Good vs. Toxic Polarization: Insights from Activists and Peacebuilders

by Reema Saleh, Horizons Project Research Assistant   May 25, 2021

Polarizing narratives are key tools of nonviolent mobilization and social justice activism. But today, deep-seated polarization, exacerbated by a growing faction that rejects basic democratic norms and practices, threatens the foundations of our democracy. Differentiating between healthy and toxic polarization is vital among activists and peacebuilders to inform and align our strategies. What aspects of polarization are healthy and normal in a democratic society, and when can this polarization tip over into toxic conditions?

In this recent Horizons Project event, hosted by the TRUST Network in partnership with the Alliance for Peacebuilding and Humanity United, we explored these questions with scholars, activists, and peacebuilders.

Watch the full event below!

Identifying Polarization

Although fundamental questions about the nature of US democracy (and whose voices count) date back centuries, since the 1960s, we have seen a trajectory of increasing political polarization. Today, our political affiliation informs most of our basic decision-making processes. According to Peter T. Coleman, professor at Columbia University and author of The Way Out, political polarization impacts us to the point of geographic sorting both in physical and online spaces. In the US, voters segregate into different communities, which creates physical and psycho-social structures that maintain this state.

In the social sciences, political polarization can be identified in many different forms.

Affective polarization, or the feeling of warmth we feel towards our in-group and contempt we feel towards the other side;

Ideological polarization, or how our beliefs and values around certain issues diverge;

Perceptual polarization, or the degree to which you view the other side as extreme compared to your own.

Toxic polarization exists as a state of intense, chronic polarization – where there are high levels of contempt for a person’s outgroup and love for one’s own side. It can create ideological rifts, where actors see the other side as an enemy with irreconcilable differences. However, the levels of toxic polarization we are experiencing today can arguably be considered a good thing. Coleman argues that after major disruptions to the status quo, we are more susceptible to change.

“You see an event like – COVID-19 and racial injustice in America and the Trump administration and a variety of things – there’s tremendous instability,” Coleman said. “Under certain political conditions, [this] can lead to dramatic, positive change.”

Tabitha Moore, Vermont racial justice advocate finds that healthy polarization can be a vital tool for social justice organizing.

“Polarization can be a really wonderful tool to identify where everybody falls on a continuum as far as belief in particular human rights,” Moore said. “Not necessarily with us or against us, but how do you promote or inhibit people being… able to get their basic needs met?”

After the murder of George Floyd, Moore found that polarization helped to mobilize people around the issue of police violence, but also to critically examine how racism impacts public health.

“People really started to pay attention to the ways that racism is impacting public health, so here in Vermont, that’s been used as a way to create more movement around declaring racism to be a public health crisis, which would allow for more access to resources to deal with and dismantle it from a systemic perspective.”

In activist spaces, polarization serves as a tool for mobilization within a community in order to force systemic change.

“People are using this opportunity to draw that line in the sand and say, ‘do you stand for this?’ Whether it’s pushing legislators and lawmakers to take that stand and be honest and clear about where they are, it can be used for good,” Moore said.

When Toxic Polarization Limits Activists’ Work

The levels of polarization we are experiencing today are not necessarily the problem that needs solving. However, in the US, we lack the structures to prevent toxic polarization. A study by Predictwise in 2018 found that in 3,000 counties across America, one of the main predictors of political tolerance and intolerance, was the degree to which those communities had crosscutting structures between red and blue voters – spaces like sports teams, labor unions, workplaces, where people have to live and grow together with voters different from themselves.

Toxic polarization can be the symptom of a larger problem. “I always come back to Audre Lorde’s saying that the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house because what I see happening is that we’re using toxic polarization to try to solve the problem,” Moore said. “When we get a small piece of the pie or a piece of the puzzle or a seat at the table, what’s happening is that there are so many people who are being harmed that we have to determine who gets a seat at that table and who’s going to be there to make the decisions.”

In activist spaces, toxic polarization can prevent us from breaking down barriers and humanizing each other. They can also uphold siloes, keeping existing members of activist movements from voicing different views, given the pressure to adhere to within-group expectations.

“When I think about people who have middle of the road views or are feeling a little lost in all of it, what I often hear is that they’re afraid that if they speak up in one way that they will be shamed in the end, and so they remain silent,” Moore said.

How Do We Humanize the Other?

With increases in toxic polarization comes decreases in social identity complexity. Our different group memberships and identities – whether political, racial, or religious – are much more likely to line up, and in the process, we become less tolerant of members of outgroups. Bridging the divide calls us to acknowledge the complexity of our own belief systems and complicate our understandings of other people.

“If I happen to hold identities that are contradictory…the more I’m aware of those, the more I give the other side some slack or the more I can take different perspectives because I’m used to living in that space,” Coleman said. “It’s about spending time with people and getting to know them that matters, but that is another way to complicate your understanding of them, of yourself and the issues.”

“When we can start to create a multi-dimensional model for understanding, that’s when people might be able to start understanding complexity. When I look at policies and governance in this world, it is very much a linear thing, so how do we even begin to conceptualize a government framework that is nonlinear?” Moore said. “It becomes really difficult for the individual to conceptualize themselves or anybody else as nonlinear or non-complex…it’s when we start to think outside of the bounds of what we set up as our societal parameters for what’s acceptable and allowable. That’s when we can get to complex thinking.”

Bridge-Building and Moving Forward

Patterns of toxic polarization are difficult to break. They resist change and cannot be solved by dialogue alone. Coleman emphasizes the value of utilizing community-based structures, where people live and work together, to complement bridge-building efforts. In movement spaces, activists build bridges and break down barriers by moving beyond talk.

“A basic staple that we in our field of conflict resolution do, which is to sit down and talk to people, is sometimes inefficient and ineffective. In fact, what some evidence is suggesting is that what we really need to do is move together, we need to get up and move.” Coleman said. “I think activists understand this because activists march together in unison, and there is something about the simple act of doing that which synchronizes people neurologically and synchronizes them emotionally. It elicits more cooperation. We know that, yet we still try to sit people down and have these conversations, which most of the time is useful, but not under these conditions.”

“I think the answer does not lie in adjusting our ideals to bring them in line with our practices. We should be working on bringing our practice more in line with our ideals.”

Toxic polarization is not sustainable, but more importantly, it is the symptom of large-scale, structural problems.

“Toxic polarization is a tool of not just white supremacy, but all forms of supremacy. So as long as we continue to use these tools, the Master’s tools are not going to dismantle the Master’s house,” Moore said. “We need to look at indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world. We need to look at the things that existed for 10,000 or however many thousands of years that were actually successful and see if, maybe, that could put a dent in it.”