Fighting Hyper-Polarization for Our Children and Grand Children

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Newsletter #61 —November 8, 2022


In This Issue

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From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

This month, we will be taking a few weeks off to visit our our grandchildren and their parents. As a result we haven't had time yet to create posts for a few of the discussion items (all videos) that have been shared with us for that purpose.  We'll get back to that as soon as we get home.  But in the meantime, our visit has reignited our commitment to this project, as it puts into stark perspective how very important it is that we (and all our readers and everyone else concerned about deteriorating democracies around the world) do not give up on efforts to heal society's deep divisions and build a democracy that lives up to its ideals. We can't imagine leaving our children and grandchildren the much darker, more dangerous, and less prosperous future that we are currently heading toward.  

We want to use this space right now, however, to encourage more of our readers to become contributors to the discussion.  We aren't asking for money — we are asking for your thoughts.  Of particular interest now, particularly in the U.S., it seems, are the following questions:  

  1. How do we move forward in a positive way after the U.S. November elections? We are writing this on election day, so we don't yet know how it will come out.  But we are sure that there are going to be a lot of people coming out of this election who feel as if their future is in grave danger.  They may challenge or completely refuse to accept the results. How do defenders of democracy respond to that?  What can be done to reassure the losing parties that their vital interests will be protected?  What can be done to restore faith in our electoral system?
  2. What can we do to reduce the risk of political violence  on the left and the right? And how should we respond when it happens? For example, the January 6 Committee and others have been holding hearings for almost two years and, rather than being reconciliatory, they have been extremely divisive.  Is there a better way to deal with electoral violence that would be more effective at defending democracy?
  3. What can be done over the course of the next two years to assure that the 2024 U.S. Presidential elections aren't even more divisive than 2020 or 2022?  How can we make sure that election is both fair and credible? How can we give the inevitable losers of that election confidence that their society will still offer them a tolerable future (and a meaningful right to advocate for their views in future elections.)

As we think about these questions, we would like to encourage us all to think critically about the things that our group is doing that may be contributing to the hyper-polarization problem. Not only will that make things better; it is also a lot easier for us to change what our group isdoing than persuade our adversaries to change what they are doing.





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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion


Guy Burgess: The QED Trap

In high school geometry class, I learned that I was supposed to finish every "proof" with the acronym QED (for "quod erat demonstrandum"). This meant that I had established an incontrovertible fact and that, going forward, I could use that fact as a basis for subsequent "proofs." In the course of a career spent studying intractable conflict, I have adapted this concept into something that I call the QED Trap — a trap that plays a major role in making intractable conflicts intractable. 

The QED trap arises when people follow a line of evidence and reasoning that leads them to conclude that some fact or position is absolutely correct and, by extension, that anybody who disagrees is absolutely wrong — often so wrong that they no longer deserve to be treated with respect or even accepted as members of the community. The trap is triggered when other people follow other lines of evidence and reasoning and reach equally firm, but incompatible, conclusions about closely related (though not necessarily identical) issues. When the resulting collision of proven facts involves issues of great consequence, the result is often a major societal confrontation between parties who are absolutely convinced that they are in the right and who are willing to use all of the powers they have available to them in an attempt to force their conclusions on others.

The trap's power is almost always reinforced by the fact that people inhabit information bubbles in which content providers realize that they won't be able to retain the trust and loyalty of their audience unless they steadfastly support the group's core truths.

For example, with respect to climate change, there is one group that, based on one line of evidence and reasoning, has reached what they see as an unassailable conclusion that climate change poses an existential threat to humanity that is so urgent and critical that a climate emergency should be declared and societies should be forced to switch over to carbon-free energy as quickly as is humanly possible.  Anyone who disagrees with this conclusion is derided as a "climate denier" — someone to be firmly opposed and not to be taken seriously.

There are others who follow what is, to them, a similarly compelling line of reasoning — one that looks at available evidence and, from their perspective, concludes that climate change is just one aspect of a larger and even more serious problem — oppressive capitalism. This conclusion leads this group to support comparably urgent, populist calls for dismantling the oppressive world order that has been built around capitalism and liberal democracy.

Still others look at available evidence from a third perspective — one that is much more skeptical about the likely effectiveness of the decarbonization strategies being championed by the first group. While this group acknowledges that climate change is a serious threat, they think that we have time to develop truly workable solutions and that it is a mistake to rush toward expensive, feel-good solutions that won't actually work. Their focus is on maintaining the productive capacity of the global economy so that, as genuinely effective technologies are developed and as uncertainties about actual impacts are resolved, societies have the capacity needed to protect their citizens.

And, of course, there are those who think that the climate change scare is a scam designed to enrich the green energy industry at the expense of everyone else.

The QED trap operates by locking these groups into a win-lose struggle for power with little or no effort to synthesize the opposing perspectives into a more sophisticated approach to the problem — one that takes advantage of the reasonable insights of all groups (while filtering out truly erroneous information).  

The above is, of course, a highly simplified explanation of one instance in which the QED trap is operating. Similar stories could be told about virtually all of today's other big conflicts.

Like any trap, the QED trap is most dangerous when people don't see it. Once you recognize its dangers, it's much easier (though still difficult) to avoid.  People have to learn to accept the cognitive dissonance that comes with admitting that they might, to some degree, be wrong. People have to be willing to do some information bubble hopping and seek out thoughtful explanations of the other perspectives. And, they need to do the hard work of synthesizing multiple perspectives into more workable solutions.

The challenge, of course, is doing this when most everyone else is still operating under the influence of the trap and is likely to regard efforts to look at things from other perspectives as a serious betrayal. That said, the key to avoiding the trap still seems to be making many more people aware of the danger it poses and the importance of avoiding it.


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Colleague Activities

Highlighting things that our conflict and peacebuilding colleagues are doing that contribute to efforts to address the hyper-polarization problem.

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Beyond Intractability in Context

From around the web, more insight into the nature of our conflict problems, limits of business-as-usual thinking, and things people are doing to try to make things better.

About the MBI Newsletters

Once or twice a week, we will compile BI news, along with new posts from our Hyper-polarization Blog and elsewhere on BI into a Newsletter that will be posted here and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy on our Newsletter Sign Up Page and find the latest newsletter here on our Newsletter page. Past newsletters can be found in the Newsletter Archive. 

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