Toxic Polarization Feeds on Simplicity. Peter Coleman Offers Complexity as a Way Out

“By some measures, we’re as politically polarized as we were just after the U.S. Civil War,” social psychologist Peter Coleman told me in a recent conversation. Coming from Coleman, who has spent his career studying polarization and conflict resolution, this wasn’t exactly good news. 

In fact, it’s horrible news. It’s more evidence that the world’s falling apart and that we’re too far gone and there’s no coming back. The other side is really ruining it for everyone else. Why can’t they just get with reality? Argh! 

Deep breath. 

The stats and stories of our political divide with which we’re bombarded—daily, hourly, by the minute—can easily send us down the “we’re all doomed” rabbit hole. It’s in these moments, when we want nothing more than to hide away, declare all is lost, that we can find a foothold by deepening what we know about the issue—going from black and white to shades of gray; from simplicity to complexity. 

Fortunately, Coleman can help us do just that. In his new book, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization, Coleman argues that our political differences that seem so intractable do not have to be. The reason for the divisive political polarization we’re experiencing in the United States, Coleman explains, can’t be traced back to one unreasonable person, unfortunate event, or societal defect. Political polarization is better characterized as a changing and dynamic system, with far too many factors interacting in unpredictable ways for us to measure, control, and understand each one of them separately. 

As Coleman unravels why we find ourselves in such a divided political moment, he doesn’t leave us on our own to reckon with the problem. Drawing on years of research and experience in conflict mediation—his work as a member of the United Nations Mediation Support Unit’s Academic Advisory Council and as a New York State certified mediator, for instance—he provides timely and practical guidance for how to bridge the ideological divides that separate families, colleagues, and communities.

I was surprised by the acute sense of relief that I felt upon closing the book. Though Coleman doesn’t shy away from the seriousness of our situation, my newfound understanding of why and how conflicts tend to spiral out of control provided a strange comfort. There may not be any silver-bullet solution to prevent these spirals in the first place, but there is power in better understanding how we fit in—and can influence—these larger social-political systems. 

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Coleman to discuss The Way Out. We covered a lot of ground, from the value of introducing some complexity into our lives for a more nuanced worldview, to practical advice for engaging with those who seem irreconcilably different from ourselves, to the peacekeeping power of chocolate chip cookies. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Heather Graci: Americans across the political spectrum are worried about how bad political polarization in our nation has become. Is it as bad as we think it is? And if so, how did we get here?

Peter Coleman: I do think political polarization is as bad as we think it is. Affective polarization is really high, which means that we feel much more warmth, liking, and loyalty for our team, and much more of a sense of contempt for the other. Unwillingness to consider your child marrying one of them, for example, and believing that they’re selfish, unintelligent, and trying to actively harm the country. That’s been happening since the ’70s, so affective polarization has been increasing.

One of the most concerning trends is the geographical and virtual sorting that’s happened. Reds are much more rural, blues are much more urban, but even within cities, there are neighborhood clusters that are red and blue. We’re segregating physically away from one another into our tribes and virtually in terms of the media that we consume. That’s a major concern because we’ve learned from research for decades that interparty contact, interethnic contact, working with, playing sports with, worshiping with, voting with—when you have regular everyday contact with people who are different from you, it mitigates the escalation of intergroup conflict into something that becomes very difficult or violent.

I do think political polarization is as bad as we think it is . . . One of the most concerning trends is the geographical and virtual sorting that’s happened.

And to quickly address your question, how did we get here, it’s complicated. What I don’t think is the case is how we oftentimes talk about political polarization, which is that it’s all about one thing. I don’t believe it’s all about moral, value, [or] priority differences between reds and blues. I don’t think it’s about differences in brain sensitivity to threat of Republicans versus Democrats. I don’t think it’s about gerrymandering. I don’t think it’s necessarily that we have a disingenuous Republican Party. I don’t think it’s one thing. 

I do think some things matter more than others. The fear that whites have of immigration and out groups coming in, or losing power, losing status, makes them susceptible to being divided and conquered by politicians. And the reality we live in with institutionalized racism has changed somewhat in [recent] decades, but there are so many real grievances. So, that is fertile ground for conflict and division, as is our rampant inequality which is highest of all the G7 nations, and our weaponization of media and the truth.

You say in your book that polarization is a cloud problem, but we often treat it like a clock problem. What’s a cloud problem, what’s a clock problem, and why is it so important that we differentiate between them?

That distinction comes from Karl Popper, who was one of the great philosophers of science of the last hundred years. Many of us think about problems as clocks that you can take apart, fix, put back together, and then things will be better. That lens has been around for 400 years, and it’s been influenced by things like Newtonian physics because Newton was able to come up with a theorem that had such profound explanatory power. It seduced scientists and humans to think, “Oh, we can do this with everything. We can figure out the math, the essence, and the equations, and therefore, we can control everything.” 

Popper was saying, Wrong. There are so many parts of life—like epidemics, or patterns of chronic poverty, or chronic crime in neighborhoods—that are cloud problems, where there are just too many factors interacting in weird ways such that we can’t really measure, control, and understand them. Popper argued that we have to think differently about cloud problems. For example, if we pass legislation that makes it illegal to gerrymander, it may have positive effects, it may have negative effects, it may have no effect initially and then eventually have an effect. Cloud problems function differently than we think they do.

I suggest that with the kinds of polarization that we’re in today, which are so complex and changing and dynamic, we have to understand them as complex systems that stabilize into strong patterns that resist change and even good faith attempts of changing them. Given that, we have studied the conditions under which long term divisive patterns in communities actually change course. There is research on that, but it’s not the typical research that tries to identify the essence of the problem and fix it. It says no, these kinds of problem sets become highly complicated and dynamic, and we have to think about the conditions under which they can be interrupted and then pivot and change course.

One principle that you proposed for finding the way out of this deeply polarized moment is taking advantage of resets. You also suggest that the U.S. has just encountered a massive reset via the Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic. What happens now, or what should happen now?

I wouldn’t say that the U.S. has necessarily encountered a reset—what we’ve encountered are shocks. When deeply divided societies pivot towards peace, it tends to happen overwhelmingly when there’s some kind of major destabilizing factor that occurs. It can be an assassination of a political leader, it can be a coup attempt, it can be an earthquake or tsunami that wipes out communities. 

When big things happen, they often give us pause and make people start to reflect on the decisions they make—why they treat members of the other party the way they do, and why they follow the people they do. We start to question some of our basic assumptions. Shocks don’t guarantee change, but they create the conditions where it’s much more likely to happen. The question is what we do with this opportunity because we were in this time of the Trump administration’s approach to governing, COVID, economic shutdown, racial injustice—there are so many things rocking our culture that provide fertile soil for us to take the time to reset and to reflect.

With the kinds of polarization that we’re in today . . . we have to understand them as complex systems that stabilize into strong patterns that resist change and even good faith attempts of changing them.

And let me just be clear about one thing that is often a point of confusion. What I don’t suggest is that we join hands with white supremacists and say, “There are good people on both sides.” That’s not my position. My position is that when you get so far apart and vilify the others so much, it can put us on the brink of violence and war, like we saw on January 6th.

A study that came out yesterday said that something like 15 percent of the population thinks we need to be armed and ready for war. Well, it’s terrifying to live in a country this big with that many people who are armed and think that war is inevitable. So, my objective is to bring the guardrails back; we need to disagree, we need to challenge white supremacy, inequality, and all the things that I believe are pathologies for our society, but we need to find ways to do it that are constructive, nonviolent, and don’t lead to what we saw on January 6th.

A recurring theme throughout your book is complexity. It’s been a recurring theme throughout our conversation today too. Ultimately, you argue that though it might not feel good, it’s important to embrace contradictory complexity, or complexity that doesn’t align with our worldview. What’s an example of contradictory complexity in today’s political landscape?

In the book, I talk about a group of women in Boston that came together in secret to have a pro-life/pro-choice dialogue for several years. One of the things that they talked about was that as activists on both sides, you don’t reflect on the ambiguity of your own position, about the consequences of your activism. You really don’t have time to do that. Your job is to say, “The house is on fire, stand up and fight, this is what we do.” That’s how you mobilize people, get energy, get funding, and advance your agenda. If you start to bring in, “Some of them are nice people,” you basically dissipate that energy. So, they have lived these lives—all smart, accomplished women—in this fight and with very little opportunity to ask their own questions or to say, You know, I feel a little ambivalent about this myself. It’s that ambivalence, it’s that doubt, it’s that questioning yourself and your own assumptions that is a form of contradictory complexity. 

We did a study in 2002 during the last intifada in Israel/Palestine, and studied people who are in the diaspora here, Israelis and Palestinians. We were interested in how people thought about “them,” “us,” and the conflict during that intensity. You have people on the extreme saying, They’re insane, we’re victims of their craziness. But then you had this group in the middle that were able to hold this more complicated narrative and say, They’re crazy, our leaders are crazy, this is a mess, we’re trapped in this thing. They were able to hold onto that. And what was interesting is that most of them had experienced what we’d called some kind of serendipitous encounter with the other.

One was this: a Palestinian woman who is a physicist here described being a kid playing with her friends in an olive grove. At some point, a man with earlocks walked up to her. So, she saw this guy approaching and thought he was the devil because, you know, he’s got earlocks. And then he reached out and offered them a plate of chocolate chip cookies. To the kid, it was like, Okay, that’s the devil, but those are awesome chocolate chip cookies. So, what do you do? She took the cookie, and it was really good, and there was something about that encounter that she could never forget.

She’d only seen Israelis either at checkpoints in military uniforms harassing people or on the news doing awful things, but then there’s this guy giving them cookies. And what was interesting to me as a peace builder is that most of these encounters were not intentional. They weren’t like, “We brought Israeli and Palestinian kids together to play a soccer game.” No, it was like, “I don’t know why this guy is giving me a cookie, and damn it, I can never let that go.” She said that it was really hard to essentialize them for the rest of her life because there was this seed of doubt. That’s contradictory complexity.

Many conflict resolution strategies advise us to wait until our emotions subside to re-engage with the conflict, the “take a deep breath” type of advice. But you point out that this can be unhelpful when our emotions are the central driver of the conflict. What’s your advice for engaging on issues and inviting that necessary complexity into our lives when we might find the other side morally repugnant?

Dave Isay, who founded StoryCorps, has founded a group called One Small Step. They’re piloting it in four cities, bringing reds and blues together in conversations. What’s interesting about their approach is that they encourage people not to talk about politics. They encourage them to first write their own story about themselves, how they grew up, what’s important to them and why, and then they share those stories. Then, they have a 40 minute conversation that sometimes eventually wanders near politics, but it doesn’t start with, “Are you kidding me?” It’s about providing context and relationship, connecting on a human level, and moving into a very different zone that isn’t about facts and persuasion, but is about learning and discovery. If we can engage in those kinds of conversations, you can have a very different dynamic.

It’s about moving into a very different zone that isn’t about facts and persuasion, but is about learning and discovery. If we can engage in those kinds of conversations, you can have a very different dynamic.

So, if this is a member of your family that you want to engage with across the divide, and you know that every time you sit down with them, bam, it’s insanity, then that’s probably going to happen. It’s about understanding the context of your relationship. Do you have a strong enough relationship to be able to have a conversation? And if so, then how do you approach that conversation? If you launch in with a challenge or confrontation, it’s going to escalate, guaranteed, and it’s not going to be good. You may want to do it anyway, so enjoy yourself. But it will probably do damage, and then it’s much harder to walk back. If you want to have a different kind of conversation, it’s not about winning the game of the day, but about trying to listen to the other side. Share your story, be as honest and candid as you can, and create the conditions where you can have that kind of conversation. 

You paint a picture at the end of your book that made me feel really hopeful, and I’d love to leave readers with that same feeling. I’m curious to know what success looks like in your eyes. What does it mean to overcome polarization?

To be clear, polarization isn’t a bad thing. Polarization in a two party system is critical. It’s about having different beliefs and opinions and attitudes that are far enough apart that you challenge each other. In some ways, polarization is the essence of contradictory complexity because in a two-party system, you have to figure out how to negotiate those things. Toxic polarization is a trap, and it is somewhat psychotic currently. It makes us sick, our families sick. It splits us apart and derails our capacity to do other things.

My lab just did a reanalysis of a bunch of data to compare the top one percent of counties in America in terms of political polarization with the bottom one percent. One of the concerning trends that I talked about, the physical and virtual moving away from each other, is the thing that is mitigated in the least polarized counties by sports teams, workplaces, unions, religious organizations. The most important preventative notion is mixing. And intentionally doing that, whether you’re an urban designer, or mayor, or in a family, and you realize that everybody in your life has the same political opinion, maybe you need to figure out how to introduce some kind of dissonance into that conversation.