Curious about Politics

There are two types of people in the world: Those who see things as Either/OR and those who see things as Both/And. When it comes to politics, Either/Or sets us up for argument and polarization. Both/And equips us to find solutions and connection.

What does it mean to be curious about politics?

It’s easy to be frightened of politics.  It’s easy to be concerned or anxious.  But curious?  That’s another thing entirely.

Curiosity subsides as fear and anxiety rise. They reside in different parts of the brain–parts that compete for resources and control:

  • Fear and anxiety are responses generated by the limbic system, the reactive part of our brains.
  • Curiosity is an activity of the neocortex, the rational part of our brain.

The more reactive we are, the less rational we are.  And vice versa.

One way CPL equips people with curiosity is by creating an nonthreatening environment that calms the reactive brain and stimulates the rational brain. As people share their perspectives on an issue, our rational brains start to wonder, “Is that really true?  How can that be?”  Our rational brains start to look for indications of “both and,” the possibility that the issue can look totally different when viewed from other perspectives.

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But we want people to be curious outside our meetings as well. 

  • We do this by helping our members recognize that the best way to experience politics from different perspectives is from “the horse’s mouth,” from people whose political views are different from our own.  
  • We do this by helping people meet and get to know people on other “sides.”
  • We do this by offering classes that teach us how to calm our own reactive brains and free ourselves up for being curious.

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    The Two Types of Depolarization

    Depolarization — the work of reducing toxic polarization — is best understood in terms of the two types of polarization that shape our interactions and perceptions in today’s politically charged climate:

    1. Affective Polarization

    Affective polarization revolves around emotions and feelings. It refers to the emotional divide between individuals or groups with differing political views. It’s about how people feel about others who hold opposing ideologies.

    • Us vs. Them: In affective polarization, people tend to see those on the other side of the political spectrum as part of an “us vs. them” mentality. Emotions like anger, fear, and distrust often come into play.
    • Emotional Reactions: When encountering someone with opposing views, affectively polarized individuals may experience heightened emotions. They might feel threatened, defensive, or even hostile.
    • Echo Chambers: Social media and personalized news feeds can exacerbate affective polarization by reinforcing existing beliefs and isolating individuals from diverse perspectives.

    2. Cognitive Polarization

    Cognitive polarization focuses on thought processes and cognitive biases. It pertains to how people think about the views of others.

    • Discounting Opposing Views: Cognitive polarization leads to a tendency to discount opposing viewpoints without critically evaluating them. People may jump to conclusions, assuming that differing opinions lack validity or logical soundness.
    • Us vs. Them (Again): Just as in affective polarization, cognitive polarization reinforces the “us vs. them” mindset. It hinders open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity.
    • Intellectual Echo Chambers: Cognitive polarization occurs when people surround themselves with like-minded sources, reinforcing their preconceptions and avoiding exposure to alternative perspectives.

    The Interplay Between Affective and Cognitive Polarization

    Affective and cognitive polarization often feed into each other. Emotional reactions (affective) influence how we process information (cognitive), and vice versa.

    Breaking the Cycle: CPL recognizes that depolarization  requires us to address both affective and cognitive aspects. Encouraging empathy and  active listening is not enough.  We must also teach critical thinking and intellectual humility if we are to truly bridge the gap.

    About Bridging

    Bridging refers to the intentional effort to reduce toxic polarization by fostering understanding, empathy, and communication between individuals or groups with differing political views. It aims to build connections and discover our shared humanity, ultimately bridging the gaps that divides people along ideological lines.