The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization

The Way Out Cover
The Way Out Cover

Author and Professor, Peter Coleman Discusses his Book “The Way Out”

By Peter T. Coleman Professor of Psychology and Education, Columbia University; Director, Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

Divided We Fall: Thanks for joining us today, Professor Coleman. We are excited to discuss your new book, “The Way Out”. To start, we’d love to hear about what led you to write this book as well as your work at the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University. 

Professor Coleman: I got the idea to write the book in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Because I run the Difficult Conversations Lab, I was approached by various media organizations mostly looking for help on how people can go to Thanksgiving with people in the family who they feel alienated from and things like that. But I also started to talk to some organizations that were getting involved in bridge-building work, that were encouraging people to go on a website and fill out a form and then get together with somebody on the other side and have a conversation, which is an intervention based on something called Contact Theory, which makes a lot of sense most of the time. But when I pushed these organizations, what I started to hear were the stories that they don’t tell, which is when these things blow up because people are so passionate and ideologically ensconced in their point of view; when they just sit down with somebody who is on the other side and they can’t just talk it out. And that is because the problem is bigger than just them and their conversation. So, my sense was that even though there was a lot of good faith work going on trying to build bridges, I did have a sense that it wasn’t informed sufficiently by the science; that they’d go off a superficial understanding of something like Contact Theory, which has been studied for decades. Those studies have narrowed the conditions under which it’s effective or ineffective, so an insufficient awareness of the science concerned me. That’s when I just decided to write the book. 

I’ve been studying what we call intractable conflicts, which are long-term, deeply embedded, cultural conflicts. Israel-Palestine or Kashmir or The Troubles in Northern Ireland are all examples. These are long-term conflicts that seem to outlive the main players and changes in policy and society. I’ve been studying these things for about 25 years in different ways. One way is through the Difficult Conversations Lab, where we put together a multidisciplinary team of researchers to study these problems in new ways. These are the kinds of conflicts — these long-term, stuck conflicts — that don’t respond to negotiation or mediation or just talking it out. People, groups, societies don’t respond the way you think that they would. And so we wanted to try to understand them through a different lens, so we put together a team of complexity scientists, physicists, political scientists, and peace-builders, to try to understand why and how they organize into systems that are so change resistant, and then the conditions under which they change. 

Cloud vs Clock Problems 

Divided We Fall: On the topic of intractable problems, you use an interesting analogy about “cloud” and “clock” problems. You also use a framework of “attractors” Can you explain these concepts for our readers? 

Professor Coleman: The cloud-clock metaphor is something I got from Karl Popper, who was a philosopher of science. He wrote a piece in the 70s describing fundamentally different kinds of problems that scientists face. We typically think all problems are “clock” problems, which means that if we can measure everything precisely and we can break the problem apart, we can find the pieces that are broken, fix them, and kind of put it back together. So it’s a kind of mechanistic or mechanical approach. And it was the dominant paradigm for centuries. But he also said that there are what he called “cloud problems”, which are much more complex constellations of problems, that are sort of constantly changing, but somehow aligning and feeding each other. These could include anything from chronic poverty in some nations and regions to chronic traffic in a city. They are the kind of problems that don’t lend themselves to being taken apart and finding the thing that’s broken because ultimately, it’s multiple things that are interacting in strange ways that we can’t understand. And so, Popper said we have to really understand that some problems are categorically different and we have to learn to think differently about them. 

In the world of complexity science, there is a notion of attractors, which are basically deep patterns that we fall into in our life. Addiction could be considered an attractor as it’s something that is destructive to your health, something that bothers your family, something that can lead to unemployment, and it can really mess up your life. But somehow we can’t escape it because addiction is what is known as a bio-psycho-social-structural problem. It’s not just in your biology or in your physiology but it’s also in your psychology and your relationships, and it’s in your work patterns and more. So it’s fed by multiple things. But ultimately, it culminates in a pattern that you keep falling into and that really feels impossible to escape. We started to use that metaphor for societies that fall into intractable patterns of conflict. And even though circumstances on the ground may change, they can’t escape it, even though there are many good faith attempts. They don’t seem to really touch it, because the system keeps falling back into this pattern.

The other side of the equation are sustainably peaceful societies around the world: hundreds of societies that like Costa Rica, that have pivoted, and moved out of conflict and violence and destructiveness and are sustainably peaceful either within their society and or in what we call peace systems with other societies. They, too, are very stable systems and very resilient systems. But they’re stable and resilient in a more healthy, constructive way. They’re able to manage stressors like economic downturns and immigration, influxes, and other things that could destabilize them, but they’re able to remain in these more virtuous cycles of a variety of constellations. We study those as attractor dynamics as well.

Complex Problems Require Complex Solutions

Divided We Fall: Where this really matters, according to your book, is when we start to think about what to do about these conflicts. You say clock problems can be “fixed” whereas cloud problems require “radical re-landscaping,” which really drives home the importance of defining the problem correctly. 

Professor Coleman: In this world, what we want are fix it solutions. When you start to realize that these kinds of problems don’t lend themselves to simple solutions — for example, well, it’s just about gerrymandering, so if we fix that the polarization problem will be gone! — but rather a really different way of thinking and understanding and ultimately engaging with the problem. There’s an author named Ian McGilchrist, who has written on this, and part of what he finds is that the world emphasizes and values left-brain thinking, which is analytical thinking. It’s like legal thinking or scientific thinking or consulting work, where you go in and fix the problem. Right-brain thinking is not breaking things apart and looking for the problem. It’s understanding the big picture and how things connect, and it really requires something that I call systemic wisdom. It’s a way of understanding how these — all these things interact in strange ways and then fall into patterns. Those patterns are the attractor landscapes of our life. I argue that American society today has a very strong and deep landscape, and it’s not just us in our psychology, but in our neighborhoods, who we see and don’t see, talk to and don’t talk to, who we connect with on the Internet. All of these things are creating landscapes for our lives, which makes it really easy for us to fall into valleys where we feel a sense of contempt for those other folks that seem crazy to us, and where we feel much more comfortable with our own tribe. And that landscape is toxic and it’s dangerous.

Divided We Fall: The good news is that you propose five solutions in your book, one of which is “complicate the narrative.” Could you provide an overview of this? 

Professor Coleman: Of course. This idea of complexity is something that has come directly from our research on attractor dynamics at the Difficult Conversations Lab, where we bring people together who are divided on some issue to have a conversation. We have consistently found that if we frame the discussions in more simplistic, pro-con ways — which is usually how the media will frame a hot political issue, by essentially presenting information from two sides in a dichotomous way —  then when they have these conversations, things automatically get contentious, conflictual, escalate, get stuck, and people have a difficult time continuing. However, when we take the same information, on abortion say, but frame it as a complex set of issues where there are moral aspects, health aspects, religious elements, family history issues, and a variety of other things that are contributing to the complexity the abortion issue — we take the same content and just introduce it to people as a complicated set of issues — then the conversations are radically different. People immediately start to understand that there aren’t simple sides to this. There are many aspects. Complexity changes how they think about the issue, how they treat each other, how they advocate for their positions. The higher the complexity, the more constructive the conversations, which doesn’t mean that they come to an agreement on abortion but it does mean that they’re willing to continue the conversation and they find it actually interesting and they feel like they’ve learned some things and feel pretty good about themselves and the other person in the context of that conversation. 

Amazingly, this idea of the value of complexity under stressful, demanding, conflictual conditions, scales. It’s found in everything from our brainwaves and how our brain systems are processing things all the way up to our neighborhoods. If you live in neighborhoods that are more complicated in terms of the kinds of contact that you have with members of different groups; if you have what anthropologists call cross-cutting structures; if you go to a workplace, and there are Republicans and Democrats and people of color and it’s a much more diverse experience; if you play sports in those groups; if you worship in those places that are more mixed like that, you tend to find it much more difficult to vilify “them” on the other side because you have relationships with them. You’ve got more information about them. It’s very difficult to oversimplify even when something difficult happens, when something bad happens in your community between two members, because you have all of this experience with the other side. That’s the degree of societal complexity that parallels the complexity and conversations that we talked about. So what I talked about in the book is simply that principle, the scientific principle that complicating your life is a way to help prevent an oversimplification of issues and conversations. 

Productive Dialogue vs Debate

Divided We Fall: This idea of complicating the narrative is key to both our own origin story as a company as well as our methodology for our content. So it’s wonderful to learn about some of the academic theory and research backing it up. 

Professor Coleman: That’s fantastic. The thing to remember is that it takes time to get to a place where you can trust someone and enjoy them enough and have enough rapport to have a difficult conversation and say no, I completely disagree, yet have them hear you and you hear them. Those kinds of dynamics don’t come quickly to Americans. We move right away into the debate. And debate is a game and it’s a game about winning, you know, and I listen to you to find the flaws in your logic and to weaponize those immediately to win the argument. It just escalates and often people shut down. 

Productive dialogue is a very countercultural thing in America, right now. We just are not trained to do it. It’s not what we see in politics or in the courtroom or in business negotiations. It’s really the most persuasive argument that wins the day. And again, that’s great sometimes under some conditions, but not under these kinds of conditions we’re facing today. It just tends to make things worse and alienates people. So we have to build up the muscle, the understanding and the capacity of incorporating dialogue, ideally first in these exchanges, so that people can get to a place where they can disagree and learn from it.

Divided We Fall: We just have a few minutes left. Any parting thoughts for our readers? 

Professor Coleman: One thing I wanted to mention was that these are difficult conversations to have on your own. If you don’t have experience with dialogue, and you want to understand or reach out across a difficult divide, there are great resources online, such as Princeton’s Bridging Divides Initiative, which has mapped thousands of groups dedicated to building bridges so that you can find one in your community. There’s a map that tells you who are the groups in your community that are doing this across red and blue or racial divisions or other kinds of divisions, bringing people together, and facilitating dialogue.

The other thing I just wanted to say is about one of the things that’s the most provocative in my world — which is the world of conflict resolution, negotiation, mediation, and peace-building — is the idea of movement. I was trained as a mediator and, typically, when there’s a dispute, what you do is you bring in the parties and have them sit on either side of a table. They tolerate each other, and you try to keep the temperature down and to try to keep the discourse respectful. But they’re basically sitting and talking sometimes for hours at a time. And that can be a useful type of process for some kinds of conflicts. But when the conflicts have become embodied in our neurological structures, when they’re really within us so deeply, then what we find from recent research in neuroscience is that what can help is actually getting people up physically and moving together. Ideally going for a walk, side by side. Going outside and being physically in sync like that walking together can actually trigger neurological tendencies in us that start to foster compassion and a sense of understanding and cooperation and empathy for the other side, even if we disagree on things. There’s all kinds of research on this and different ways that movement can help to free us up and make us more creative and flexible in our thinking. But it can also help us synchronize with other people who are different from us. And that might be a step in the right direction to come into some kind of understanding to even just agree to disagree. So there’s this whole chapter on movement that I wrote about in the book and some of the neuroscience behind that.

Divided We Fall: Wonderful. We will leave it there for today, Professor. For all of our readers, we strongly encourage you to check out Professor Coleman’s newest book, “The Way Out”, to learn how they can help us solve the cloud problem of polarization and get out of the negative attractor of partisanship.  

The Way Out is available via Columbia University Press, IndieBooks, and on Amazon. You can read more book reviews by Divided We Fall here

Peter Coleman 1
Peter Coleman
Professor of Psychology and Education, Columbia University; Director, Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution | Website

Dr. Peter T. Coleman is Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, Director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, Founding Director of the Institute for Psychological Science and Practice, and Co-Executive Director of Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity. Dr. Coleman is a renowned expert on constructive conflict resolution and sustainable peace. He has authored well over 100 articles and chapters. His latest book, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization, explores how to break through the intractable polarization plaguing the U.S. and other societies across the globe.

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