Essential Elements + Obstacles = The Things That Need Doing Matrix

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Essential Elements + Obstacles = The Things That Need Doing Matrix

Newsletter #66 — December 16, 2022

In This Issue

From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess


The "Things That Need Doing" Matrix

While there are certainly other ways to conceptualize the hyper-polarization problem, we think that the framework we presented in the last three newsletters (with its examination of the seven key elements of democracy and the five obstacles to implementing those elements) is a way of looking at the big picture that makes it easier to see the specific things that need to be done to fix the hyper-polarization problem. It is a framework that helps us to deal with a very large and complex problem by breaking it down into a series of very different, but critically important, tasks that individual citizens and organizations can realistically be expected to accomplish.  In other words, it is an approach based on the principles of specialization and the division of labor that are at the core of our complex society.

Building on the ideas presented in the last three newsletters, (also presented together in The Key to Revitalizing Liberal Democracy: Think of It As a Conflict Handling System we created this matrix that we think makes this all easier to visualize. 

Hyper-polarization Matrix

This matrix can be read two ways. One can start with the seven elements of democracy (left-hand column) and look at the obstacles (across the top) that will have to be overcome to implement each element.  Conversely, one can focus in on the obstacles and then look at how those obstacles (and efforts to overcome them) play out with respect to each of the seven elements of democracy. 

Reading Across the Matrix: 

Reading from left to right, the matrix can be used to suggest things that individuals and groups focused on implementing one of the seven elements of democracy should consider. For example, those focused on improving the communication between opposing sides need to consider how they might pursue their efforts in ways that:

  1. Combat complacency by promoting wider public awareness of the degree to which we misunderstand our fellow citizens and the dangers associated with those misunderstandings,
  2. Effectively use mass communication strategies capable of reaching a very large audiences, while teaching individuals how to improve their own conflict communication skills,
  3. Identify and find ways to prevent or counter bad-faith efforts to cultivate inaccurate and overly inflammatory images and frame all problems in existential good-versus-evil terms,
  4. Cultivate better understanding of problems that can lead good-faith actors to seriously misunderstand one another and develop strategies for overcoming those problems, that work, not only at the interpersonal level, but also at the societal level,
  5. Provide examples of practical things that large numbers of people and organizations can do within their areas of influence to improve communication, understanding, and collaboration between disputing individuals and groups, both small and large. 

Reading Down the Matrix:

Reading the matrix from top to bottom, the matrix can be used to highlight things that people focused on a particular obstacle need to be considering. So, for example, those wanting to look at ways good-faith actors can be more effective need to: 

  1. Figure out how good-faith actors can pursue their interests and needs without further escalating the conflict, and how to reduce escalation and polarization where it has already gotten to be destructive,
  2. Establish constructive communication between disputants at the interpersonal, group, and societal levels,
  3. Institute and utilize effective, collaborative fact-finding strategies that overcome the problems of distrusted experts and disinformation,
  4. Develop and implement models for fairly sharing power,
  5. Develop an image of the future in which everyone (not just one's own side) would want to live,
  6. Establish collaborative problem-solving strategies to bring about that vision, and
  7. Do all of this while thinking systemically about how each thing we do influences all the others.

In addition, by reading the chart this way, we can also see that bad-faith actors try to:

  1. Drive escalation,
  2. Block effective communication,
  3. Spread misinformation and "fake facts" (as they have come to be called), while they label actual "facts" as "fake" to get them discredited,
  4. Monopolize power for themselves and disempower everyone else,
  5. Promote a self-serving vision for the future 
  6. Solve problems by forcing their desired solution upon everyone else, and
  7. Stop us from thinking systemically by simplifying their message (and hence our narratives) to one that names their group as "good" and "right," and the other as "wrong" and "evil."

So those are the things we need to address if we want to counter bad-faith actors' attempts to undermine democracy.

The matrix can also be viewed as a strategy for breaking the hyper-polarization problem down into its constituent parts. In this context, the matrix cells correspond to a whole series of "how can we deal with this?" questions. The answers, taken together, can be implemented by many people, working independently, on different aspects of the problem.  Together, they can be seen as contributing to a movement in massively-parallel peacebuilding, which we will explore in the next newsletter.

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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

Is Polarization Good or Bad? 

by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

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. Some see it as a good thing that should be encouraged, not a bad thing to be overcome or stopped. And several see it as both. The difference is in what "polarization" is seen to mean.

If polarization is seen as people having different views on a topic, even completely diametrically opposed views, several of our respondents (for instance, Ken Cloke and Julia Roig) pointed out that such diversity of views is essential for learning and positive change.  If everyone believes the same thing, if orthodoxies are unquestioned, no conflict will happen, but resulting injustices and social problems will persist. So what Julia Roig calls "good polarization" is necessary for societal betterment.

If, however, polarization is seen as the process through which people who hold such differing views are "othered," or even dehumanized, then our respondents agreed, such "toxic polarization" as Julia and several others called it, is destructive and "bad."  We agree with this distinction, but argue that 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. 

Lisa Schirch added the distinction between "issue polarization" (which is essentially Ken's and Julia's "good polarization") and "affect polarization" which is essentially Ken and Julia's "bad polarization).  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.  We discuss the implications of these distinctions, what tends to lead to constructive versus destructive polarization, and what's to be done to get the former not the latter in more detail in the full blog post. 

Read the Full Post

Matt Legge: When Polarization is Beneficial 

We should have included these ideas in our earlier blog post on the same topic, but we didn't know about this article until the other one was already published.  So we asked Matt if we could publish his thoughts on the same topic and he agreed.  He, too, argues that issue polarization is beneficial.  His "add on" was two examples showing such benefits.  One is the polarized teams that work collaboratively to write Wikipedia articles.  Matt quotes an article from Nature which found that “polarized teams consisting of a balanced set of ideologically diverse editors produce articles of a higher quality than homogeneous teams,” because they fact check assumptions and verify contradictory information until they come up with a story that rings true to all. 

He also introduces us to the social media platform Polis, which gives more visibility to social media posts that find consensus, rather than divisiveness.  Matt reflected:

The way that Facebook and Twitter are designed incentivizes users to be negative about out-groups: That gets them more likes and interactions. Polis, on the other hand, is designed not to boost sensational lies or outraged negativity about perceived enemies, but to boost points of commonality that can be discussed further. And what the platform boosts is what most people see, which in turn changes how they behave on Polis. This is consistent with experimental evidence that how information is presented to parties in conflicts makes a big difference to the quality of the conflict that ensues.

Both of these examples show ways in which issue polarization can be utilized to facilitate learning, while preventing affective polarization from detracting from that end.  

Read Matt's Full Post

Caleb Christen: Creating an Inter-movement Community

Caleb Christen has written three articles for the Bridge Alliance's online publication, The Fulcrum that have done much to encourage the kind of big picture thinking that is going to be needed to meet the seven democracy challenges and overcome the five obstacles we discussed above.  We have summarized the three articles in one BI blog post, but they can be read individually here:

The key idea of these three articles is that restoring democracy is going to take updates to the entire system.

No single issue holds democracy’s silver bullet, which means that reforms in one issue area are, to some extent, only as successful as efforts in other areas. Analogizing the ecosystem of democracy and civic-health-promoting movements to a single body, each part is important yet they all are also interdependent with each other, required to work in harmony to support each other in fulfilling the greater body’s goals.

And just as a body needs coordination between its different parts, so does the democracy ecosystem, which is, in our terms "a complex adaptive system" So the inter-movement community he and others are seeking to establish is 

neither a super-coalition nor a higher level umbrella organization but an evolving organism that each cell plays a role in moving and expanding. When cells work in unison, the entire organism moves and grows more effectively and each cell benefits and accomplishes more than it could individually. As a result, the inter-movement community becomes a community of purpose, of learning, of practice, a political home, and a place where hospitality is both given and received.

Read Caleb's Full Post



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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

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