Polarization and Intelligence
by Tom Atlee, August 2004
Intelligence involves understanding what is real -- matching our
mental models with what is really out there. That is what learning
from experience is all about: Something happens that we didn't expect,
so we change our expectations to include it, becoming more aligned
with reality in the process. This is what science is all about:
Making hypotheses (mental models) about reality and then testing
them to find their validity, including their limitations.
The more fully we apply intelligence to any circumstance, the more
we become able to align our efforts with the actual realities of
the situation and thereby succeed.
In their efforts to understand reality, intelligent people seek
to understand similarities and differences. Of course, those similarities
and differences should be real and relevant. Getting hung up on
imaginary, irrelevant differences and similarities -- thinking a
handsome candidate is better than a conscientious one, for example,
or that everyone who looks like an Arab is a potential enemy --
can lead to make stupid mistakes.
Sometimes someone -- perhaps an advertiser raving about an expensive
product -- will insist that we pay attention to fine distinctions,
when similarities may be far more obvious and important. Other times
people will insist that certain things -- such as "all politicians"
-- are similar despite glaring differences. At such times, we need
to dig deeper into what's going on. Intelligence involves questioning
anything that interferes with our ability to seriously consider
actual, relevant similarities and differences.
In most cases, polarization undermines intelligence by misleading
us in exactly this way. It reduces vast human diversity into categories
like Left and Right that are often ambiguous, distracting and even
downright irrelevant (see <http://co-intelligence.org/polarizationDynamics.html>).
Polarized partisans reject any notion that there may be important
similarities between people on the Left and Right, or important
differences within the ranks of their enemies or allies. Polarization
is usually antithetical to intelligence. It is especially antithetical
to co-intelligence, the intelligence of the Whole, because it impedes
our ability to connect with diverse other people to discover a bigger
picture that integrates all our views.
INTELLIGENCE AND FORCE
The more we align our actions with reality -- especially with people
or forces we could work with -- the less force we need to exert
to achieve our ends. This is the logic behind many energy-saving
approaches, such as:
- education based on what children want to learn;
- martial arts like Aikido which move with the force of an attacker,
instead of against it;
- passive solar heating, which uses the natural tendency of sunlight
to heat dark objects; and
- permaculture, which creates gardens as self-maintaining ecosystems
where all the parts contribute to each other.
When we go with the natural flow of forces in a situation, we don't
have to use so much energy -- effort, money, fuel, enforcement,
etc. There is a smooth elegance to what we do.
In other words, intelligence -- which helps us align with reality
-- can be used as a replacement for force. Fighting, extreme effort,
domination and violence are all signs of a likely failure of intelligence
to understand the situation so well that only the most minimal,
elegant, exact use of energy is needed to accomplish our ends.
In most cases, polarization increases energy and decreases intelligence.
It narrows our thinking, blinding us to larger realities beyond
our stereotypes, and thus reduces our ability to accurately and
fully understand the situations we face. Worst of all, polarization
makes it virtually impossible to imagine -- to say nothing of identify
or talk to -- potential allies "on the other side." All
polarization does is help us whip up more energy on "our side"
to fuel our efforts to defeat the evil enemy.
Because polarization usually blocks us from understanding and working
with the actual realities and people involved in a situation, it
drives us to waste large amounts of energy fighting battles that
would be more elegantly resolved using dialogue, inclusive strategic
thinking and cooperation.
Ironically, when all is said and done, we lose many of those battles
anyway. Whenever we play win-lose games, someone loses. Sometimes
there is compromise, but such compromises often feel like a loss
to both sides (lose/lose). But the biggest loss -- and the one least
acknowledged -- is the loss of collaborative, collective intelligence
with which we could find a really creative, satisfying solution,
rather than just a tolerable one.
WHEN POLARIZATION HELPS INTELLIGENCE
All that said, we must acknowledge the powerfully positive role
that polarization -- and its close cousins, violence and nonviolent
confrontation -- often play in breaking through denial and life-degrading
social arrangements. Although polarization cannot resolve issues
well, it contains energy that can force those issues onto the table
when most people refuse to attend to them or when people or institutions
with undue social power prevent vital issues from being considered.
People whose views and interests are suppressed or oppressed often
experience, though that oppression, a sense that they are different
from and opposed to the people or systems that are holding them
down or threatening what they value. Asserting this difference and
opposition is often a necessary part of breaking out of victimhood.
The alienation of the oppressed or suppressed is mirrored in those
who suppress them or who buy into the oppressive system: In order
to maintain the oppression, they need to dehumanize those who are
held down and to delegitimize their views.
As both sides decry the other, polarization moves into gear. Injustice
and suppression breed polarization and violence like stagnant water
Of course, the antidote to not being heard and taken seriously
is to be heard and taken seriously. Thus, the antidotes to polarization
and violence are dialogue, justice and empowerment.
So what does all this have to do with intelligence? Since intelligence
does not get applied to what people cannot or will not consider,
anything that makes them attend to real and important issues opens
the door to intelligence. The question THEN becomes: "What
happens when that door is opened?" At the point that productive
dialogue becomes a real possibility, the polarization, violence
or confrontation which may have made dialogue possible in the first
place need to be set aside or ameliorated so that productive dialogue
Furthermore, during the dialogue, itself, good facilitators, mediators
and diplomats know that the same dynamics may be at work. When people
start shouting or shutting down -- when there is polarization, attack,
victimization and alienation -- that's a sure sign that people need
to be more fully respected and heard. To accomplish that in the
midst of major polarization is a skill we should honor as highly
as we honor the masters of surgery, sport, music and management.
BEYOND HEALING AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Most anti-polarization efforts seek to improve relationships and
thus reduce violence and its related harms. This is the rationale
for conflict resolution and community healing work. However, I would
like to suggest that the enhanced collective intelligence possible
through dialogue may be at least as important. This is especially
true because, if we recognize that collective intelligence is our
goal, we will not quell polarization at those rare critical points
where collective intelligence is actually served by it.
Polarization -- like fire and other powerful sources of energy
-- is life-serving in specific circumstances but very dangerous
most of the time. Polarization may wake up otherwise passive bystanders
to an important issue, but it makes embattled partisans blind to
big chunks of reality.
If we look openly at life, we will usually find that everyone and
everything has gifts and limitations. Everyone and everything has
complexities, contradictions, internal diversity and conflicts.
ALL of this is grist for the mill of collective intelligence. But
polarization won't let us use these things to further our collective
Polarization demands that we see an entire world of perspectives,
information, options and people -- "the other side" --
as homogeneous (falsely identical) and bad. Being on "our side"
means that we need to focus on defeating the other side and to ignore
everything else. Polarized people see anything besides "Us
vs. Them" as wishy-washy or downright treasonous.
Thus polarization usually represents a tragic loss of opportunity,
insight, and resources for satisfying our needs and dreams. These
resources become available only when we work together, when we exercise
our collaborative and collective intelligence. In polarized situations,
we can facilitate collective intelligence by PERSONALLY setting
aside our reactivity and being curious about "the other side,"
litening well and quelling our own defensiveness. COLLECTIVELY we
can facilitate collective intelligence by employing dialogue processes
that help us use our differences and conflicts as stimulants for
greater exploration, creativity and insight rather than as reasons
to attack or cut off communication.
DESIGNING SYSTEMS FOR POLARIZATION OR COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE
Social systems -- decision-making institutions, deliberative processes,
mass media activities, accepted modes of citizenship and activism,
educational institutions, etc. -- meet our deep personal and collective
needs in diverse ways, depending on how they are designed. Our needs
for personal and collective identity can be met through systems
that generate polarization OR through systems that generate collective
Polarizing systems are sustained by an undercurrent of fear and
a desire for security. At a personal level, we cling to the certainty
that accompanies righteousness, fearing the incoherence that seems
to wait for us if we don't hold fast to our side's ideas and positions.
Ideology can comfort us by providing a rationale for blaming others
for our own or the world's problems so we can escape responsibility
or guilt. Polarized ideology paints the "other" as less
than human, even evil, thus projecting all negative responsibility
away from us onto something or someone that we can band together
to attack. It builds a powerful tribal sense of belonging, held
in place in times of doubt by fear of ostracism ("What will
my friends think?"). The conformity dynamics of righteous solidarity
can make dissent virtually unthinkable. All permissible ideas and
options are pruned and squeezed into our group's limited set of
positions, and anything that doesn't fit with those positions is
set aside (for appearances sake) or actively suppressed. We direct
all the energy of conflict at the other "side" and actively
nurture it -- for the energetics of polarization feed -- and feed
off of -- CONFLICT.
Collectively intelligent systems, in contrast, are sustained by
an undercurrent of engaged meaning-making and a love of fruitful
co-creation and co-evolution. At a personal level, we make meaning
by discovering bigger ways to make sense together, by playing our
role in consciously co-creating what happens next and by being recognized
for our positive contributions in these efforts. Even as we are
clear about what makes sense to us, we live in inquiry, curious
about what life and other people have to teach us, ready to change
as needed to better align with a larger reality as we find it. We
know we are CO-creators and see diverse people and ideas as possibilities,
resources, grist for the mill of our collective intelligence, rather
than as opponents to fight or destroy. The energetics of collective
intelligence are less about conflict than about CHALLENGE -- the
challenge of solving problems, learning, finding common ground,
growing more capable, being more fully the creative, truthful, visionary,
passionate, compassionate people we all potentially are, individually
and together. Conflict is part of that, but we value what we might
call "healthy conflict," conflict that leads us all into
greater understanding and potential -- into win/win results -- rather
than conflict that seeks one-sided victory (win/lose), Collectively
intelligent systems especially discourage a "win at any cost"
attitude which destroys the relationships needed for co-intelligence.
Because diverse people see things somewhat differently and so possess
different pieces of the puzzle, we are all resources for each other
to see a bigger picture. Collectively intelligent systems help us
use our differences that way. They contain conflict within collaborative
contexts so that our diverse gifts can be tapped for creativity
and for expanded perspective. Collectively intelligent systems invest
in people seen as "the Other" as stimuli, resources, and
potential partners, rather than ignoring them or wasting them by
viewing them as enemies. Collectively intelligent systems support
a tribalism as intense as that of polarized systems, but it is expansive,
inclusive, and co-creative. The big "we-ness" of the co-intelligent
tribe comes from engaging in common projects and meaning-making
rather than from excluding and fighting the Other. And, finally,
in a collectively intelligent system, we find our personal identity
through being a contributing participant or a facilitator of participation.
We may even experience ourselves as unique manifestations of Life's
co-creative urge to evolve and discover what's possible. This is
a different kind of adventure than battle, but it is quite an adventure,
Success, from a polarized perspective, is about winning battles.
From a co-intelligent perspective, success is about solving meaningful
problems, discovering new and remarkable truths, and co-creating
new and remarkable realities. Systems that feed polarization impede
our ability to address our shared problems well, while systems that
feed collective intelligence help us use our diversity to confront
the full complexity of issues and find paths to wiser solutions
that we might otherwise miss.
APPROACHES TO DIALOGUE TO OVERCOME POLARIZATION
Dialogue is one of the most powerful vehicles to move us beyond
polarization. Three general categories of citizen dialogue can help
us overcome polarization and translate our diversity into collective
- Public conversations
- Stakeholder dialogues
- Citizen councils
PUBLIC CONVERSATIONS engage diverse ordinary
- to open their minds and hearts to each other,
- to become more comfortable with diversity,
- to explore issues of common concern (and sometimes share their
views with authorities), and
- to build relationships (which can then support common action).
Although public conversations require professional facilitation
if they are going to deal with passionate extremism, most such
conversations don't encounter extreme disruptive energy. So it
is worth convening hundreds of them -- even with novice facilitation
-- because they are such powerful tools for relieving the ambient
polarization of a hot political climate and sometimes even making
space for co-creativity to emerge. Examples of this approach include:
THE WORLD CAFE
OPEN SPACE CONFERENCES
NATIONAL ISSUES FORUMS
STAKEHOLDER DIALOGUES bring competing interests together
-- often leaders of groups battling over an issue -- to increase
understanding, decrease conflict and often develop solutions they
can all buy into. When such solutions are found, they can be readily
implemented through participating stakeholder networks. When these
dialogues are professionally facilitated, they can be powerful
tools for dealing with extreme views and feelings. Examples of
this approach include:
FUTURE SEARCH CONFERENCES
PUBLIC CONVERSATION PROJECTS
CITIZEN COUNCILS convene ordinary citizens (whose diversity
reflects the diversity of their community) for a day or more to
consider the well-being of their community or some major public
issue, and to publish their findings and recommendations. If they
are deliberating on an issue, they have access to full-spectrum
information and expertise. Examples of this approach include:
CITIZEN DELIBERATIVE COUNCILS
MACLEAN'S MAGAZINE'S "THE PEOPLE'S VERDICT"
21st CENTURY TOWN MEETINGS
BRITISH COLUMBIA'S CITIZEN ASSEMBLY ON ELECTORAL REFORM
OTHER COMMUNICATION TOOLS WE CAN USE TO TRANSFORM POLARIZATION
INTO A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
DYNAMIC FACILITATION - to use passionate conflict to generate
new options, new understandings, new relationships
BOHM DIALOGUE - for groups who want to clarify and become more
sensitive to the individual and collective assumptions that
NONVIOLENT COMMUNICATION - for helping understand the deeper
needs being felt by ourselves and whoever we are talking to,
and searching for common ground
ACTIVE LISTENING - to help us make sure we are actually understanding
what someone is talking about, and helping them feel truly heard
The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation lists
a number of initiatives to counter polarization in the U.S.
"THE DEPOLARIZATION OF AMERICA:
Major Dialogue- and Deliberation-Related Efforts That Are Bridging
the Partisan Divide"
LET'S TALK AMERICA - ongoing
CALLING THE QUESTION - upcoming
THE SEPTEMBER PROJECT – September 11, 2004
THE "WE THE PEOPLE" NATIONAL CONVENTION – September
PBS DELIBERATION DAY – October 16, 2004
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