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When you Can’t Imagine…

Most of us agree that it would be better if we could all talk to one another -- across party lines and other differences. Yet many of us find our minds go blank when we try to talk to our political others. We can’t think of what to say that won’t lead to a blow up. We don’t know what to ask to break through the stereotypes.

Children are naturally curious:  about their bodies, people and things, the world.  Everything is new.  Everything is interesting. Until we enter school and are expected to know things, we feel no shame in investigating or asking questions.  As we grow older, we start to care about how others see us and we often feel embarrassed when we don’t have all the answers.

One way we get answers is by generalizing and inferring as much as we can from small amounts of data.  Adults, who have lived a long time, have lots of answers and advice:

A child might look up at the sky and notice the clouds.  An adult is likely to see the clouds, note their color and movement, and tell us we had better get inside because it is about to rain.

When it comes to people, two conditions make it easy to  assume (generalize) rather than be curious:

  • Familiarity — knowing a person well.
  • Danger — fearing a person may be a threat to our safety or ideas.

When we meet someone whose votes cancel out our own (or when a person we know well shares political views that are opposite to ours) it’s difficult for us to be curious. Instead we become defensive or fearful and our minds go blank. 

Rather than getting curious we get furious.

Our limbic systems tell us we don’t want to know why they hold those views, we want to protect ourselves (and our country) from them. We stop seeing these people as interesting, complex individuals and start seeing or treating them as a representative of a group, defining them by their views or votes.

This shift from curiosity to stereotyping isn’t intentional. It isn’t one that we can will or think our way out of. It’s a symptom of our limbic system taking over the resources that could otherwise be going to our neo-cortex. 

It’s not that we don’t want to be curious, it’s that we can’t think of anything to be curious about. And that’s where Crossing Party Lines comes in.

At CPL, we remind people of what to be curious about. We encourage members to dig beyond the political views and find out why each person connects the dots the way they do: 

  • Why does this issue matter?  What experiences have they had?
  • What do they believe to be true about the issue or the people involved in the issue? 
  • Why do they care? 
  • What are their fears or concerns?

We encourage people to ask rather than assume. We remind them to ask open questions that get people thinking rather than closed questions that elicit a simple yes or no answer.  We model checking in to verify that we understand what they have said.

Why the focus on being curious about people when our name sounds like we are about politics? Because Democracy–governance by the people–requires that we work with people different from us, learning from them and listening to discover how their insights combined with our own can lead to the governance that is not just “by the people” but also “for the people.”

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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.