The Way Out of Toxic Polarization
By Peter T. Coleman, Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University
The combination of COVID, political polarization, racial injustice, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol have all contributed to a majority of Americans being miserable. But, it’s not just about two people who have different opinions and are unable to talk to each other. It goes way beyond this. The media, the internet, our political leaders, and our political structures also contribute to this miserable divide.
In an environment like we’re currently in, change can be difficult. But, it’s possible when you take small steps.
My work focuses on violent, long-term conflicts that go on for 30 years or more. We find that they change under two conditions. First, the population begins to get exhausted, fed up, and really miserable. Studies show that a majority of Americans are at this point. Second, they need to see a way out, that there is a clear way forward that is hopeful, feasible and not too costly.
How do we do this?
Don’t launch first into a political debate. Try to begin by learning about others through dialogue, by sharing your personal stories and hearing theirs in a way that opens you up to each other and to discovering more about them, yourself and the problems you are facing together. This is fundamental to overcoming the oversimplification, hate and polarization that we’re experiencing. It starts by listening and hearing one another speak about things not related to politics, such as life stories and things we share in common.
This can offer a first step toward a way out of our current misery. By experiencing this, we begin to gain a sense of what it means to move beyond our current climate of contempt. Modeling this for others is also critical. Hearing stories of people connecting across our divisions can move people and change their sense of what is possible.
One Small Step introduces the opportunity for people to have that experience, and also shows them how to have that experience. When others see and hear people with opposite opinions have meaningful conversations without descending into tense political debate, they begin to recognize that these kinds of encounters are possible, valuable and meaningful, and that they can have these experiences too.
Beyond participating in One Small Step, you can engage with others with whom you disagree politically by simply doing a couple things:
- Clarify your intentions. You likely are not going to change someone’s mind about a deeply-held political belief in a single encounter. But you might be able to learn more about them or about a complicated issue and grow from your experience. Knowing your intentions going in is key to having a fruitful encounter.
- Start local. In most of our lives, there are people and groups who are natural peacemakers who can help us get started. Some are individuals who are inclined to fairness and trustworthiness, who we tend to seek out when we are trying to repair our damaged relationships. Others are groups that spring up in response to tense divisions in our communities, who develop techniques for bringing people together safely and helpfully. Seeking them out should be one of your first moves when looking for a way out.
- Complicate your life. When you find yourself feeling completely disdainful of them – the members of the other tribe – and absolutely certain they are dead wrong on most issues, then it might be time to complicate your life. That is, to seek out people who hold opposing views from you on important issues, but whom you feel are smart, decent and well-informed. Thinking with them can help you see things anew.
- Take a hike. Research shows that when you move, physically, your mind opens up. Being active and doing something together – and ideally outside – with others that you disagree with has been found to help build cooperation and understanding. It can free up your thinking, change your perspective, and help you get in sync with others.
There is a way out of the polarization we’re currently trapped in. You’re taking positive steps to help overcome it by learning and participating in One Small Step.
As we continue to develop One Small Step, experts across a number of fields are advising StoryCorps on how to create respectful environments conducive to meaningful connection. Peter Coleman, Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, is one of our advisors.
Growing One Small Step — When It’s Needed Most
“Recent polls demonstrate what most of us have already experienced first-hand: that there is a pervasive culture of contempt that threatens the very foundations of our democracy,” said Dave Isay, StoryCorps Founder and President.
With support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and in partnership with local public media stations, StoryCorps is expanding One Small Step to six additional communities in 2021.
The six stations and communities selected are:
- Alaska Public Media, Anchorage, AK
- High Plains Public Radio, Garden City, KS, and Amarillo, TX
- KOSU, Oklahoma City, OK
- KUNR, Reno, NV
- Valley Public Media, Clovis, CA
- Vermont Public Radio, Colchester, VT
We’ll provide training and production assistance to public media stations to facilitate and broadcast conversations with people in America of opposing viewpoints, sitting down to find common ground.
Watch highlights from 2020 and hear voices from across the country in this short video:
According to a CBS News poll released earlier this year, more than half of all Americans say the greatest danger to America’s way of life comes from their fellow citizens. One Small Step aims to remind people of the humanity in all of us and that it’s hard to hate up close. These communities can model this change for the rest of the country.
Two members of each participating station will take part in a training to facilitate and record conversations between community residents of differing political views, and selected interviews will be shared across each station’s media platforms.
Stations will also team up with a variety of community organizations to spread the word and collaborate with the StoryCorps team to match participants and record conversations through the end of the year. The project will include a series of public listening events that will be streamed online in the fall of 2021.
Station participation in the One Small Step Communities project is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. StoryCorps’ national One Small Step initiative is made possible by the generous support of The Hearthland Foundation, the Fetzer Institute, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Charles Koch Institute.
The Science behind One Small Step
By Jennifer A. Richeson, social psychologist at Yale University
The “contact hypothesis” is a straightforward but powerful idea. It says this: People who come from different social and cultural groups can learn to like and accept one another through repeated interactions, such as through conversations. Contact can reduce prejudice and promote peace.
We often first learn about people from different societal groups through stereotypes. The contact hypothesis posits that when we meet each other as individuals, people stop being stereotypes and become people again. The learning, familiarity, and humanization that happen when we really start to get to know another person are important to breaking down the interpersonal forms of racism, anti-semitism, and “othering” that have been part of our country’s history.
StoryCorps’ One Small Step is scaffolded on contact theory. The contact participants have in this program — one-on-one conversations between two strangers — is intentionally extra-personal. It’s not just “talk about some stuff” or “get to know one another” for instance, as most contact experiences might unfold between, say, college-dorm roommates, who might be from different backgrounds and are given a whole semester to connect. When people come together through One Small Step, they speak immediately about personal, human experiences that invite connection and open up the space for vulnerability. It is moderated through the presence of a trained StoryCorps Facilitator, who helps create ground rules and a space that is carefully managed.
What’s so brilliant about it is that it provides the opportunity for people not just to take the perspective of a person from a very different social group, but also to feel that their perspective has been “gotten.” In other words, people feel that they have been respected, seen, and heard. And that kind of perspective getting, not perspective taking — knowing that someone else now understands where you’re coming from — that’s the magic. That’s where you have a human-to-human moment, the opportunity to recognize the essence, the common humanity, that’s in all of us. It doesn’t become unimportant that you’re conservative or you’re liberal, or that you’re this race or that religion. It’s just that you aren’t flattened into those identities, and the worst stereotypes that we may hold about those identities. And, that allows just a little bit of space, some “identity safety,” for individuals to recognize that people from very different walks of life may not actually be all that threatening.
Our fears can be overwhelming when we perceive threats to be true. We hunker down and get protective: “OK, I must defend myself and people like me.” In our current political landscape, we tend to think the best way to protect our ingroup is to diminish if not obliterate our adversaries, to push them out or make them irrelevant.
But the answer to “identity threat” doesn’t have to be taking out the other guys. It could be to reduce the threat, and to help people understand, for instance, through direct connections with people from different groups, that they don’t need to feel so threatened. One Small Step conversations allow people an opportunity to see what is possible on the other side of our current state of political acrimony.
Approaching an intensely personal, vulnerable conversation can be scary. People can benefit even from just listening to these conversations from the outside. When listeners hear how well such interactions can go, they realize making these connections is possible, and not as frightening as they might think.
Many people don’t engage in conversations across different social groups, not because they’re not interested, unwilling, or don’t care, but because they’re afraid of being rejected. Once you’ve witnessed an experience of positive conversation between two people with different backgrounds and beliefs, that barrier can come down and open the door for real — and necessary — human connection.
Jennifer A. Richeson is the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Perception and Communication Laboratory at Yale University. For over 20 years, she has conducted research on the social psychology of cultural diversity. Specifically, she examines processes of mind and brain that influence the ways in which people experience diversity, with a primary focus on the dynamics that create, sustain, and sometimes challenge societal inequality. Much of her recent research considers the political consequences of the increasing racial/ethnic diversity of the United States. Read more about Professor Richeson here.
My One Small Step Experience
Since StoryCorps began piloting One Small Step in 2018, more than 1,500 people in 40 cities have taken part in the project. What is it like to have a conversation with a stranger? Sara Coffman, who recorded with Sarah Nadeau in Shreveport, Louisiana, in December 2020 recounted her experience.
When I first sat down in Shreveport, LA to have a One Small Step conversation, I had no idea what to expect. Other than having the same first name, my conversation partner and I seemed very different and had starkly different views.
Sarah and I were asked what moment in our life defined our political views. When we each told our story, it became clear that our different backgrounds and life experiences informed how we think and see the world.
As I felt the conversation open up, any defensiveness melted away, and we were able to truly share our life experiences with one another. And, though we didn’t suddenly agree on everything, we were both able to look at the world and one another’s opinions with fresh eyes.
Over the years I have met so many different people in different places, and I have relished the opportunity to share my experience and hear from others about theirs.
That day and conversation helped me see that when we listen to one another, no matter how different we may seem to be, we realize that we are all human. The One Small Step experience helped to cultivate the sense of the joy and wonder that happens when we sit down face-to-face, and look each other in the eye — no yelling, no distraction, just a wide-open heart.
Conversations like this are a courageous act, and it can be easy to feel defensive or frightened of being judged. But, this one step — this one conversation — helps us grow, learn to be more open and mindful, and brings into focus just how amazing our world really is once we see just how connected we all are.
When you walk away from a One Small Step interview, you will be changed. And there is a good chance you will be open to having many more conversations just like this.
I encourage you to take the next step.