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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 12-Feb-17


Sunday 12-February-17

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

This intolerance is also seen in society and religion and may even be seen 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 our basest 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 are not like us 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 '1%' 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, and while some resign themselves to this fate, enough others are rebelling and may yet become a powerful political force, where the have-nots face off against 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 is finding a voice of its own.

Moderation comes from appreciating and accepting others, but it also draws criticism from the righteous extremists. To be moderate means you cannot be mild. Handling complexity and intolerance takes fortitude of spirit. In the middle ground you cannot dehumanize as you seek true understanding. It means negotiating, giving and taking, and sometimes accepting situations that seem a bit unfair.

The pressures of an ever-faster life leads steadily from moderation 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.

And yet. Many of us know and prefer moderation. We consider kindness and civil society a great thing. Yet our fears hold us back. The good news is that society is more of a pendulum than a weight that drags us inevitably down. Moderate leaders will emerge and the silent majority will gratefully swing behind them.

The only question is where you will be in this movement.

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