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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 02-Oct-16


Sunday 02-October-16

The polarisation of society and a way back to moderation

Have you noticed that politics has got rather fractious of late? Politicians are taking extreme views and refusing to work with one another. Little real work gets done amid the fruitless cat fights, which contributes further to electorate contempt. And not content with that, in-party schisms are commonplace, often as ever-more radical wings rip away at the traditional body as toleration gives way to right or left extreme ideals.

The electorate, too, split and raucous, see opposition politicians and their supporters as bad and even evil, rather than wrong or misguided.

This intolerance is also seen in society and religion and may even be visible in terrorism and consequent reactions. The internet, too, is bound up in this malaise. Anonymity and remoteness enabled extreme views to be expressed without fear of recrimination. Indeed, the simple buzz of power that trolls get from being nasty reflects the baser potential of our nature. Social media has also encouraged more extreme views in the shock-horror of gossip. In the search for affirmation, we band together into online tribes where we stroke one another's egos and attack out-group others lest we, too, are castigated for not being true enough to friends and tribal values.

Polarization is a classic us-vs-them tactic, where taking an extreme position casts those who do not do likewise at the other extreme, making them clearly 'not us'. This extreme psychological distance enables us demonize and dehumanize them, reducing them to faceless 'things', such that we can harshly criticize them, unfettered by common decency and social values that constrain our interaction with humans.

In other words, polarization is an easy short cut for the lazy and thoughtless who need approval more than reason. It is also the refuge of the insecure, who find the complexity of the real world too much to handle.

Polarization can also be seen in the distribution of wealth, at least in the 'western world', where there has been a gradual return to elitism with the 'one percent' super-rich, more people struggling to get by, and a general collapse of the middle classes. Where once a booming middle class with enough wealth for some luxuries was an aspirational possibility for many, now it has been eroded to the point where markers of affluence, for example home ownership, are becoming more and more of a distant possibility.

When you take away hope, you get hopelessness. While many resign themselves to this fate, others are rebelling and may yet become a powerful political force who represent the have-nots, and who will powerfully confront the minority haves. For a long time the political right have fooled many with emotional appeals and empty promises that play to their fears, yet there also is a rising anger that may yet find a voice of its own. It is this voice that many are hearing and following in the new populist rebellions against traditional elitist government. Yet this replaces one extreme with another and is likely simply to perpetuate see-saw politics.

The pressures of an ever-faster life leads steadily from moderate positions to the easier extremes where we only have to look in one direction. Yet that polarized position brings new dangers. In a moderate society you can trust most people, even those who are not like you, to be civil and kind. But when things polarize, you see enemies at the gate and even inside the citadel. Where the defining emotion of moderation is love, fear rules the polarized.

So how do we get back? How do we create a kinder, more considerate society. The hardest first step is to stop fearing others, which leads to hating less. Yes, when you extend your hand to those who you have reviled, they may well try to bite it. But then moderation is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage and conviction to face critics from all quarters without slipping back into more extreme places. It comes from appreciating and accepting others, even as they attack you. It means being strong while also being kind.

Many of us know and prefer moderation, even as the world polarizes around us. We consider kindness and civil society a great thing. Yet our fears hold us back as we paralyze into the silent majority. But if we are to avoid an extreme world that is driven from the political right or the left, then we can no longer be silent. The middle must reinvigorate. Reason and humanity must be brought back into the mainstream. It will happen, of course. The nature of society is more of a pendulum than a final slide to one end or the other. Good leaders will appear, even as despair sets in. All it takes is that thoughtful and civil people come out of their bunkers and talk. It means standing up for a balanced society that does the best for all while realizing that nobody can get everything, and certainly not at the expense of others.

All you need to do is talk, then do. Find moderate others. Discuss the situation. Then find things you can do. Even small things, like helping the local community or supporting new businesses. And when you are ready to step further, then look for leaders who can promote moderation, and go help them.

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