Our Dividing Moment–Understanding The Matrix of Polarization

Note: This is Part 1 of a Two-part Post.

A coworker is silently angry with a colleague for voting against his candidate.

An upper middle class woman emotionally volleys back and forth with her neighbor on their different votes in this past election.

On Sunday, November 13,  many Pastors led their congregations in prayers of thanksgiving over the results of this election, yet just as many led prayers of lament.

On election night, a woman of color is shocked that her relative posted a racist victory video on her social media site. 

As of November 15,  the Southern Poverty Law center (SPLC) has received over 400 reports of post-election harassment and intimidation.

People have marched in major cities to protest the newly elected President and his supporters have protested the protesters.

 An Airline pilot had to shut down a political argument on his flight after two passenger verbally fought each other. 

The Twitterverse pushed back on the “Queen of Self Help” herself, Oprah Winfrey, when she tweeted, “Everbody take a deep breath. #HopeLives. Too many were not ready to take deep breaths.

This election revealed a great divide in the U.S. Some would say we are more divided than we have ever been before. I don’t think history bears that out.

It turns out, however, we as humans may be more predisposed to polarize than most people realize. We may be programmed to divide ourselves into in-group and out-group. This tendency could be due to our individual intercultural development (or lack thereof). Or it could be due to what some social psychologist call our evolutionary cognitive biases.

In this post I want to share background on these two sources of our polarizing tendencies. In the next post I will share strategies that each of us can take to navigate these tendencies. Each country, culture or organization has significant moments in its existence in which these polarizing divides prove to be particularly deep and troubling.

We often talk about defining moments in the history of a person, group or culture. Well, as a citizen of the United States of America, I can say this right here is one of our country’s dividing moments.

The Culture of “Us vs. Them”

Culture can be defined as a system of shared beliefs and values that get passed on generation by generation, and serve to help people  to survive and thrive in their environment, keeping their identity as a people in tact. Culture can emerge around an ethnic identification, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or nationality. Culture also emerges around professional, corporate and institutional values and practices.

Each of us lives in and is shaped by a particular cultural milieu–some of us are shaped by multiple cultures. Very early on in our lives each of us develops a particular mindset around how we see, interpret and interact with people from other cultures.  The Intercultural Development Continuum identifies five stages in an individual’s intercultural journey. Each stage is characterized by a “mindset” that describes the primary tendencies of interacting with and adapting to people of different cultures.  Of the five stages in this model, polarization, is particularly relevant to our current national climate.

According to the Intercultural Development Inventory v.3™, a person who is in the polarization stage of intercultural development is said to have “a judgmental orientation that views cultural differences in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them.’” As you guessed, to this person, “us” is the group to which he or she belongs and with which she or he closely identifies. To this person their group is inherently good and all others (“they/them”) are bad and seen as “The Other.” A person in polarization gets locked into a mindset and filters information about “The Other” through their cultural interpretive lens.

[tweetthis]Polarization is a mindset—a way of viewing the world in very simple ways, in spite of the world’s complexity.[/tweetthis]

For some people it’s a comfortable place from which to judge the world because it doesn’t require examining their own deeply held assumptions in light of the assumptions of others who are different from them. Plus it’s the only place from which they have known how to operate in the world.

Similarity Bias

Social psychologists shed even more light on this tendency toward polarization through their work on cognitive or unconscious bias. According to the NeuroScience Institute, the “ingroup bias” and the “outgroup bias” are two types of similarity biases linked to “promoting and protecting one’s own group (e.g., your family, your team, your company), but are also associated with the development and perpetuation of stereotypes and prejudice.”

People who fail to put their in-group biases in check will unconditionally view their own group (race, political party, etc.) in positive ways. They will defend them. They will even support their own group in ways that seem irrational to people outside that group.

People who fail to put their out-group biases in check will unconditionally view “the Other” in negative ways. They will invoke and perpetuate stereotypes about people outside their group. They will fear people outside their group.

Think about it:

[tweetthis]Each of us has cultural and cognitive forces operating on us to lock us in to our own positions, beliefs, or groups.[/tweetthis]

No wonder our nation is polarized at this moment — the individuals of our nation are in emotional and cognitive stages of polarization. Some are stuck in this stage and unaware and unmotivated to break free. Still others who are at more adaptive stages of cultural development have moments in which their in-group/out-group biases blind them to objective reality.

During election time this polarization is even more reinforced, structurally, ideologically and linguistically. It’s as though a “Matrix” of pseudo reality is created that sucks us in. Unlike Neo, however, if we are unaware and uninformed, we too easily and firmly take up camp on one side of a set of issues and declare war on those who reside on the other side.



Structurally, this tendency toward polarization is inherent in our two-party political system where we stress the following:

  • Democrats <——> Republicans
  • Red States <—–> Blue States
  • Conservative <—–> Liberal (Or Progressive)

Ideologically, this tendency toward polarization is inherent in the differing cultural assumptions and values stressed by competing parties:

  • Collective values <—–>Individual values
  • “We” priorities  <—–> “I” priorities
  • Social responsibility <—–> Personal accountability

Linguistically, this tendency toward polarization is reinforced by the language we use in our public discourse:

  • Inner cities <—–> Rural communities
  • Black <—–> White
  • Black Lives Matter <—–> Blue Lives Matter
  • Pro-Choice <—–> Pro-Life
  • Nationalism (or Americanism) <——> Globalism

This system is based on a “winner take all” framework. It’s a zero-sum (win-lose) game that keeps many people locked into their “side.” And humans are predisposed to want to win. Indeed we feel better when we win. It doesn’t matter that we win at the cost of our fellow neighbors. They’ve now been characterized as being “Losers” — part of the out-group.

Before I move to strategies for moving past this stage of divide or even mitigating our in-group-out-group biases, I want you to reflect on these ideas for a moment.

  • In what ways do you, in standing for your own beliefs and values, stereotype “the other side?”
  • In what ways do you use language that reinforces the rightness of your side and wrongness of “The Other?
  • In what ways do your staunch views actually widened the gulf between you and “the Other?”

I don’t believe any of us will be able to move from polarization until we take some time to do soul-searching and perspective shifting to gain clarity on what is truly happening. In my last post I shared insights into my own post-election soul-searching. I’m continuing to do so and continuing to expand my thinking. You don’t have to share your insights quite so publicly, but please take some time to reflect.

In my next post, using these two models of polarization, I will offer some strategies to help each of us to become more aware of our own polarizing biases and develop strategies to lessen their effect.

We seem to be stuck in the matrix of polarization. Getting out of this matrix will not be as simple as choosing the blue pill or the red; but it will require a choice.

© 2016 Dr Jeanne


Join 401 other subscribers


Discover more from Dr. Jeanne Porter King

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading