Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Social Polarization: Neither Hopeless nor Inevitable

Jon F. Wergin

“Our nation is being torn apart; truth is questioned.”
Dr. Fiona Hill, former official at the U.S. National Security Council, in testimony given to the congressional inquiry into presidential impeachment, November 21, 2019.

Like many others, I’m disheartened by the escalating intolerance of worldviews other than one’s own.  Reasoned arguments based on data have little impact in our post-truth culture. Attempts at reasoned debate degenerate into hardened positions, as we use our reasoning skills to justify existing beliefs and pick apart those different from ours. Social discourse seems mired in a downward spiral.

True enough; but I’ve also grown tired of all the hand-wringing.  As a psychologist specializing in adult learning, I know that despite the focus on human frailties – reductive thinking, confirmation bias, and all their stealthy cousins – empirical evidence is out there that could give us hope.  I’ve pulled this evidence together in Deep Learning in a Disorienting World, to be published in December by Cambridge. In this book I submit that what is needed in a world of assaults on what is real and true is a “deep learning mindset” – an acceptance that our understanding of the world around us is temporary and subject to constant scrutiny.  A deep learning mindset can be developed in different ways, which I explore in the book, but here I’ll focus on one the most basic:  learning how to learn with others.

Succeeding at this requires that we cultivate the power of empathy, meaning the vicarious experience of someone else’s experience.  It’s not about feeling sympathy for the other person; it’s not even caring about the other’s feelings.  Tackling the scourge of polarization begins with trying to understand the experience of the other.  It’s hard work because when presented with a different worldview, our intuitive response is to generate reasons why the other’s point of view is wrong.  This approach usually backfires, but we continue to do it anyway.  We spend energy generating counter-arguments while pretending to listen.  But if we truly want for someone to consider our point of view, we have to stop rallying the facts on our side, and try to understand the other person’s beliefs, however antithetical to our own.

Empathy begins with active listening.  We have to learn to listen with intention on what the other person is saying, to check our understanding by reflecting back what we heard, and to summarize the other’s message. (We also have to avoid summarizing the other’s point by reducing it to a pejorative overgeneralization, such as, “Oh, so in other words you think the government should take all our guns away.”)  Active listening contributes to one being perceived as authentic, which in turn reduces the discomfort of trying on alternative points of view.  This is how attitudes change. With authenticity and empathy present, logical arguments become possible.

So: begin with an empathic frame of mind; engage in active listening; find shared dialogic space, and discover room for shared understandings.  It’s not the solution to our polarized culture, but it’s a start.

Deep Learning in a Disorienting World by Jon F. Wergin

Deep Learning in a Disorienting World by Jon F. Wergin

About The Author

Jon F. Wergin

Jon F. Wergin is Professor of Education Studies at the Graduate School of Leadership and Change, Antioch University, Ohio . He is also an educational psychologist with a profession...

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