How to Address Affective Polarization Through Civic Religious Pluralism
Civic Engagement Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Faculty Graduate
November 30, 2022
JCC Connexions, Vol. 8, No. 4, November 20221
Engaging Civic Religious Pluralism: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions
How to Address Affective Polarization Through Civic Religious Pluralism
Affective polarization is diminishing people’s inclination and ability to collaborate with people with whom one disagrees; in a diverse democracy that is a recipe for a strained if not dysfunctional life together. The upshot is that researchers, practitioners, and people who need to work with others in their daily lives know what works to reduce affective polarization; the challenge is that it takes a multipronged and sustained approach to strengthening our civic health. There is no single quick fix, but there are myriad ways to reduce affective polarization in your own life and in the operations of our institutions.
What Is Affective Polarization?
In September I was one of 400 people who participated in a half day conference learning about the results of the Strengthening Democracy Challenge, focused on addressing affective polarization (Bridging Divides & Strengthening Democracy: From Science to Practice Conference, 2022). The event, cohosted by Stanford University and several leading civic organizations, was a read out of 25 creative solutions for addressing affective polarization, all digital interventions with a time limit of seven minutes; these solutions were built to scale. They were addressing affective polarization—not simply partisan disagreement, but disliking, distrusting, and even assuming bad intent across partisan lines. The Greater Good Science Center out of the University of California, Berkeley, has many helpful posts describing the problem, its implications, the role of social media, the neuroscience behind it, and solutions (Greater Good Science Center, n.d.; Jilani & Smith, 2019; De-Wit, Linden, & Brick, Are Social Media Driving Political Polarization?, 2019; Anwar, 2020; De-Wit, Linden, & Brick, What Are the Solutions to Political Polarization?, 2019). It also addresses “How Feeling Disillusioned Leads to Political Polarization,” which is an important factor given the mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic and the avenues for radicalization both online and in person (Jacobs, 2018).
For those who are familiar with social science research around addressing polarization, you will not be surprised to see the methodology of Interfaith America, the organization I work for, reflected in impactful tactics. Our pedagogy emphasizes building relationships with people with whom you disagree (starting with common interests, shared values or shared service); learning positive and accurate information about someone different than you—whether religious, spiritual, or secular identity, or other aspects of difference; and deploying the skills of respect like listening for understanding, and engaging curiosity to learn further.
How Do I Undercut Affective Polarization at my Institution?
One of the reasons it is important to ground our efforts in research and data is that it is quite easy to fall into the path of least resistance when we already have so much on our plates. A notable set of speakers at the California Conference on Citizenship recently tackled a well known challenge: Assumptions are well worn patterns of quick conclusions that have a role in our evolution and yet become roadblocks to facilitating effective strategies for connecting across deep difference (Pepperdine School of Public Policy, 2022). Five civic leaders engaged these questions immediately after the January 6 events and detailed the ways in which communities who experience prejudice are often asked to do the heavy lifting in bridgebuilding efforts; integrating efforts to undercut affective polarization must be informed by what we already know about diversity, equity, and inclusion (Bailey, Jeet Singh, Abiade, Thomas, & Polk, 2021). The message of Interfaith America’s potluck nation is aimed at addressing this need: Bring your best to this opportunity for connection, assume best intentions, and seek out the most admirable in someone else (Dallas, 2022).
People are seeking to address this at a range of institutions, including at the federal level. Representatives Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Andy Barr (R-KY) have introduced H.B. 6843, the Building Civic Bridges Act, which would establish an Office of Civic Bridgebuilding within AmeriCorps to prioritize granting to bridgebuilding organizations in communities across the country, training AmeriCorps members in the skills of bridgebuilding, contributing to the research base around impactful strategies through ongoing evaluation of the program, and bringing together practitioners and leaders to learn from one another (Office of Representative David Kilmer, 2022). Recently President Biden hosted a United We Stand Summit and announced a new initiative called the Nation of Bridgebuilders in partnership with Interfaith America, Habitat for Humanity, YMCA of the USA as well as Catholic Charities USA (White House Briefing Room, 2022; Interfaith America Staff Report, 2022). This effort scales the model of working together with people who disagree on fundamental concerns in order to address real needs in a shared community. Campuses can (and do) take similar tactics.
The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, has for years had both Sustained Dialogues and programs that take those skills and principles and craft them to address the specifics of the local needs and assets. One year the Crossroads Civic Engagement Center held monthly sustained dialogues with the heads of religious, political and Greek organizations on campus; amidst deep disagreement relationships were formed. This both strengthened students’ leadership skills, was crafted to empower these leaders to help infuse deep respect across difference within their organizations, and was crafted to serve as a method for defusing flashpoints of tension on campus should they arise.
Integrating Bridgebuilding skills in first year seminars, for student leaders, in preparation for study abroad or alternate spring break and in student government are all ways to reinforce this value on campus, and campuses are likely already equipped, or could become so, to elevate this priority given the expertise in Offices of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Religious and Spiritual Life, and leadership of programs like deliberative dialogues, Bridging the Gap, and so many more (Weissman, 2022). It is important for students to know that these skills translate beyond any single program and equip them to address affective polarization in their own lives.
How Do I Address Polarization in My Daily Life?
In the first episode of the brand-new Interfaith America with Eboo Patel podcast, Eboo Patel, president and founder of Interfaith America, interviews Krista Tippett (Interfaith America with Eboo Patel Podcast, 2022). Tippett is the voice, Patel argues, who has consistently upheld the value of engaging religious identity and diversity and insisting that the conversation does not have to be narrowly about overly simplistic answers or caricatures. Prejudice against religious and racial groups has long carried the moralizing and antagonistic undertones that we are seeing in affective polarization today. The goal of course is not to replace Islamophobia with demonizing of another’s political view; the goal is to recognize the ways in which we are primed for interaction with others (communities of origin, cultural messages, social media, access to information, personal relationships), and cultivate a context in which it is easier to see connection, build relationship and persist through difference and disagreement (Hartman-Pickerill, 2022). The good news is that we know a lot of what works and excellent researchers, and leaders within civil society, philanthropy, religious organizations and service are actively engaging in ongoing conversations, collaborations and shared research to undercut affective polarization. As we consider what our communities need post-midterms this fall, these resources willhttps://www.strengtheningdemocracychallenge.org/conference/#comp-l8w3gau1 help to sustain and strengthen our diverse democracy.
Anwar, Y. (2020, October 28). What political polarization looks like in the brain. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_political_polarization_looks_like_in_the_brain
Bailey, J., Jeet Singh, S., Abiade, K., Thomas, M., & Polk, B. (2021, January 15). Is this a time for bridgebuilding? 5 Leaders in conversation. Interfaith America Magazine: https://www.interfaithamerica.org/is-this-a-time-for-bridgebuilding-5-leaders-in-conversation/
Bridging divides & strengthening democracy: From science to practice conference. (2022, September 29). Stanford University. https://www.strengtheningdemocracychallenge.org/conference/#comp-l8w3gau1
Dallas, K. (2022, May 17). Goodbye, Judeo-Christian nation. Hello, Interfaith America. Deseret News. https://www.deseret.com/faith/2022/5/17/23066914/goodbye-judeo-christian-nation-hello-interfaith-america-eboo-patel-interfaith-youth-core
De-Wit, L., Linden, S., & Brick, C. (2019, January 16). Are social media driving political polarization? Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/is_social_media_driving_political_polarization
De-Wit, L., Linden, S., & Brick, C. (2019, July 2). What are the solutions to political polarization? Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_are_the_solutions_to_political_polarization
Greater Good Science Center. (n.d.). Why are we divided? Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/bridging_differences/definition
Hartman-Pickerill, R. (2022, May 10). Human nature and the project of a diverse democracy. NASPA. https://naspa.org/blog/human-nature-and-the-project-of-a-diverse-democracy
Interfaith America Staff Report. (2022, March 2). Biden calls for unity, and a Field of bridgebuilders sees a way forward . Retrieved from Interfaith America Magazine. https://www.interfaithamerica.org/biden-calls-for-unity-and-a-field-of-bridgebuilders-sees-a-way-forward/
Interfaith America with Eboo Patel Podcast. (2022, October 11). How does the power of conversation bring out the best in us? Interfaith America with Eboo Patel Podcast. Interfaith America.
Jacobs, T. (2018, March 1). How feeling disillusioned leads to political polarization. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_feeling_disillusioned_leads_to_political_polarization
Jilani, Z., & Smith, J. (2019, March 4). What is the true cost of polarization in America? Greater Good Magazine: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_is_the_true_cost_of_polarization_in_america
Office of Representative David Kilmer. (2022, February 25). 9 democrats, 9 republicans introduce legislation to reduce polarization and support community bridgebuilding. Washington, D.C. Derek Kilmer House Representative.
Pepperdine School of Public Policy. (2022, September 13). Constitution Day: The California Conference on Citizenship. YouTube. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_feeling_disillusioned_leads_to_political_polarization
Weissman, S. (2022, September 13). Mining the Depths of Our Differences. Retrieved from Inside Higher Ed: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/09/13/program-brings-christian-and-liberal-colleges-together
White House Briefing Room. (2022, September 15). FACT SHEET: New actions from the Biden-Harris administration and the public and private sectors to foster unity and prevent hate-motivated violence. White House Briefing Room: Press Releases. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/09/15/fact-sheet-new-actions-from-the-biden-harris-administration-and-the-public-and-private-sectors-to-foster-unity-and-prevent-hate-motivated-violence/