Julia Roig: Rethinking 'Polarization' as the Problem

I recently found this summary of Julia Roig's presentation at Rotary’s 2022 Presidential Conference entitled "Rethinking 'Polarization' as the Problem." It is an important take on the discussions we have been having here, so I wrote Julia and asked if we might republish her remarks in our blog. She agreed, so that is what follows. The original version of this article appears on the Horizon Projects website: https://horizonsproject.us/rethinking-polarization-as-the-problem/ 

 

 

Introducation

On June 6, 2022 Horizons’ Chief Network Weaver Julia Roig, shared the main stage at Rotary’s 2022 Presidential Conference in Houston with Gary Slutkin, the founder of Cure Violence and Azim Khamisa, the founder of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation. The following article has been taken from her remarks as she followed Gary’s overview of their approach to treating violence as a public health epidemic and Azim’s personal journey of forgiveness and healing after tragically losing his son to a gang-initiation murder.

Julia's remarks:

I’m going to take a deep breath.

Which I invite you to do too.

First, I want to acknowledge what an emotional time it is right now, probably for everyone in this room in one way or another. We all know that Rotary is a non-political organization, and yet these issues of violence, loss, and forgiveness are so very hard when we are living through a moment in history where there is so much pain, and division, and seeming paralysis to solve some of these existential challenges we face. How do we confront these dynamics and think about the role Rotary might play in creating stronger, more resilient relationships at all levels where you are working and have influence?

I was invited to speak to you about polarization. So, I wanted to share some insights that have been galvanizing my work at The Horizons Project. After more than 30 years working on peacebuilding globally, I recently launched Horizons to focus on the conflict dynamics and democratic decline in the United States. 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.

This concept of good polarization feels uncomfortable because conflict is uncomfortable and messy. We have different opinions about how to move forward together. We have different truths and sources of information that we trust. We have different ways of being in the world. Holding those tensions of our diversity and agreeing to keep going together is what will make something beautiful out of that forge. Rising heat is a sign of change. What we’re really up against right now is complacency. For example, complacency that these levels of violence that Gary spoke about, in all their forms, continues to be tolerated; and complacency against the forces who are actively trying to divide us to stay in power.

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 Luther King Jr has a famous sermon, called “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious” where he described peace that comes at the expense of justice as a negative peace. Rotarians know a lot of about positive peace because of your long-standing partnership with the Institute of Economics and Peace that gives a wonderful framework for bringing together all the ways Rotarians are investing in helping to keep societies peaceful. But to actively work against negative peace, this means we have to incorporate injustice into that same framework. Calls for bringing down the heat; for unity; finding common ground – it may be quieter; we may be civil to each other. But are we sweeping the hardest issues under the rug to keep that peace? Are we seeing the violence in all its forms, hearing some of the loudest voices who are asking for the violence to stop, looking at the root causes as Azim did when he recognized there was a system that needs changing to prevent more gang violence?

I am personally trying to sit with the discomfort of the heat, the polarizing conflict that is pushing us to change, demanding louder action of us. And yet, we CAN all be more aware of the temptations of dehumanization. While we organize and work for change, how are we always centering each other’s shared humanity and our interdependence, even as we confront these hardest of issues? Because another way of reframing polarization, is that what we really need to work on is our “fragmentation.”

Interestingly, forgiveness experts will note that one of the signs of being unforgiving is that we start avoiding each other. We stop working with people – those who have hurt us, those who have offended us. In fact, when we feel “offended,” which so many of us do right now, (we are constantly outraged), the very normal psychological response is that we look down on those who have caused the offense. We feel morally superior. This is another form of “othering” and is deepening our fragmentation.

Gary mentioned the violence of autocracy as one of the forms that is spreading like a pandemic throughout the world. Toxic polarization and dehumanization, this keeps us feeling threatened and staying fragmented. We are fearful and outraged. These are all tools of autocratic systems that ultimately lead to violence. We see this in Russia, and in many other parts of the world, including alarming trends in the US – where people are manipulated and denied the ability to have meaningful voice in the decisions that affect them, to assemble and organize, and to stop the spread of violence. Toxic polarization is a symptom of an increasingly authoritarian regime, not the cause.

So here we are at a Rotary convention, and you have to go back to your communities and your clubs. What do you do with all of this? Hopefully, get comfortable living with tensions and being in relationship with those who think differently in your communities (maybe even in your clubs and your districts.) Reflect on when you may find yourself feeling offended or outraged and how you want to channel that – not to turn away, not to feel morally superior – but committed to being true to your values in a way that is restorative of relationships and allows for healing together.

Rotarians are so good at acting together and conducting shared activities that build on a common identity as Rotarians. We need to remind each other of our many shared identities – we are all complex, not just one thing. And we need to put a stop to dehumanizing behavior. Gary mentioned behavior change to prevent the spread of violence and the need to establish new norms.

Rotary can be a big part of establishing these new norms, not just in the projects you fund, but also in the way you work together and with others. You set an example by living your values. These new norms won’t really take hold when we convene dialogues that center our identities as different from each other, for example, blue hats and red hats in the US. They do grow when activities center what we share, as mothers, football fans, or gardeners. Whatever helps us connect as human beings, that slows down our thinking, allows us to live with complexity and nuance again – not black and white. Everything Rotary does, whether it’s projects on maternal health, clean water, girls’ education. All of Rotary’s areas of focus are potential peacebuilding efforts when you bring together unlikely bedfellows and combat that fragmentation, to work on problems together. When you recognize and see injustices in a system that needs to change no matter where you’re working, use your collective voices to call for change, centering those values.

I am here today because I believe in Rotary as a force for changing norms. Sitting with tension, feeling the rising heat. Something beautiful can come out of the forge because we are all here, working on the different pieces of peace together.

Thank you.