The Polarization Pandemic
/ Author: James Oostenbrink
/ Categories: Blogs, Newsletters, National /
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The Polarization Pandemic

We used to be able to talk about issues with a basic modicum of respect. But we seemed to have lost respect for opposing viewpoints—and those expressing them. So, what can we do?

By Jim Oostenbrink, Regional Director, Kelowna Member Centre

In recent months, I have been pondering the impact that the hot topics of the day have had on our relationships.

It seems that over the last five years or so, our relationships have taken a severe beating. It does not seem to matter whether they are within our families, work communities, activity groups, religious communities, or even neighbours.

Why is this? We used to be able to talk about issues with a basic modicum of respect. But we seemed to have lost respect for opposing viewpoints—and those expressing them.

The hot topics of the day are destroying relationships all around us. It does not matter if that topic is climate change, politics (American or Canadian), or vaccinations and lockdowns. The common thread is that “discussion” of controversial topics is polarizing us even further.

I recently read an article where the author described our current state as a “polarization pandemic.” This is a very apt description of what is happening today.

Rather than delving into a specific hot topic, tempting as it may be, I would rather reflect on how this polarization pandemic is affecting us all.

A colleague of mine lamented the deteriorating relational aspects of the communities he is involved in. He sees an increasingly high level of conflict and relational challenges among the groups he volunteers with.

It is concerning that we have lost the ability to listen—to really listen—to try to understand an opposing point of view. It is much easier for us to just dismiss that view without doing the work of truly trying to understand the other side.

Instead, we defend our position to the death. I guess this is partially literally true when it comes to issues like vaccinations and lockdowns. What we do not recognize is that our no-holds-barred defence may lead to the death of our relationships too.

In our high-decibel society and cultural acceptance of the norm, so often amplified by social media, it is difficult for lone, silent voices to be heard or understood. For some, staying on the down low is easier. For others, positions become even more amplified.

All this contributes to a trend of even more polarization in a society that desperately needs healing.

So, what can we do? First, we need to understand that polarization does exist and that it is affecting our relationships in a very negative way. Social polarization is contributing to more segregation within society.

And group polarization is on the rise as well. Group polarization is defined as “the tendency for groups to make decisions that are more extreme than the initial inclination of its members” (Scotch College Library).

Second, once we recognize that polarization is indeed all around us, the next time we have a discussion, we should pause and think about the person first. We should avoid name calling, being dismissive, or trying so hard to influence them to our position.

Instead, why not start by trying to understand what is behind their belief or position? Why not accept the fact that we cannot always agree, and that is okay?

I once took a leadership course on deep democracy. The basic theme was finding ways to give voice to the minority position in a group.

When we drown out minority voices, we have a lot to lose.

In a similar way, the polarization pandemic is costing us. We have a lot to lose.

When families create bitter divides, when work groups segregate themselves, when volunteer groups can’t get along, when old friends can’t have a civil discussion, when we let a different outlook affect our friendships, we lose something precious in the process. We lose each other.

I would challenge each of us to pause and think about what we can say or do a little bit differently today to help end the polarization pandemic.

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