3 Opportunities in a Polarized World

people group circle silhouette on sun sky collage
people group circle silhouette on sun sky collage

Even a cursory glance at a newspaper reveals the harsh truth: Our political culture is sharply polarized. It can be ugly, too, as combatants often treat the other side as not just wrong, but evil. For people of good faith, the poisonous discourse can be discouraging.

And yet, for advocates of social justice, there are opportunities within this troubled landscape.

First, polarization makes it very easy for advocates to identify their audience. After all, if I want to change hearts and minds, it makes little sense to address those who already agree with me. To make progress, we need to reach out to those who either disagree with us or have not made up their minds on the issue. The beauty of polarization is that it makes the identification of those audiences easy: They are the ones not within your circle.

Unfortunately, we too often fail to take advantage of this opportunity because it is easier to stay within our own groups. I am against the death penalty, for example, and sometimes I am invited to speak to groups that promote the abolition of that practice. I give a speech, and everyone cheers. Then someone else decries capital punishment, and we all cheer. It feels good to be so affirmed, but it is lousy advocacy. I am changing no one's mind.

If I am to be effective in my advocacy against the death penalty, I need to break out of the circle of affirmation and find new audiences. I try to do that by going to churches in death penalty states, where I have found great pools of people who either supported the death penalty or hadn't thought much about it. By starting from the source of their principles--the Bible--I can make a case to people who are never going to come to a death penalty abolition rally.

A second opportunity comes out of the poisonous arguments that characterize our debates. There sometimes is no winning within that ring of public argument--each round of insults simply deepens the convictions of each side, resulting in a stalemate. The opportunity here is to sidestep that process and move towards narrative as a way of influencing others. After all, people rarely change their minds because someone argued with them; rather, we change our minds when we hear or live through a story that moves us and changes our perspective.

In my field of criminal law, striking changes have come through the power of storytelling. A remarkable right-left coalition has emerged seeking a moderation of harsh narcotics sentences, for example, joining forces as disparate as the Koch brothers and the ACLU. In large part, this coalition was created through the power of individual narratives. Groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums have done a wonderful job of describing the full breadth of mass incarceration, one person at a time, by profiling many of those who have been subjected to unfair sentences. This took the debate away from abstract arguments about deterrence, and properly rooted it in the hard realities of actual lives.

Finally, polarization leaves us hungry for something deeper than dispute. I see this in the lives of those who are fortressed within one camp or the other--they long for a more humane connection with the world. That, too, offers an opening to change. If we can meet those we disagree with on a neutral ground fraught with meaning, there is hope for reconciliation and joint action. Religious communities offer one such place, as I have found with my work on the death penalty, but not the only one. Similar sacred spaces can be found in physical communities, where neighbors who disagree share a common interest, or within efforts to benefit groups we all support, such as veterans or crime victims.

My point is not to defend polarization, but to see our fault lines as wounds to be healed. Breaking out of our own camp, moving towards narratives rather than arguments, and seeking common ground make us better advocates and better people.