The continuing deep divisions within US society have been on the forefront of my mind recently. As I listen to, and observe, what is happening across this nation, I want to delve deeper. What is sustaining these entrenched divisions and how we can move forward? How do we heal as a nation?
The divisions in our society today have eroded our trust in one another and in our civic institutions. When we divide ourselves into different groups, we begin to see our world through different and polarized lenses. The way we view the world impacts the way we think about our world, and each other. If we always view things through a polarized lens then that is all the world will ever be to us. One side pitted against the other in a toxic political environment. And so, we end up where we are now, with a deeply divided nation. So how do we overcome this?
In order to heal, we need to understand the psychological factors which drive us apart. It begins with the creation of ‘in’ groups, groups which share common beliefs and values. Unfortunately, when a conflict takes hold these common values and beliefs become more entrenched leading to tunnel vision. In a report published by Beyond Conflict, “America’s Divided Mind: Understanding the Psychology that Drives Us Apart,” there is discussion of a core feature of polarized psychology, that it distorts the way our brains processes information about society.
When such political polarization occurs, as we have seen over the last number of years in US society, it can deeply divide our society. We see the opposite side as somewhat alien to us. We hold incredibly negative views and beliefs about the ‘other’ which colors our whole perception of them. This sets into motion other destructive beliefs such as the belief that the ‘other’ cannot be reasoned with and that all on that ‘side’ are the same. There is no room for nuance in this polarized world. Before we realize it, our dislike of the ‘other’ deepens to the point of dehumanization. We no longer see the ‘other’ as an equal. When we become so entrenched in our thinking the result is a toxic environment for all.
Dehumanization is dangerous. It happens when we perceive others as less than us, less than human. Dehumanization is what fuels conflict, atrocities and genocides. What happened in Nazi Germany leading to WWII was the result of dehumanization, Jewish people were viewed as lesser, persecuted and murdered. In Rwanda, dehumanization led to a genocide which shocked the world with common descriptions of the persecuted people being ‘vermin’ or ‘cockroaches’.
This is where deeply divided nations can end up. I am not saying that this is where the United States will end up, but if we head too far in opposite directions, it becomes harder and harder to come back together. How do we halt this process and attempt to heal this divide? Can we even do that? The answer is a resounding yes! To reverse course and not further advance the dehumanization process, we need to begin to see each other for what we are, flawed and human. We need to stop the bluster and rhetoric which is demeaning to people. We need to think before we speak and consider the impact of our words on others. If we do this, we will realize that while we hold differing views, we are not dehumanized by the other group to the extent that we had believed. This realization can help us break the cycle of polarization.
How can we stop dehumanization and polarization? There are psychological processes that are involved which, interestingly, form part of the process of political forgiveness. It can simply start with people on both sides coming together, apprehensive and all, and speaking to one and other, person to person. The value of discussion cannot be overstated. One person in discussion with another about life, about family or even about their favorite sports team is the most human of activities. Finding that common ground and what unites us rather than what divides us is how we move forward.
While we may hold different beliefs and political views, we all have things which we can relate to one another on. By discussing and sharing our experiences, we learn about one another. When sitting in a room speaking with our perceived ‘adversaries’, those whom we have labelled as the ‘other’, we begin to recognize that although the content or perspective may be different the themes in the discussions and stories are similar. We realize that we have more in common than that which divides us. This shared human experience helps us open our minds, and our hearts, to one another allowing us a greater understanding of one another. We cannot dehumanize someone if we feel empathy towards them.
Sometimes these stories describe painful realities and truths that may be uncomfortable to hear, yet these stories can sow the seeds of transformation and help create a shared vision for the future based on a shared understanding of the past. To hear these stories, these narratives of the ‘other’, does not mean that you endorse them but it does mean that you hear and understand them. Sometimes the willingness to listen, and a focus on commonalities rather than differences, can help close the divide and establish a less polarized environment.