Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Our discourse is polarised, and hyper-partisanship is bigger than ever before. Aside from the odd book or TedTalk, resources on this subject are scarce, and it seems that no one wants to suggest how we can tackle it. As a result, we continue to live in incredibly diverging times. I want to present three key ideas that we can deploy as individuals to spaces that are vulnerable to conflict in everyday life. 

Acknowledging and engaging with the other side

To depolarise our discourse, we must first recognise that there is a side that will not agree with our ideas.

Instead of believing that this side is the enemy and refusing to associate with it, we must acknowledge and learn from those who hold different opinions. No more of us versus them; conservatives versus liberals; republicans versus democrats; conservatives versus labour; just human beings having agreements and disagreements with each other. Confronting those with opinions different to our own can serve as a way to subdue anger and pave the way to mutual respect.

By talking, and most importantly listening, to the grievances and views of those we disagree with, we can start to understand why x believes in y. It does not mean we should, or have to, agree with opposing opinions, but we can at least begin to understand the reasoning behind why people hold certain beliefs so firmly. When we start to understand each other, we can start to see each other as human beings. You may be asking “why should I listen and recognise that other people have different opinions to me?” Christaine-Marie Abu Sarah has an answer to this: in her Ted Talk published late last year, she talked about how our daily habits can lead to political violence. Shockingly, these habits, such as dividing people into ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ have the potential to breed extreme and deadly actions. We saw with the Capitol Hill Riot how prominent this rhetoric of us versus them can turn into if we do not address this issue of polarisation

Listen, listen, listen!

We must acknowledge and engage with those we disagree with, but it will be all for nothing if we do not listen to each other. We have fallen into the trap of assuming that shouting what we think from the rooftops means we are right. We believe cancelling people before we let them speak is justifiable. By not listening to each other, how are we expected to address problems in our society? Before shouting your arguments, ask that person why they hold such a view and listen to them; you may find that there is more common ground between you and them than you originally thought.

Self-correction

Once we start acknowledging, engaging, and listening to those we disagree with, we can self-correct the ideas we hold. Ivan Krastev, in his discussion of the current state of democracy in Central Europe, spoke about how this self-correction principle is fundamental for any democracy to function. According to Krastev, if we start to see a democracy beginning to crack, it is the consequence of losing this principle. Growing disparities have characterised the last few years, and these disparities are most evident by many polls. 80% of Americans have “just a few” friends or no friends at all across from them on the political spectrum. 53% of Americans find talking about politics to someone they disagree with stressful and agree that people have started to segregate themselves politically. There is no incentive to correct our ideas as we prioritise resentment towards those who hold different opinions. We spend less time critiquing our own beliefs and more time condemning others for theirs. We do not even want to be friends with people who hold different opinions from us, and we go to the extent of politically segregating ourselves.

We should be thinking about why we believe specific things over others and, more importantly, asking ourselves how we can improve on our own perspective. We all want the best for our society, but this is sometimes for ourselves and not for the collective or societal good. Having this self-correction quality means we can look at the bigger picture and find ways of improving society, regardless of our differences. It does not mean we are giving in to the other side; we admit that other ideas out there can help to better society for everyone.

It won’t be easy…

Admittedly, what I have just said, and what I propose is not simple.

Recognising that people will disagree with you is not an easy task, and it is even more challenging to engage with those you dislike. Trying to listen to someone who holds completely different values to you may feel like breaking a bone in your body. Furthermore, admitting that there are better ideas than yours out there can be incredibly challenging as well.

Yet, merely sitting back and accepting what is going on in our discourse is not good enough. We have to take a bitter pill to address a problem like polarisation and hyper-partisanship.  

By recognising the other side, listening to the other side and self-correcting our ideas, we may be on our way to depolarising our discourse.