Polarisation is an issue we must deal with as a society. We can begin with addressing tribalism so we can understand what needs to change. The purpose is not to single out any groups but rather to point out what’s eroding our society because to attribute it all to demographics oversimplifies the issue. We need to understand:

  • What core ideologies drive our affinity to a group
  • The overamplified voices of the fringes
  • There is an exhausted majority in the middle who are largely unheard

What drives our core beliefs as humans?

Instinctively we form affinities with those with whom we share similar views of the world.  It offers us a sense of security. The stronger the conviction the more likely we are subject to conforming. Demographics help us understand broad differences between people, but they can also reinforce groupthink and generalisations. According to the Hidden Tribes study by More in Common, our general core beliefs influence how we see the world:

  • Tribalism/Group identity: the extent to which people identify with different groups based on factors such as race, gender, and religion
  • Fear and perception of threat: the extent to which people interpret risk in society, for example, a zero-sum approach to understanding matters of equality
  • Moral foundations: the extent to which people endorse certain moral values
  • Personal agency and responsibility: the extent to which people view personal success as the product of individual factors (such as hard work and discipline) versus societal factors (such as luck and circumstance)

The study identified 7 tribes across the ideological spectrum ranging from Progressive Activists to Conservatives. Naturally, these tribes all have different moral lenses, but instead of respecting those differences, we have become entrenched in group identity, succumbing to the pressures of thinking and behaving only in ways acceptable to our tribe. This increasingly makes it difficult to engage in contentious issues across the different tribes. So instead of focusing on the issue, more focus is placed on policing language or attacking the person, not the idea. As we dismiss and ostracise other voices, we leave the conversation to those on the fringes giving an unequal audience to lesser-held views.

While this polarisation is deeply rooted, it is not unsolvable.

The exhausted majority

The most amplified and polarised groups are on the wings, and they share two similarities; their devotion to their beliefs with little room for nuance, which makes them rigid in their thinking and they show a lack of interest in finding common ground. This undermines the possibility of communication across divides.

A closer look shows that the fringes (the loudest voices) only consist of less than a third of the population (using America as an example), leaving the majority in the middle.

The group in the middle is exhausted by the tribal conflict. They choose to be less engaged on political issues partly because they fear raising their voices in this culture of outrage.

They have more complex views, not because they represent the midpoint between the two wings (progressive activists and conservatives), but rather because they acknowledge that the complexity of some of these issues requires a more nuanced way of thinking. Their views differ from one issue to the other and this is not because they are indecisive or overly intellectual. How they choose to identify is not attached to a group, so their approach is more flexible and less dogmatic. There is a willingness to find a compromise.

So, what needs to change?

So, at its core, the issues society faces are not necessarily on religion, race, or gender (or any other demographic), but rather based on a difference in ideology.

We need to focus first on those things that we share, and this starts with acknowledging that for the most part, we all are trying to achieve the same things in life, but just in different ways. We can respect those differences and respect each other’s right to exist (however we choose) as these do not take away from our beliefs and values – until we choose to impose them on others.

Words are a medium to convey our thoughts and emotions. We should not mistake them for the thought or emotion itself.

Most of us believe and want to feel free to speak our minds, apart from dangerous or hateful speech. Censorship and political correctness have made it difficult for people to express themselves for fear of offence and out of pressure to think or behave in a certain acceptable way. Our thoughts frame situations differently, so one’s reality is not universal.

If we can agree on that, to claim we can objectively discern what is acceptable or offensive carries a moral bias. This presses on the importance to have more voices in this conversation other than the ‘wing’ segments.

“It is much easier to recognise error than to find truth; the former lies on the surface, this is quite manageable. The latter resides in the depths and this quest is not everyone’s business.” – Goethe

To start to see the society we want requires us to counter this culture of outrage with empathy and compromise. Shaming and calling people out have become normalised. This silences any dissent and stifles any possibility of discourse. We leave no room for people to make mistakes or learn without facing negative consequences.

Our information gatekeepers

“The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that aren’t so” – Mark Twain

Trust in media has declined, pushing us to be more critical of the news we consume, understanding that there is little impartiality. Social media platforms micro-target users by restricting access to alternative views. This enforces polarisation and tribalism, changing the conversation from being one of objectivity, to that of competing loyalties.

We need to hold these information gatekeepers with more accountability lest we all fall victim to this fractious behaviour where we are unable to discern a shared truth and are cut off from one another – what Jonathan Haidt likens to Babel.

The fact that we have the exhausted majority means we have more people who reject ideological dogma and appreciate the need for compromise. The concern is that for as long as this group remains detached, the ‘wing’ segments will dominate the conversations, creating a false image of such a divided society.

What you can do today to communicate well across the divides

Divides can feel deep and cavernous, which lends itself to throwing our hands up, and not communicating well or taking action to move forward. The two things you can do today to communicate well across the divides are:

  1. Actively engage the middle – and give them a voice in this
  2. Cut through to ideology – and move through to the real issues together

Above all else we should learn to listen, not so we can counter with how right we believe we are, but so we can open ourselves up to the possibility of another view.