Is Polarization Good or Bad?

As I was about to publish this, I found one more article that should have been included here, but was not. Rather than making this post even longer, I created a second post with Matt Legge's thoughts on this same topic. They add an important idea to this discussion, so check it out!


by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

December 3, 2022

As we look back on the many thoughtful essays that have been contributed to the hyper-polarization discussion thus far, it has become increasingly clear that the term "hyper-polarization" means different things to different people. While these differences are making it harder for us to understand each other, they also reveal important insights and issues that we didn't focus on, or even recognize, when we wrote the original article on hyper-polarization which was published in July, 2022 in the Conflict Resolution Quarterly. So, in this post we want to clarify what we mean by hyper-polarization, and how our thinking about it has evolved as a result of the many comments we have received. 

First, let us share the comments we have gotten that specifically relate to the meaning of hyper-polarization.

Ken Cloke

In his article "Hyper-Polarization" Ken said 

We commonly assume that polarization is destructive and undesirable, as it often is, especially when people respond to it with power- or rights-based tools; but it is equally important to recognize that polarization is a necessary precursor to change and an essential element in every evolution to higher forms of order.  Whatever is new, innovative, and about-to-be must initially separate itself from what is old, habitual, and already-is.  Increasingly, they are driven to differentiate, polarize, and stand apart from one another, and thereby create a crossroads or watershed, a pivot or choice point which breaks the assumption that “there is no alternative,” and forces collective energy to be redirected or channeled from one to the other. 

. . .

Similarly, polarizations routinely arise in conflict — not just in personal, relational, and organizational settings, but social, economic, political, and environmental arenas as well.  And these are nearly always experienced by those on the opposing side as negative, undesirable, and destructive.  Yet these very divisions and separations, which emphasize, and even exaggerate differences, while dismissing and minimizing what both sides have in common, are precursors to change, and indicators that an underlying evolutionary process has begun.  Conflict can then be defined simply as the subjectivized voice of a new paradigm that is waiting to be born.

What mediators often do in response is not to weaken or compromise the essential creative element in polarization, or minimize the need to change, but instead try to moderate and assuage its non-essential destructive aspects that may, for example, excessively personalize the issues, or trigger defensiveness and resistance, or mask and divert attention from what actually needs to change. 

In these ways, successful, creative polarizations can be useful, for example, in contrasting and pitting new ideas against old ones in ways that allow opposing parties to return afterwards and jointly search for places where syntheses and unifications can occur, but at a higher level that is created by the acceptance and exploration of new ideas, approaching old ideas empathetically, non-aggressively, and trying to recapture what was useful in each of them, thereby encouraging consensus on why change is needed, perfecting the choice between diverse options, and consolidating the ascendency of learning, discovery, and improvement. 

Julia Roig:

In her article "Rethinking 'Polarization as the Problem,"  which was first presented as a talk at the Rotary Club's 2022 Presidential Conference, Julia Roig said:

When I first conceived of The Horizons Project, honestly, we did start with the framing of polarization as the problem that needed to be addressed. And I was focused on what the peacebuilding approach might be to work on depolarization in the US, bringing with me the lessons from many other country contexts. But over the past year and half, our team has revised that framework, and I see the limitations of polarization as our central problem. In fact, might there be a way of considering polarization as healthy, and even needed for society to change? I’ve recognized more and more that there is a distinction between “good polarization” and “toxic polarization.”

. . .

So let me explain a bit more.

One metaphor for the polarization we’re experiencing right now – articulated by Quaker activist and peacebuilder George Lakey – is that society is heating up, like a hot forge. i.e., the fire that we put metal into that becomes so malleable, we can hammer it into something beautiful… or not. Conflict. Disruption. This is the heat rising. And that is not necessarily all bad – because it’s a sign that we need change. What comes out of the forge, the sword or the plowshare – that’s up to us, how we organize ourselves.

Sometimes this takes the form of actions that are loud and disruptive – naming where they see injustice for example. There is a saying that “we need to polarize to organize.” You are staking out a side (a “pole” … saying that “this is what we stand for!”) And after a lifetime of being in the peacebuilding business, I know that we are living through a moment in history when we need to stand up for what we believe in. It is not a time to be neutral. I’m not talking about anything that has to do with partisan politics. I appreciate so much how much Rotary guards its non-partisanship.

. . .

Toxic polarization on the other hand is when we may tip over into “dehumanizing” those we consider “other.” We see this rhetoric alive and well from many politicians, on social media, perhaps even behind closed doors when we hear our colleagues use derogatory terms to describe an entire group of people (for their political affiliation, religion, or ethnicity.) Toxic polarization looks like zero-sum thinking; when we think in binaries (everything becomes black and white – there’s little tolerance for gray;) when we fall into group think (“us vs them”) or herd mentality; when we become increasingly afraid to speak up within our friend groups, for fear of being ostracized.

The social science behind toxic polarization shows how much of these dynamics are fueled by a deep sense of threat to our identities and our way of life. These threats can be perceived or real. But this level of toxic “othering” can ultimately lead to condoning violence, or allowing violence to continue, against those we see – even subconsciously – as less than human. When we feel that our identity, or our group, is under threat we no longer have the ability to deliberate. We have a harder time engaging in difficult conversations where we are able to discuss nuanced, complex issues, to debate solutions. How can we come together across difference if we consider those “different” from us as actually dangerous to our way of life? We see these dynamics playing out all over the world and they are manipulated and weaponized by those who wish to stay in power at whatever the cost.

So then, I don’t believe now is the time to turn down the heat. I believe we need to be organizing together across difference to stand up loudly for our values. We all want to live in safety. We believe in the dignity of all human life.

Martin Carcasson

Although he didn't define polarization, Martin Carcasson contributed his explanation of why hyper-polarization is destructive:

My goal in exploring this concept of principled impartiality is to help practitioners and communities better engage the inherent tensions to democratic life in hyper-polarized political environments, particularly at the local level, where partisan interests, bad faith actors, and “conflict entrepreneurs” tend to have less power and influence than they do at the state and national levels, and thus the possibility of quality democratic engagement persists. My argument is based on the belief that hyper-polarization and our inability to engage across perspectives represent the most significant public issue currently.  If we do not transform how we engage each other, we will not be able to take on any of the societal challenges we face, because the polarization has undermined the systems we rely on for democratic decision-making to function well.  The good news is as we make progress in addressing that issue, we will inherently build community capacity to address all the other challenges more productively. Such progress, however, will clearly require the revitalization and expansion of impartial institutions to pave the way.


Heidi and Guy Burgess's response:

In general, we agree with all of these comments, although we would add that the opposite of polarization (particularly hyper- or toxic-polarization, but really, all polarization) is not status quo or acceptance of no change.  Merriam Webster defines polarization as "division into two sharply distinct opposites especially: a state in which the opinions, beliefs, or interests of a group or society no longer range along a continuum but become concentrated at opposing extremes."  So that means that polarization defines all problems in black and white, us-versus-them terms in which "we" are good and "they" are bad (or even evil). And since one isn't going to compromise with bad or evil, the only option is to frame differences in win-all / lose-all terms. And since losing all isn't conceivable, it is necessary to do whatever it takes to win, even when and if that means violating one's basic norms of behavior (such as norms prohibiting violence or norms of accepting election results in a democratic society when the other side wins). 

In adding the prefix, "hyper-" to the word "polarization" we are trying to highlight polarization processes in which the positive feedback loop associated with the closely-related escalation spiral has dramatically amplified the intensity of the conflict such that substantive arguments are no longer considered. Rather, the focus is on defeating the enemy, no matter the cost— an enemy that is increasingly dehumanized to the point where their interests are no longer seen as a valid concern.

In this sense, the opposite of polarization and hyper-polarization is nuanced problem-solving where the concerns and arguments of opposing sides are carefully weighed and balanced in ways that yield wise, equitable, and mutually-beneficial decisions.

Hyper-polarization is closer to what Ken describes as "non-essential destructive aspects [of polarization] that may, for example, excessively personalize the issues, or trigger defensiveness and resistance, or mask and divert attention from what actually needs to change." It is also similar to what Julia describes as "toxic polarization" in which the other side is dehumanized.  This kind of polarization destroys relationships, leads to zero-sum, good-guys versus bad-guys thinking, and makes compromise, innovation, learning and constructive change more difficult if not impossible.

Combating the problem will require us all to recognize that there will be a range of opinions on any controversial issue — some strongly in favor of a proposal for change, some strongly opposed, and many in the middle. Some of those opposed will like the status quo; some will like a different alternative. Dialogue, deliberation, study, and sometimes, eventually, voting, is the way we work out such differences in liberal democracies.  We examine the arguments and the people who espouse those arguments on their merits, not on the basis of what party is advocating the change (or the status quo), the color of their skin, their gender or sexual orientation, how much money or power they have, or to what degree the ideas are "old" or "new." (That is the ideal, of course--those factors, in reality, often are taken into account. But ideally, they should not be, at least in our view.) 

So we agree with Ken and Julia and Martin, but what Ken and Julia are calling "good polarization," we would simply call "constructive conflict or "constructive confrontation."  We have long preached that conflict is normal and unavoidable.  And it can be good or bad — depending on how it is handled.  On the good side, Guy points out, conflict is the "engine of social learning" where one side, which doesn't like the way things are going, says "we need to change" — and hopefully, they will propose some specific changes they want to see happen. In this context, it is perfectly reasonable for advocates to try to deliberately (and, hopefully, constructively) escalate the conflict with the goal of getting the larger society to pay attention to and seriously consider these proposed changes. By doing this respectfully and in ways that emphasize a commitment to shared democratic values and principles, advocates can limit the hyper-polarization spiral. 

In addition, when conflict is conducted constructively, the merits of all sides are examined by all the people concerned about the issue, and a fair process is followed to come to a conclusion.  That process might be legislative deliberation (ideally  without illegitimate influence and with voice equitably given to all stakeholders); it might be a consensus-building process; or, it might be an administrative procedure, depending on the venue in which the decision is being made. Such procedures increase chances that the issue will be successfully addressed.  

This sort of process cannot occur when we have hyper- or toxic polarization, as we do now. With toxic or hyper-polarization, all issues are defined in terms of Left or Right, right and wrong, good and bad.  Counter-arguments, even facts, are not entertained if they differ from one's preferred sides' dogma.  The result, almost always, is anger, fear, distrust, and either stalemate or deeply flawed decisions.

We completely agree with Julia, that these dynamics are largely driven by perceived or actual attacks on identity.  To repeat Julia's very important words,

When we feel that our identity, or our group, is under threat we no longer have the ability to deliberate. We have a harder time engaging in difficult conversations where we are able to discuss nuanced, complex issues, to debate solutions. How can we come together across difference if we consider those “different” from us as actually dangerous to our way of life? We see these dynamics playing out all over the world and they are manipulated and weaponized by those who wish to stay in power at whatever the cost.

We couldn't agree more.

But then Julia continued: 

So then, I don’t believe now is the time to turn down the heat. I believe we need to be organizing together across difference to stand up loudly for our values. We all want to live in safety. We believe in the dignity of all human life.

This passage can be read in two very different ways depending upon what is meant by the term "our values." If, by "our values," Julia means the socio-cultural values of her group (which may be left-leaning progressive values or right-leaning traditional values), then the passage implies an eagerness to organize and "turn up the heat" in the fight for those values (in the belief that they are the true statement of the "dignity of all human life").  This, of course, sets the stage for intense and continuing conflict with those who have differing values and interpretations of human dignity.

On the other hand, if the term "our values" refers to a set of more underlying democratic values involving both basic human rights and a commitment to give everyone the freedom to live life according to the values they choose (provided that they extend that right to their fellow citizens), it is much less likely to generate further polarization. This interpretation supports the dignity of all human life by enabling diverse and often very different communities to live together in peaceful and mutually-supportive ways. This is, obviously, a much less divisive interpretation and an interpretation that we would support. 

Depending on Julia's meaning of "our values," we may (or may not) agree that "now is not the time to turn down the heat," as she said. We see "heat" as the anger, hatred and fear that is generated by toxic and hyper-polarization and the bad-faith actors that are doing so much to drive us apart.  That does need to be turned down — a lot and fast. (And we are guessing Julia would agree.)  It must be turned down if we are to be able to organize "across difference" as Julia called for above.  

At the same time, we want to stand up loudly for our democracy's underlying core values.  These values are are not politically partisan values for the Left or the Right; they are not about "justice" for some identity groups at the expense of others. Our values are those of democracy and wise and equitable conflict resolution. We value treating everyone with respect — whether we agree with them or not. We also highly value the willingness to listen, learn, change our minds, compromise, collaborate, and the notion that democracy is the best-available conflict handling system available.  Finally, we value peace, justice, truth, and mercy, each in balance and applied and offered to everyone—as John Paul Lederach suggests in his notion of "The Meeting Place" of reconciliation. 

Going back to the notion of "turning down the heat" — interpreting "heat" as anger, hatred, and fear, each of us has a personal role to play in that respect, as we need to stop referring to the other side in derogatory terms (racist, white-supremacist, elitist, snowflake). We need to stop thinking of everyone on the other side as "evil." Both sides have their bad-faith actors; some of these may, indeed, be evil.  But their followers are not all evil; most, more likely, are misled, confused, duped, afraid, or simply believe that they have no other viable choice. Many on the right, for example, have come to the conclusion that a strong and less democratic leader committed to protecting their values and interests is preferable to a more democratic adversary who is hostile to those values and interests. (Many conservative Christians voted for Trump, not because they liked his authoritarian tendencies, or his personal morals and behavior, but rather because they believed that Democrats were openly hostile to the Christian values that they most cared about.) Democrats, not surprisingly, have similar views about the desirability of Republican rule. 

So rather than "turning up the heat" (by highlighting a "worst case" view of the other side and neglecting their reasonable arguments), we think both sides need to better understand what the other side views as the real issues, what their fears are, and why they have become so hostile.  It is certainly true that the Right, especially under the influence of President Trump, has done much to drive the cycle of fear and hatred. But the Left is doing plenty too with their aggressive pursuit of its "social justice" agenda (as progressively defined) and general scorn for conservative communities and values.

We do agree with Julia: We all (Right and Left, Republicans and Democrats) want to live in safety. When that safety is threatened (as we almost all feel it is), we retreat to where we can find safety. That safety, right now, comes from staying on our own political side, in our own bubble, where our ideas and beliefs will not be challenged or threatened.

We need to change our ways of dealing with others who are different from us so that we are not seen as dangerous. In answer to our question about their book, "what would conservatives think?" Jackie and Bernie responded in an interesting way:

Bernie has conducted a number of facilitated dialogues at conferences about public controversies (e.g., after 9/11—maybe you came to one that we did at the University of Colorado—and prior to the Trump/Clinton election).  When we did not have many conservatives attend (which was often the case at professional conferences), we sometimes asked people to advocate underrepresented viewpoints in the discussion.  At one point, University of Virginia Professor Frank Dukes said that the problem in trying to do this is that the very premise of the dialogue process we were attempting to simulate was a liberal one, and conservatives by and large did not share the beliefs embedded in them. They did not, for example, believe that a process guided by a neutral facilitator who encouraged everyone to listen with an open mind to people with profoundly different viewpoints was necessarily constructive.  Frank nailed it.  If we really want to reach out across those differences, we have to take a profoundly different approach, one that stems from questioning our basic “neutrality” paradigm. 

With all due respect to Jackie, Bernie, and Frank, all of whom we respect greatly, we don't think "Frank nailed it." From our discussions with conservatives who refuse participation in such dialogues, it is not because they don't believe that a "process guided by a neutral facilitator who encouraged everyone to listen with an open mind to people with profoundly different viewpoints was necessarily constructive." Rather, they did not believe that the facilitator would be neutral, or that they would be able to speak openly about their viewpoints without being put down or called out.  They did not feel "safe." We believe that we, in the conflict resolution field need to help everyone we deal with "feel safe."  Yes, that may mean that we are providing safety to some who don't deserve it.  But the alternative — continued polarization, fear, distrust, and hate — is even more dangerous.

Finally, Julia said "We [all] of us believe in the dignity of all human life.  Yes! We agree again. So let's start acting that way. Let's start treating all humans with respect. Then maybe we can begin to address our many real problems, starting with how to stop bad-faith actors on all sides of the divide from raising the heat so that they can profit from and maybe even divide and conquer us all.

Bottom line: conflict is necessary for social change.  It can be good or bad, depending on how it is handled.  But hyper- or toxic-polarization is so rampant right now, that most societal-level, political conflicts are not being handled well and are resulting in more damage, not positive social change.  We are all for positive social change: reducing structural (and personal) racism, combating other forms of prejudice, greatly reducing inequality, providing fundamental human needs (including respect for a person's identity and security), strengthening liberal democracy and improving it when it has fallen short of its ideals. 

We suspect most of the readers of this discussion would agree with that.  What we need to continue to discuss is how best to do that.  It maybe that hyper-polarization isn't the issue that needs to be addressed first. As is true in all complex systems, there are multiple drivers of problems, and it was, probably, an over-simplification to suggest that hyper-polarization should be addressed first, before anything else was dealt with.  But it still seems to us to be the core problem underlying many other problems.  That polarization is driven by other problems — such as racism, inequality, bad-faith actors, etc., does not mean we shouldn't deal with it.  It just gives suggestions about how we should go about doing that.

We will be turning to a discussion of this "how" soon.

Before we end this essay, though, we want to share more of Lisa Schirch's post from September 22.  Lisa didn't weigh in on the polarization-good-or-bad discussion, but she did have a useful discussion of different meanings of the term.

Lisa Schirch

Lisa asserted that US polarization is not simply a matter of differing views on policy between Democrats and Republicans. Three main drivers of US polarization stymy dialogue between political parties: 1) the legacy of “us vs them” violence in US history; 2) media fragmentation and the weaponization of disinformation on social media; and 3) an intentional Republican strategy to further polarize the US population.

Today, researchers distinguish between different types of polarisation. Issue polarisation refers to people holding different points of view on public issues. Affect polarisation occurs when people actively dehumanise or demean the dignity of people who hold different opinions.  Political polarisation today reflects both a disagreement on policy views, as well as dehumanisation of human dignity.

Both issue and affect polarisation in the US are a result of historical oppression and a deliberate political strategy. Right-wing political forces now and in the past use political power, policymaking, and the media to increase social divisions and undermine social cohesion.

Attempts at dialogue must take place with this analysis in mind. Dialogue skills enable clear communication about conflictual topics relevant to issue polarisation without name-calling or other communication tactics. But it is not yet clear that dialogue alone can transform affect polarisation that dehumanises or denigrates others’ identity.

So, as we see it "issue polarization" is constructive, as it is, as we said earlier, "the engine of social learning." Affect polarization is destructive, as it occurs when people actively dehumanize or demean the dignity of people who hold different opinions.  Political polarization in the U.S. today, she asserts, is a combination of both issue polarization and affect polarization — making it "good" and "bad" at the same time.

She goes on to agree with Jackie Font-Guzman and Bernie Mayer when she observes that both issue and affect polarization are a result of historical oppression and a deliberate political strategy which she attributes to the Right. We agree that history contributes to polarization, but so do many other things, as we illustrated in Figure 2 in our response to Jackie and Bernie.  And for that (and other reasons), we agree that dialogue alone cannot transform what we have been calling "affect polarization," "hyper-polarization," or "toxic-polarization."  It is going to take a much more complex, much more large-scale and multi-faceted approach.  That is what we are trying to do with our proposal for "massively parallel peacebuilding" and  "massively parallel problem solving." But that is a topic for another day.