Can polarisation be eroded by design?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 17/01/2018 - 9:20am in



can society encourage more nuance and compromise when entrenched opposition is
baked into consumerism and politics?

Credit: Pixabay/geralt.

"People love those who are like
themselves” said Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics over
2,300 years ago. In 2018 we’re still tackling the same problem: how can we
create cohesive communities that understand each other despite their

Research from the writer Jonathan Haidt  shows that polarisation between Republicans
and Democrats has been getting steadily worse in the US for decades. What’s
more, it seems that these different groups now regard each other with even more
suspicion, and truly believes that the other acts for nefarious reasons.

In the UK, both of us work on projects
that aim to reduce polarisation. Jazza is a vlogger and podcaster known for
bridging the political divide by interviewing the NRA (among others) on his YouTube channel, and founding the Right Dishonourable Podcast which he
hosts with Jimmy Nicholls. Nicholls voted to leave the European Union; Jazza to remain.

Alice is the founder and editor of
the Echo Chamber Club which aims to introduce liberal
and progressive metropolitans to views and voices they may not agree with. It’s
been running now for over 18 months. As time has gone by we’ve both realised that
polarisation seems to be something that’s baked deep into our society. What’s
more, new communication technologies can amplify how these structures are
exploited by politicians and businesses. In which case, what can we do about

Debates about polarisation aren’t
new. Social psychologists have worked on theories of ‘homophily’ since the late 19th century: the idea that people of similar
age, class, gender, race and education, as well as political and values-driven
beliefs, are more likely to gather together and network with each other. Now in
the internet age, we have the power to network outside of our local geography—which
may or may not alter this tendency—but for the moment the status quo usually
leans towards in-group connection.

Indeed, 2016 was the year that
voters defined themselves along binary lines: unity or independence, remain or
leave, Trump or Hilary. And 2017 was the year in which these trenches were dug
even deeper and people settled in for a much longer battle. Despite reporting from hopeful liberal commentators suggesting
that those who supported Trump in 2016 are growing weary and that Brexit voters are slowly changing their minds, there has been little change in how these individuals identify
with opposing viewpoints.

Research from Jonathon Wheatley of the London School of Economics shows an increase in polarisation along both economic and
cultural lines among the British public in the run up to the 2017 election when
the Conservatives lost their majority, when compared to the voters who rewarded
ex-Prime Minister David Cameron with a majority in 2015. In the United States,
the Pew Research Centre has been documenting the widening gulf between
Democrats and Republicans for at least 30 years.

Polarisation is even cemented into
the buildings that house our political institutions. Very deliberately for example,
the Houses of
Parliament’s Common’s Chamber
has two sides facing each other to seat the
government and its opposition, with other parties squeezed in beside them. When
the building was rebuilt after bombing in the Second World War, Prime Minister
Winston Churchill insisted the architect (Giles Gilbert Scott)
maintain the same adversarial design, which, he said, was key in creating a system that worked because it was
dominated by two parties
. In Churchill’s eyes the binary
structure of politics was key to maintaining stability and power, favouring it
above the crescent shape that’s increasingly used by legislatures that aim to
be more open to cooperation and compromise.

It’s clear that creating common
enemies can reap rewards on the political stage, but the same is also true in
other fields of life. Vin Clancy for example, is the moderator of the Facebook
group Traffic and Copy (a network
for entrepreneurs)
, and a self-described
‘growth-hacker’ who has built Facebook and Twitter accounts from nothing to
tens of thousands of followers in a matter of days. When creating a new online
community, he swears by the need to have a common opponent, not just a hopeful
message (“Vegans will save the planet!”).
“A very good idea if you’re building a following, tribe,
or community,” he says, “is to attack an enemy. It can be an idea or person.”

The pages of successful Instagram
and Youtube stars often attack those who are ‘opposed’ to their mission. Take Kayla
for example, an incredibly successful fitness instructor who gained
recognition through social media. “Before you judge those of us who are
committed to the gym as self-centred or superficial,” she
said in a recent post
, “realise for many of us it is our escape, our sanity
and a place where we work not only on becoming strong physically, but mentally
as well”. It’s important to these communities that they are working on
something meaningful, and they can only attract attention if it’s believed that
there is hostility towards their cause.

Clancy’s techniques are aimed at
the growth of online communities, but the creation of a community opposed to an
out-group is nothing new. Think Marmite, for example, with their highly
effective “love it or hate it” campaign,
or Apple’s  iconic advertising that divided the population between Mac and Windows users. A
study in the Harvard Business Review found that “highly polarizing brands tend to perform more poorly than
others, but they also tend to be less risky”
. Having a clear enemy provides a
defined and loyal base, with a common cause to fight against.

In which case, how can society
encourage more nuance and compromise when entrenched opposition is baked into
consumerism and politics?

One immediate problem is that
funding and support for initiatives which are trying to reduce polarisation is
so difficult to come by. There are a wealth of public funds to improve society
in the UK like Nesta,
the National Lottery and the European Commission (for as
long as the UK stays in the EU), but despite depolarisation being a
non-partisan issue it is still treated as ‘political,’ and thereby lies outside
the guidelines that donors typically set for charities and social enterprises.
The Echo Chamber Club has been rejected by numerous funders for being ‘too
political,’ and by more political donors as not being political enough.

Crowdfunding provides an
alternative source of support, but would you give your money to a cause that
will further the goals of those you disagree with, or encourage a dialogue with
your ‘enemy?’ In the United States at least, the Obama Foundation is awarding funds to combat echo chambers and fight the ‘balkanisation’ of public discourse:

“[We] now have a situation,” the
Foundation says, “in which everybody's listening to people who already agree with
them...reinforc[ing] their own realities to the neglect of a common reality
that allows us to have a healthy debate and then try to find common ground and
actually move solutions forward.”

In addition, our structures of
communication are fractured, and perhaps even exacerbate the problem. The
British population may no longer be effectively represented by the traditional
left/right dichotomy but by what the Economist has labeled “The New Political Divide” of an “open
and closed” society, with internationalists and social liberals on one side and
nationalists and social conservatives on the other. However, the chasm that
split society between 48 per cent of ‘Remainers’ on one side and 52 per cent of
‘Leavers’ on the other in 2016 is still very wide.

When you tune into Question Time or the Today Programme, you’re
more likely to hear individuals talking past each other than finding common
ground. The BBC aims to practice impartiality, but enforcing a false political
binary between left and right is no longer a useful way to achieve this. One of
the reasons the Echo Chamber Club has succeeded is that we don’t force any of
these false binaries in political discourse, presenting not just conservative
points of view but also Hindu voices, perspectives from software engineers, academics
on North Korea and lots of other perspectives that aren’t part of the dominant
discourse. Establishing a non-linear narrative requires this kind of

On The Right Dishonourable
, the format of forcing a Brexiteer and a remainer to understand
each other's’ point of view rather than simply debating it helps to counter the
combative nature of other talk shows and the regular news cycle. We’ve held
conversations with YouTube darling of the alt-right Carl Benjamin, better known
as Sargon of Akkad, and were able to
get a men’s rights activist to talk about Scottish
independence and
Parliament’s Brexit bill in 2016
. This type of calmer,
conversational media exists in other pockets on the Internet too, like Leena
Norms’ I’m Not Being Funny But…, Dylan Marron’s Conversations with People Who Hate Me, and the new Kialo site in the US. These are examples of using
media to ‘break bread’ rather than ‘cross swords,’ and we need more of them.

But even with greater support and
resources, it will be very difficult to overcome polarisation whilst it remains
profitable to create niche communities and entrench division in politics.  Nevertheless, we have to act and act quickly.
Recognising that anti-polarisation efforts are a deeply political act, but one
which is as neutral as political acts can be, is a good place to start in healing
the deep ruptures of society.

Related stories: 

Escaping from the echo-chambers of politics

When will there be harmony?

Five ways to build solidarity across our differences


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