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Polarization is an effect that drives people so far apart on an issue it is as if they are at opposite poles. The people become emotionally attached to one side of an issue and become almost incapable of seeing any virtues in the opposing position or any faults in their own. It makes responsible thinking about the issue difficult or impossible. It may lead to personal animosity towards people who take the opposing viewpoint. Most of us have issues about which we are at least partially polarized.

Some issues on which people can become polarized

  • Nationalism: Rivalries which go on for centuries occur between neighbors such as English vs. Irish, French vs. Germans, Norwegians vs. Swedes, Bosnians vs. Croats vs. Serbs vs. Albanians, Greeks vs. Turks.
  • Racism: Animosity between whites, blacks, Asians, Native Americans, and other groups may start with a dominant group exploiting those of other races and resentment by those victimized, but racial tension may occur between any groups who distrust people who look and act differently.
  • Religion: Religious conflicts can be particularly bitter because each side is likely to feel that they represent good and so anyone who opposes them must be evil.
  • Politics: Republican vs. Democrat, Liberal vs. Conservative, Socialist vs. Libertarian, sexism, gun control, abortion, taxes, management vs. labor, and many other issues all can bitterly divide people.
  • Workplace issues: People often get into serious disputes with coworkers about workplace issues and policies.
  • Personal and family feuds: Divorce often involves very bitter polarization between the people involved, and romantic disputes are a common cause of murders. Other long lasting family feuds can result from issues as trivial as not attending a social occasion.

Becoming polarized, step by step

One side of an issue appeals to us.

We seek out facts to support this side.

We get most of our information from advocates of this side.

We feel superior for being on this side.

We like the people on our side better.

We trust the people on our side more.

We believe advocates for our side without analyzing them critically.

We distrust advocates for the other side.

We feel the people on the other side have undesirable traits that led them to their wrong opinions.

We jump on the slightest flaw in arguments made by the other side's proponents.

We find negative stereotypes about the other side very believable.

When our opponents make negative references to us, it is further evidence of their bad character.

Sources of information that treat us and our opponents almost equally must be biased, or they would recognize our superiority and the inferiority of our opponents.

Rather than enduring such unreliable sources or listening to our opponents' arguments directly, we learn of their misguided views and motives from our own trustworthy leaders.

When an opponent is found to have done something unethical, it is reprehensible, but typical of what we expect from the people we oppose.

When one of us is found to do something unethical it is not very important and possibly excusable if it aids our noble purposes.

We are good.

They are bad.

The superiority of our view is so obvious that our opponents could not possibly be sincere. They are deliberately promoting evil, self-serving policies.

They are our enemies, out to destroy us and our way of life!

People like them should be ridiculed, stripped of power, silenced, punished, and perhaps even destroyed!


Not all polarized situations will involve all the factors above, but one characteristic that is a very common warning sign is anger and perhaps even hatred we feel towards those on the other side.

Leaders use polarization to manipulate us

It is easy as individuals to become polarized about issues, but the situation is aggravated by leaders who deliberately play on our emotions to strengthen their own influence. When political campaigns turn negative it is pretty typical to accuse opponents of improper behavior or having outrageous views. Leaders of virtually all political movements work to find the most dramatic and extreme cases of questionable behavior by opponents in order to stir up our anger.

In two recent wars in which the U.S. was involved, our leaders employed the tactic of demonizing the opposing leaders in order to gain public support for the war. When it was decided to bomb Serbia because of the events in Kosovo, President Clinton constantly told of the evil nature of Mr. Milosevic, and in the case of the war against Iraq, President Bush constantly told us of the evil character of Saddam Hussein. Neither of these men was any less evil fifteen years before, but at those times there was no need to rally public opinion against them.

Sometimes polarization is used by leaders to boost their popularity such as when Senator Joseph McCarthy ran his anti-communist crusade in the 1950s and when Lester Maddox was elected governor of Georgia after he gained fame by defying efforts to integrate his restaurant in the 1960s. The United States has few long standing nationalistic antagonisms, but in countries that do, it is commonplace for leaders (like Milosevic) to attack such enemies as a means of increasing their popularity.

It is a common tactic for leaders to create and make use of polarization for their own political ends. If we want to make wise decisions about such leaders and their claims, and avoid being manipulated, we must recognize such tactics and resist becoming polarized. A good policy is to never regard negative claims or inferences about a person or group as at all meaningful unless we get the information from a neutral source and we have given people from the opposing side a fair opportunity to explain their position. Things like negative campaign ads (and probably all campaign ads) should be completely ignored since anyone with the money to produce and air such advertising can invariably find ways to make their opponent look bad. By paying attention to such material we are unlikely to improve our decision making and we allow the advertiser to buy our vote.

As a more general rule, we should always be suspicious of any person or group that tries to get our support by inciting anger towards another person or group.