The False Flag of Hyper-Polarization A Response to Guy and Heidi Burgess’ Critique of The Neutrality Trap

by Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán and Bernie Mayer

August, 24, 2022

This is the second in an exchange of posts initiating what we hope will be a larger exploration of relationship between efforts to combat hyper-polarization and efforts to fight oppression. Links to the full series of posts are available on the Oppression, Justice, Advocacy, Neutrality, and Peacebuilding discussion topic page.


“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”   Desmond Tutu


Exploring Our Differences

Thanks for your pointed and thoughtful response to our book.  We appreciate you posing some very significant questions, especially those raising concerns about hyper-polarization in our society and the response that this calls for from conflict interveners and peacebuilders. 

Perhaps perversely, what we most appreciate is that your approach to these questions is so different and in many ways opposite to ours.  This certainly helps to engender a discussion that we feel is critical for the long-term relevance of the conflict intervention field. 

As you have made clear, we have some profound differences on this.  Perhaps, most significantly, we believe that you are mistaking a symptom—hyper-polarization—for the essential problem. As a result, you propose an approach that in our view will not work and– no doubt unintentionally – is profoundly supportive of a status quo and power structure that we see as the cause of the hyper-polarization you describe. 

A second major concern is your suggestion that all sides of the political spectrum are equally to blame for hyper-polarization.  We see this as a case of false equivalence and an example of what we have called the neutrality trap.  This leads you to suggest that the road through the mess we are in is for conflict professionals to maintain a “neutral” stance in order to facilitate a better understanding between conservatives and progressives, whom you argue share equal responsibility for hyper-polarization and the problems that flow from this.  We believe this fails to recognize the damage being done to our social and political culture by continued social inequalities and their protection by existing structures and institutions that impose and maintain hierarchies of power.

We face an incredibly dangerous set of challenges which we must be able to name if we are going to deal with them effectively.   Conflict professionals have an important role to play in this, but not by buying into the argument that all sides are equally to blame or by finding euphemisms for authoritarianism, colonialism, racism or the other structural roots of the current crisis. 

Your approach is not a new one.  The response of many conflict practitioners to almost every major social crisis is to call for facilitated dialogue and mediation across our differences and to highlight the role that we can play in breaking through seemingly intractable conflicts.  To be clear (especially in view of your significant misinterpretation of our beliefs about this), we very much value dialogue and connecting with those with whom we disagree.  We believe that this is a necessary part of social change and that we must do this in the spirit of seeking understanding and, where possible, common ground.  Each of us has participated in and conducted many dialogues of this nature and at many of the different levels you call for. 

But dialogue alone has not changed the polarization you describe.  Despite many efforts (by some very able and experienced mediators and facilitators) to bring people together across the political and cultural spectrum, polarization has become worse, far worse.  We well remember M.I.T Professor Larry Susskind’s passionate plea to remain neutral in the face of Trump’s election in 2017 (which you have republished) and his promise that we would not regret resisting the temptation to speak out in a partisan manner.  Unfortunately, this has not led to the results intended.   To be sure, achieving a significant breakthrough in the intense polarization we are all concerned with is probably beyond the capacity of our field, no matter what we do. 

We are, however, in a position to support or interfere with the development of progressive social movements.  We are therefore very concerned that your argument does not consider just how easy it is for an incipient social movement to be sidetracked into problem solving efforts that do not take a long-term view, or deal with systemic problems, and are instead primarily oriented towards system maintenance rather than system change.  Activists are often caught between advocating in an effective and sometimes disruptive way for change or participating in a time-consuming and morale sapping dialogue process that does not deal with the underlying systemic problems that affect peoples’ lives. 

We are not saying, as you suggest, that we should only enter into a discussion with those who agree with us already. We are committed to reaching out to those we disagree with where and when we can.   But we also believe that to genuinely connect across our differences requires that we be transparent about our beliefs and values.  Otherwise, the connections we create will neither authentic nor enduring. 

You promote the idea of “thinking outside the box” but your prescriptions seem limited by a rather constrained box.  To us they suggest a rigid duality that offers us the choice of either acting as neutrals and promoting constructive interaction or sharing our views and thereby making genuine interchange impossible.  We don’t think this is the real choice we face.  We believe that we need to be authentic and transparent about our own values and still find ways to connect across our differences.  Whereas you believe this is impossible, we believe it is essential.

In response to some specific concerns that you raised:

1. Is our commitment to connecting sincere?

You mischaracterize our beliefs about this and in so doing question our sincerity about reaching out to those we are in conflict with when you said  “While you do talk a lot about listening to "the other side" and learning how they think, that seems to be primarily for strategic reasons. Our impression is that you do not think that, by listening to the other side, you could be persuaded that progressives were wrong, and the conservatives were right on some key issues.” 

We have clearly stated that reaching out across our differences and promoting dialogue is critical to social change and discuss this extensively throughout our book.  We are confused as to why you see this as manipulative and insincere.  The very title of our book makes clear our commitment to this.   Reaching out across our differences is based on a desire to help all of us understand each other better, humanize one another and if possible identify ways forward. A substantial part of our professional lives has been focused on organizing and conducting just such dialogues, numerous examples of which we provide in our book.  Furthermore, we go into some detail about how to evaluate the potential for dialogue and approaches to conducting them. But we don’t believe genuine efforts at connection are solely about listening to others with an open mind.  They are also about sharing our beliefs and experiences in a powerful way, but one that makes it possible for others to hear us, as we work to hear them.  Often, listening is the easiest part—sharing our own deeply held beliefs in a constructive way can be much harder.  That is why story telling is so important.

2. Can we be persuaded that we are wrong?

It is a rhetorical canard to ask whether we can be persuaded that we are wrong. This is a misleading question similar to one that social activists face when they are urged to participate in a poorly constructed dialogue that they fear will paper over differences without going to their systems roots.  In our book we say that constructive engagement requires that we be:

Open to engaging with alternative worldviews…. We do not have to accept other ideologies, but we need to be able to identify conflicts that arise out of a clash of worldviews and search for a way to discuss our differences on this basic level…. [we need to be] committed to relationship building…. it is also essential to build relationships across our differences.  This does not mean we have to become friends with racists, for example but if we are trying to understand their motivations and life experiences and share our stories with them, we have to create a relational space to do so.” (pp. 83-84)

So are we open to changing our mind?  We are open about some things, not about others, and on some issues only partially. For example, we are not about to look for compromises to accommodate racist or misogynist policies or beliefs, nor to refrain from sharing our views about these, but we are open to deepening our understanding and correcting our perceptions.  This is not about being manipulative or rigid, but about being authentic.  And it is what we expect of those whom we disagree with as well.

3.  What makes us credible as conveners of dialogue?

It appears to us that you see conflict interveners’ credibility as deriving from their impartiality, and you assert your own neutrality by offering what you believe to be balanced criticisms of the two sides you identify as contributing to hyper-polarization (in fact we believe there are many more than two sides to this). 

We don’t believe that this is how genuine credibility is likely to be achieved with either progressives or conservative groups. We believe this is a culturally narrow way of establishing our legitimacy as conflict interveners.  In our view, authenticity, consistency, commitment, transparency, and a genuine interest in others are more important than so-called neutrality. We wrote this book for conflict workers, peace builders, social activists and those committed to progressive social change.  Some conservatives who read it may profoundly disagree.  But we think those disagreements could open the door to meaningful interchange—and indeed it already has. 

>This does not mean that there is no role for a facilitator who is conducting the process rather than acting as an advocate.  In many circumstances, process focused facilitators can be very helpful, but that is a very different question—one which we discuss at length in our book along with examples.

4. What would conservatives think?

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. 

This is the lesson of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, and the labor movement (among many others). Greta Thunberg has no doubt stimulated more meaningful dialogue about climate change than conflict professionals have.  The power of non-violent approaches to social change is that they have the capacity to disrupt systems, call out unacceptable behavior, promote a clear moral stance, and regard all adversaries as potential allies and as human beings who have the right to be heard.

We find it problematic that you are more concerned about what conservatives might think about our sharing our values than what progressives or anti-racist activists might say about your assertion that hyper-polarization is a more serious problem than climate change or racism (see below).

5. What about power inequality? 

In your executive summary, you say:“…political hyper-polarization and the resulting political stalemate is the number one problem facing the United States and indeed, the developed world today. It is more important than climate change, inequality, health, race relations, immigration—all other so-called “existential” problems, because none of those problems are going to be addressed, let alone “solved,” unless we can fix the hyper-polarization that has driven effective problem analysis and problem solving into the ground?” 

In your response to our book, you say: “…we don't see power inequality as the problem that needs to be addressed first.  We see escalation, polarization, hatred, fear, and distrust as the interlinked problems that need to be dealt with first. As we see it, it is impossible to successfully reduce power inequality when we frame it as a win-lose, us-versus-them existential struggle. Once we de-escalate our hatred, start to build intergroup understanding, trust, and most importantly respect, then we will be in a much stronger position to tackle oppression and injustice.”

We find this to be naïve and coming from a place of privilege (a place we come from too).   We wonder if you understand just how patronizing and dismissive it would seem to a black activist or a parent of a teenager who is subjected to police violence, for example, to be told that the most important problem our society faces is polarization not racism.  As a Puerto Rican woman who grew up in Puerto Rico and has lived in the United States, Jackie has experienced firsthand the violence that comes with being a colonial subject and a member of a ‘minoritized’ group. The oppressive structures she navigates are not “because of” polarization – they are the result of an imperialist mindset that uses power to keep her “in her place” and maintain the status quo. Polarization is a result of efforts by elites to maintain their power.  To struggle against polarization without struggling with the oppressive nature of that power will not fix any of our problems.   

In Sum...

None of what we have said means that we don’t think polarization is a problem, or that finding ways to connect with those we disagree with is not important. But to do so, we need to go far outside the box of traditional conflict resolution language and practices, which we should remember were mostly developed by those with privilege and power. An approach that says we should focus on peace and not justice is not only bound to fail, it is dangerous in these times when our democracy is under attack and authoritarianism is on the rise.

Thanks for giving us the opportunity to respond to your analysis.  We do appreciate what you are trying to do, even though we disagree with the approach you propose. We look forward to your response and that of others.


Warm regards,

Bernie and Jackie