Burning Questions: What is polarization? (Opinion)
“We’ve gotten so polarized.” It’s a common complaint these days, more often than not uttered with a heavy sigh and an air of resignation.
What is polarization, though? By consulting the ever-useful Wikipedia (one of our great modern treasures, if you ask me — due in no small part to the collaboration of millions of contributors all over the world, a testament to humans’ ability to work together), there are quite a few subcategories of the term, the first of which relates to physics and is way over my head, and the second relating to mathematics, also over my head (I like math, but I’m lost when “Abelian variety” and number theory are in the mix). The others relate to economics, social dynamics, and politics.
I think when most of us are referring bleakly to “polarization,” we are referring to the political variety, when, as Wikipedia puts it, “public opinion divides and becomes oppositional.”
Certainly, Homo sapiens have always been a clique-y bunch. No doubt it behooved us, back on the African savannah or in the dark caves of Europe, to stay close to our tribes and steer clear of those we didn’t know. Even the gender power imbalance potentially made sense when basic survival was on the line.
But in our modern, increasingly enlightened era, it seemed we were moving away from that hyper-cliquishness … Until we weren’t. Antagonism toward “out groups” seems rampant in recent years: Left versus right; race versus race; religion versus religion; straight versus LGBTQ; country versus country… Even the states within the USA are seeing rifts. Perhaps we need to rename ourselves The Not-So-United-States of America.
It could be argued that there’s never been a more critical time for humans to work together: So many people living on this fragile planet now, with weapons of mass destruction within alarmingly close reach, not to mention a complex and perilous interdependence due to global supply chains and linked financial markets. And yet we are divided and oppositional … more so, it seems, with each passing day.
In a 2022 Forbes article on polarization, Helen Lee Bouygues said, “Large swaths of the population are finding it more difficult to listen to, let alone seek out, someone who does not agree with them. This is a central tenet of critical thinking: The ability to expand your perspective by looking at problems in different ways, from different vantage points.”
But most of us can’t just snap our fingers and instantly expand our perspectives. It takes time and effort (and for many of us, learning how to think critically, including becoming media literate) … and our little echo chambers are oh-so comfy and self-reinforcing.
Enter the overview effect, a phenomenon coined by author Frank White when interviewing astronauts after space travel, described as a “cognitive shift” while viewing the Earth from space, seeing its beauty and its stark vulnerability as it floats in the vast black expanse of space.
White, interviewed in a 2019 NASA podcast, said, “[T]he first thing that most people think [regarding] the overview effect is no borders or boundaries on the Earth… But it’s knowing intellectually versus experiencing it… We are really all in this together. Our fate is bound up with people that we may think are really different from [us]. We may have different religions, we may have different politics. But ultimately we are all connected. Totally connected. And not only with people, but with life.”
Most of us won’t get to see Earth from space, but a shift in perspective can come from something as simple as the Deep Time Walk, a transformative narrated guided walk which I did last summer walking along the Tahoe trails, and which had a profound effect on my awareness of humans as a small (but very powerful) part of an unfathomably large cosmic story.
I think if more of us tried perspective-expanding exercises, whether doing a deep time walk, listening with purposeful open-mindedness to those with different views from ours, learning about media literacy, or trying to look at Earth through an astronaut’s eyes, as the incredibly beautiful and vulnerable haven which we are so lucky to inhabit, we may find a way past our polarized conflicts, and toward a way of thinking that reflects the reality that we humans are only a part of the incredibly complex integrated system of life that is Earth.
Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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