Reversing Polarization by sharing space

by Leona Lortie

Years ago, I stopped making New Year’s resolutions. December always seems to be too busy in the pre-Christmas hustle. Any previous New Year’s resolutions never lasted long in my memory, so why bother.

Entering into this new year has felt different for me. All throughout December and January, I have contemplated the fact that not only is this a new year, but also a new decade. The last decade for me personally has been full of change. I became a parent, finished grad school, and uprooted and moved twice. The world around me in a larger context has also changed significantly. In 2010, the excitement of seeing Barak Obama, the first African American President of the U.S. in office and leader of the most powerful country in the world, had not worn off for me. I was hopeful that the world was making strides forward in overcoming racism and inequality. My eyes were looking toward the next milestone that humanity could tackle. I was optimistic.

Moving into the twenties brings very different emotions to mind. Not only does my optimism feel muted, I am genuinely anxious about the state of the world. I look around and wonder whether we, humanity, are moving in the right direction, morally and ethically speaking. Or are we just moving in circles? Nationalism in Europe, for example, has made a clear comeback. Are we making progress in sorting things like racism out and removing divides, or are we just doubling down on divisive worldviews?

The questions I ponder as I wrestle with this new decade are: what is my role in all of this? Am I part of the solutions or the problems? What can I do to counter some of the alarming trends of the last decade?

I recently listened to an episode of CBC Ideas, that argued that we have seen a decline of constructive political debates in an increasingly polarized society. According to philosophy professors Robert Talisse and Scott Aiken, today we are less likely to engage with people on the opposite political spectrum than in the past. Apparently, we are more likely to avoid family functions or certain public spaces out of an anxiety to be confronted with people who see the world differently and make different political choices. We are becoming more and more divided politically and even physically.

Talisse comments, ”Your ordinary, unplanned, casual, social interactions are increasingly more likely to put you in contact only with people who are politically a lot like yourself. And what that means is, it’s easier for you to regard people unlike yourself as alien. They are literally distant from you […] It’s much easier for you under those circumstance, to accept a caricature of who they are and the kind of lives they lead.”

Protesters at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg during the Climate Strike on September 27, 2019. (MCC Photo/Leona Lortie)

When I think about the last decade in political terms, what comes to mind is the word ‘entrenchment’. At the beginning of the 2010s, I would have confidently placed myself in the centre on the political spectrum with a leaning to a particular side. Come election time, I considered parties on both sides of the spectrum at least in theory. However, over the last 10 years, I have found myself moving further away from the centre and finding less understanding and compassion for those who would place themselves firmly on the opposite side.

Strangely enough, the two events that have had the largest impact on my political views and my perceptions of those who oppose my views took place in countries I have never even held residency in; Brexit in the U.K. and the most recent elections in the U.S. In part due to these events as well as other domestic and geopolitical developments, I am catching myself increasingly perceiving people as either being right or left politically. This classification then impacts how I relate with these people.

We can also observe polarization of our society through different lenses. The last decade saw the rise of large social movements and protests, from #IdleNoMore, to #BlackLivesMatter, to #MeToo, to #fridaysforfuture, just to name a few in Western countries alone. These movements are driven by the belief that the status quo is no longer acceptable. However, at the same time, we saw the rise or strengthening of disturbing ideologies, for example, fascism and xenophobia. These trends seem fully at odds with each other.

Conversations at an anti-racism in 2015 in Winnipeg, MB. L-R: KC Adams, Andy Arthur, Vincent Solomon, Steve Plenert. (MCC Photo/Alison Ralph)

At the end of each year, I enjoy reflecting on the ‘best of’, ‘top ten’ type of stats. I like the ritual of contemplating the past and looking ahead. On December 31, 2019, for the first time in years, I took a few minutes, found a quiet space, and I actually wrote a New Year’s resolution list. However, this list is quite different than any previous such lists I have made. I wrote down things that I needed to invest in. Things that I need to tackle, figure out, and work to resolve.

If we were to put together a list of resolutions for the new decade for our Canadian society, at the top of that list should be the reversal of polarization. Otherwise, chances are that we will not be able to overcome the incredibly complicated obstacles we are facing, such as climate change, racism, and conflict . If we become increasingly disillusioned with people who share different views, how can we not only find solutions, but also muster the collective strength to do the hard work to implement them?

The polarizing trend of the last decade can be reversed, but it will need individuals like myself to open up and embrace others for their humanity and the aspects of life that we share, along with decision makers and politicians who are willing to speak and work across partisan lines. It seems to me that building relationships and sharing time and space with those who have different views is where that process starts. Getting to know each other or reconnecting with friends and family is absolutely necessary before we can respectfully discuss our viewpoints to find commonality (see our conversation guide for some ways to engage respectfully in dialogue on divisive issues).

In politics, we should expect our elected politicians to reach across the aisle in a spirit of collaboration for the benefit of the greater good. It is time that we expect the same of ourselves.

Leona Lortie is the Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator for MCC’s Ottawa Office.

4 Thoughts

  1. Leona, I thought your reflection was thought provoking. Also, very well written! . Thanks for sharing yourself with us, the readers.

  2. Thank you Leona for your very thoughtful reflections in this edition of the Ottawa Notebook. I appreciate your concluding sentence as a reminder to myself, too. Stay well. Peace / James

    James & Joan Alty
    Co-Representatives for Mennonite Central Committee

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