Polarized Public Opinion and Democracy: We Need to Be Better Listeners
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
"Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'" – Isaac Asimov.
“I can’t understand how you could possibly think that”
This small sentence has become more and more prevalent, not only when talking about contentious subjects, like immigration policies, the United States mid-term elections or the newly elected president of Brazil, but also when—in our daily conversations–we talk about things as trivial as pineapple on pizza. We live under the impression that we cannot have a single conversation without entering an argument. However, it would be safe to argue that the root of the problem does not lie in our ability to voice our opinions, but rather in our ability to listen.
Two concepts are interesting to keep in mind when trying to understand opinion polarization. The first one is the self-categorization theory, a three-step process : (1) one is a group member before being an individual, (2) conflicts with opposing groups exacerbate the group stands and values, (3) group members assimilate their position to the exaggerated group stance. This process takes root in humans’ basic need to be part of a community. We yearn to be part of a group, not only for the physical and emotional security that it provides, but mainly to fulfill our need of belonging; our need to feel safe, validated and acknowledged. To think of ourselves as group members instead of as unique individuals leads us to behave more consistently with the values and beliefs of the said group. This behaviour in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, this feeling of belonging can foster caring values in a community. For example, a member of a religious community might be more caring towards a homeless person because of the values of sharing and love that are vehiculated by the religious group. However, as conflict with an opposing group arises, there is an exaggeration of in-group values: we want to be right. Fuelled by this desire to belong, group members tend to internalize the exaggerated in-group values and adopt a more extreme attitude or opinion on the contentious issue. For example, some members of an animal rights protection group will be uncompromising on the fact that animals should not be used for food or clothing regardless of the arguments or the circumstances. In other words, it is the prominence of group identity elicited by the reassurance of our opinions being supported by other group members that can eventually lead to opinion polarization.
The self-categorization theory is reinforced by motivated reasoning. Scholars define motivated reasoning as a biased decision-making phenomenon by which individuals view evidence consistent with their beliefs as stronger and, therefore, seek out information that confirms their beliefs and dismiss information that is inconsistent with those same beliefs. For example, one might disregard a study that demonstrates the benefits of the social reintegration of criminals arguing there was faulty methodology, yet approve of a study that uses similar methodology but arrives at an opposite conclusion. Motivated reasoning, combined with the self-categorization theory, offers a partial answer as to why we often have the impression that we are right and that the other is wrong regardless of the facts. These two concepts make it crucial to highlight the negative impact that social media and news framing can have on polarizing public opinion. Social media's algorithms are designed to cater to motivated reasoning in the way that they show the consumer the information that is most likely to elicit a response. Therefore, one becomes surrounded by similar opinions which, in turn, makes group identity salient and promotes opinion polarization. It is almost as if individuals on the right and the left side of the political spectrum were living in alternate realities. The scary part is that, according to a study done in 2015 by the Oxford Internet Institute, 62% of Facebook users are entirely unaware of the selectiveness of Facebook’s algorithms. They become trapped in a bubble of homogeneous opinions which reinforce their previous beliefs, limit their knowledge, and contribute to the simplification of complex debates. The subtleties of opinion become lost in the battlefield of them versus us which, in turn, exacerbates preconceived opinions and accentuates inequalities.
How are we supposed to move forward if we cannot even stand to listen to one another? It is as if we are performing a duet while singing different songs. What results is a cacophony that no one seems to understand. We need to learn to listen to each other. That does not imply that we cannot voice our opinions, call out wrongdoings or stand up for the oppressed. It only means that we need to put ourselves in a mindset that encourages listening. We need to be respectful, grounded and open-minded when speaking about our opinions and beliefs (for more on that see the amazing ted talk by Julia Galef ).
If we want to shed light on issues that are often disregarded or overlooked, we need to be open to others. We need to learn to look past group mentality and our own bias and understand that an argument does not revolve around being right or wrong. The goal of a debate is to be the stepping stone towards a compromise—a solution—that is viable for both parties and benefits our society. To overcome polarization of public opinion, we need to be critical without being pushy; we need to ask questions; to examine sources different from our own beliefs to challenge the balance of power. However, we should not feel entitled to preach or bully, because from the moment we do that, we re-establish the division of them versus us—the dialogue is broken. The goal of a democracy is to be the reflection of the people’s sovereignty. It enables citizens to choose their leaders and to hold those leaders accountable for their policies and actions.
However, to be able to hold politicians accountable, one must step away from the polarized opinions and be critical of the different ideas they advocate for, because there is no shame in changing opinion. A society that does not evolve with its times is bound to disappear.