Ken Cloke: Hyper-Polarization

When we wrote Ken, asking him to participate in our discussion, he sent us a copy of his latest book, Mediation in a Time of Crisis: Pandemic, Prejudice, Police, and Political Polarization  and said we could republish as much as we wanted to. He also sent us an excerpt from a new book he is working on now titled The Magic in Conflict, to be published in 2023.


By Ken Cloke

October 20, 2022

One of the difficulties in responding to crises, conflicts, and political change arises as a side-effect in the form of hyper-polarization, excessive hostility, loss of trust, and ultra-adversarial responses that make collaboration and problem solving much more complex, arduous, and time-consuming, and often require higher order skills to resolve. 

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. 

By analogy with biology, complex life begins with cell division, or meiosis, in which chromosomes divide, separate, and polarize, enabling them to cross over, replicate, and recombine; mixing maternal and paternal cells in random ways to form a zygote containing all the information needed to produce a brand new, entirely unique being.

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. 

The critical role played by dialogue, joint problem solving, consensus building, collaborative bargaining, mediation, and even forgiveness, is to mark the moment of transition from power- and rights-based change processes to interest-based ones, and the end of polarization and conflict as dominant defining principles in the parties’ continually changing lives and relationships. 

We can then see that polarization is simply a call to pay attention to whatever is not working for someone, or quite often for everyone.  It is a request for collaboration and a disguised, oblique, and unspoken agenda for a deeper conversation, for dialogue, problem solving, negotiation, and mediation that aim at elevating and improving processes, relationships, systems, cultures, and environments.  In form, it is an explicit effort by one side to triumph aggressively over the other, while in content, it is an implicit desire to do so collaboratively by satisfying the needs and interests of both. 

The difficulties with polarization begin with the use of biases and prejudices, rewards for conformity, punishment of dissenters, and acts of bullying and aggression to unify supporters in opposition to a common enemy; sometimes castigating even the idea of collaboration or dispute resolution as hopelessly naïve.  It routinely results in hostility to diversity, fear of creativity, suppression of openness, punishment of dissent, loss of empathy, ignorance of useful facts and opinions, stories of demonization and victimization, desensitization to cruelty and violence, brutalization of language, generalized distrust, cynicism, paranoia, apathy, irresponsibility, and the erection of elaborate defenses against understanding or learning anything from anyone on the opposing side. 

Each of these outcomes and responses to polarization make it more difficult to collaborate in solving complex problems, reduce the diversity of possible solutions, and generate chronic conflicts that slip more easily into crises.  They effectively block peaceful, gradual, incremental change processes, leading to violent, sudden, transformational ones, at incalculable costs.  As President John F. Kennedy described it, “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

What we require, then, are interest-based processes that allow us to capture the positive aspects of polarization that acknowledge, appreciate, and affirm commonalities, together with the very real differences that fuel opposition; and at the same time, reframe, minimize, and transform the negative elements that discount or demonize those differences, turning them into sources of creativity, and shifting their focus toward problem solving, collaborative negotiation, and conflict resolution -- i.e., into insight, learning, adaptation, improvement, and evolution to more satisfying relationships.