and as a species felt so precarious. Never has our world seem so fragile… One looks in vain for the cultural and political resources that would help us see through the apocalyptic haze the possibility of a new beginning, and a better one.
People desperately need a new narrative, one that helps us understand what is happening and gives us a sense of agency in the face of circumstances beyond our control. We also have to acknowledge that people are feeling a tremendous sense of loss, and grief. Both in the face of great suffering as a result of these crises, and equally important the less tangible loss of our sense of identity: we are unmoored in the face of rapid change, when old truths no longer serve. We are being robbed of our ways of making sense of the world. As George Monbiot reminds us:
You can’t take away someone’s story without offering them a new one.
The populist right has a vision of the future it wants. This vision may be intolerant, exclusionary, and backward-looking, but it is presented as a strong, nationalist alternative to the current more-or-less liberal status quo.
We (those of us who rightly oppose this vision) have not yet been able to offer a coherent and compelling narrative. The post that launched this newsletter three years ago offered one answer, rooted in a politics of belonging. That still feels directionally accurate to me, but we need to go deeper, and focus more explicitly on power. After all, far-right nationalist groups are also organized around belonging, and their vision of the world is NOT what I have in mind.
3 narratives: indigenous; neoliberal; authoritarian
To me a compelling narrative is what ties together vision, strategy, and tactics. It helps us make sense of the world (why is this happening, why am I here), locate ourselves in that broader context (what do we need to do, what is my contribution), and guide us into the action that is ours to take (how do we do it; how shall I live). Bridgit Antoinette Evans remains my favorite practitioner of narrative as a tool for transformation; this essay on “transforming narrative oceans” I find deeply inspiring… and exactly what we need in this moment.
There are a number of different ways to describe the different worldviews (what we might think of as “master narratives”) animating the three groups I’m talking about today (left pole, right pole, establishment center), and therefore their ideal visions for the world. But I think the clearest point of differentiation comes down to how we conceive of our relationship to each other and the world, and specifically how we think about “ownership” (I credit that latter insight to Alanna Irving).
I would characterize the left pole—at least the vision I identify with—as “indigenous”: it’s a vision of right-relationship with each other and the world, that explicitly rejects domination hierarchies and sees humans as part of a broader ecosystem with other living beings. The indigenous worldview explicitly rejects any notion of ownership in favor of stewardship. It envisions a thriving inclusive democracy where everyone belongs. It comes down to right relationship.
The establishment worldview I would characterize as “neoliberal”: it embraces a notion of meritocracy, sees hierarchies as a just reflection of achievement, values a cosmopolitan identity (“Davos Man”), and sees nature as existing to serve human progress. The neoliberal worldview celebrates ownership as the rightful reward for hard work and entrepreneurship (as long as some of those rewards are then shared with others; a modest progressive tax, perhaps). It envisions a meritocratic vision of representative democracy—really, a meritocracy—where elites purport to represent the interests of the people. The neoliberal worldview comes down to: technocratically managed “progress.”
The right pole worldview I would characterize as “authoritarian” (or if that feels too pejorative, the biblical concept of “dominion”). It believes domination hierarchies are natural and just, elevating humans over other beings, men over women, majority identities over minorities, etc. The world is binary (good/evil, right/wrong, etc.) Ownership as a concept is essential, often as a form of entitlement or birthright: this is my country, my property, etc. Wealth is good, and it’s mine. Authoritarians are skeptical if not outright hostile to democracy; they prefer autocracy (or Orban’s oxymoron: “illiberal democracy”). The authoritarian worldview comes down to: might makes right; to the victor go the spoils.
What gives me hope is that I think most people actually long for the indigenous worldview: it’s a far more attractive vision than the failed neoliberal vision, or the fear-based and exclusionary authoritarian vision. And it’s the only vision actually capable of solving the interlocking crises we face. The problem is that most people don’t believe it’s possible: to them this vision feels utopian. Our job—those of us who hold this worldview, who aspire to a world where everyone belongs—is to invite our skeptics to join us. To offer pathways into the more attractive world we know is possible… and to invite them to help us co-create it. To paraphrase Toni Cade Bambara: it is our responsibility to make the invitation to transformation irresistible.
Increasingly, this is the definition of leadership (a skill all of us can develop) that I find attractive. I love this from Richard Bartlett:
Leadership is the capacity to make a compelling invitation.
3 horizons: bridging toward the future we need
So… what does all this mean? If we properly understand polarization as a problem both of dangerous tactics (dehumanization) and of dangerous visions (both the ascendant threat of ethno-nationalism, and the death-by-a-thousand-cuts that is the neoliberal status quo)… what then shall we do?
I want to bring in one more framework here in an effort to tie all this together. I’ve written elsewhere about the “3 Horizons Framework” (Horizon 1 is the status quo; Horizon 3 the world we long for; Horizon 2 the catalytic interventions to build the bridge from here to there). I find it a really helpful mental model for how to orient our action. Horizon 3 is our vision: it’s absolutely vital. Without it nothing else is possible. Horizon 2 is our strategy: without a strategy, we never achieve our vision. Horizon 1 is the terrain of struggle, and it is our tactics in that arena that either encourage people to join us or turn them away.
In the social change ecosystem, I see four common mistakes among those of us committed to building a better world (I personally have been guilty of all four!)
We remain narrowly focused on fighting the status quo (Horizon 1), trying to dismantle it. But this strategy both (a) lacks a Horizon 3 vision, and (b) allows the status quo to set the terms of engagement. It also often resorts to “breaking” tactics, paradoxically eliciting a defensive response that ends up retrenching the status quo. It’s a dead-end. As Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”
We frantically start building bridges (Horizon 2)—anything to escape the oppression of the status quo—but with no clear vision of where we’re going (no Horizon 3). These efforts most often lead to either burnout, or are subsumed by the gravitational pull of the status quo (witness the collapse of Nobel-winning microfinance in the face of voracious shareholder capitalism).
We focus exclusively on Horizon 3, forming intentional communities to the extent possible outside the status quo. But with no clear strategy for how to connect the old world to the new that we’re building, our efforts remain marginal, utopian, and unlikely to lead to systems transformation.
Even if we manage to come up with a great vision and strategy… we default to the same tools, mindsets, organizational structures, and tactics to implement them (ignoring Audre Lorde’s warning about the master’s tools). We organize ourselves hierarchically, don’t allow enough space for unlearning and trauma-healing, and we don’t intentionally cultivate the capacity to work and relate to each other in more liberatory ways.
The first two are failures of vision: we get stuck in Horizon 1 and 2. I love this line from Angela Chen:
Having a specific vision for the future...is key for helping navigate the world as it is now.
The second two are failures of strategy and tactics: we don’t pay enough attention to the work required (internal, interpersonal, and structural) to build the bridge together.
Here’s the good news: there is a growing ecosystem of collectives, organizations, and individuals who are intentionally working to learn from and not repeat these four mistakes. I see this ecosystem as firmly grounded in a shared vision (Horizon 3); relentlessly committed to building bridges in different ways (Horizon 2: engaging with the world, not abandoning it); and savvy about the tactics needed to invite more people to join us in this act of radical co-creation. As with all work that matters: it’s incredibly difficult, and incredibly rewarding.
Obviously it’s impossible to capture the full diversity of this emerging space, but for one helpful glimpse I really like the “Metamodern” ecosystem map that Rufus Pollock is helping curate (hat-tip to David Hsu for the share). I also keep a running list of initiatives that I see as kindred spirits to what we’re trying to do in Building Belonging.
“Community is always the answer”
I resonate with this line from adrienne maree brown. Community is our greatest strength, and our only truly renewable resource. The status quo has money and institutional power: that is not the source of our strength. Authoritarians traffic in fear, scarcity, and the threat of violence: those too are the master’s tools. What we have, and what cannot be taken away from us, is each other.
I wrote elsewhere recently about the power of “community,” and found myself returning to this idea while thinking about this post and listening to this great interview with Shane Burley. He has an extended reflection on the power of community: it gives us a sense of connection, a sense of agency, a sense of meaning… while also providing a vehicle to tangibly build the world we long for. Community—and the felt experience of solidarity and belonging—is the antidote to the crises we face. In this global moment of polycrisis and accelerated change, when our dominant systems are collapsing and we find ourselves unmoored, community is our lifeline. He explains:
We have each other. That is all that we actually need.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite interviews with Mariame Kaba—in my view one of the best organizers of our time—appropriately titled: “Everything Worthwhile Is Done With Other People.” This is our power: an invitation to beloved community. All the systems of oppression that we are seeking to dismantle and transcend cannot offer this: they each depend in different ways on separation, isolation, scarcity, and the myth of individualism.
White supremacy cannot offer belonging, because notions of domination and supremacy are antithetical to belonging. Capitalism cannot create community, because it cannot value what it cannot price. Patriarchy can’t offer connection, because it’s very logic is predicated on domination. As bell hooks reminds us:
Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion.
Two posts in two weeks! This one was inspired by watching the French election (where after 5 years Le Pen managed to actually increase her vote share, ugh) and the leaked Roe decision. Feeding my frustration with our polarization narrative and how little progress we’ve made in stemming the tide of authoritarianism. If we’re pinning our hopes on Macron and Biden to lead us to liberation… sigh.
As always, I fear I tried to weave too much into this post; I’ll be curious what resonates, and what doesn’t. And if you haven’t already… please consider subscribing.