Polarisation has become a characteristic of the social media world. People become friends with those they agree with, unfriend those they disagree with, and therefore learn a world narrative that is informed only by their allies.
If you are left wing, you may befriend others who tend to support your views. You will, together, tut at the ignorance of the other lot. If you are right wing, you may do the same thing.
How does this help society, and how does it hinder it?
HOW POLARISATION CAN HELP
All societies rely, in part, for their cohesion, on defining their own talk, their own narrative. Thus, a culture may invent a separate language for more subtle sharing of common concepts – and that language extends beyond mere words to clothing, organisation, and behaviours. Differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ brings people together, much as the supporters of a football team will develop their own languages, dress codes, and common behaviours.
Advantages of this include:
Cohesion – having a home tribe is very attractive to many, and provides a sense of safety
Efficiency of operation – manufacturing companies find it easier to create the usual ‘uniform’
Subtlety of communication – if you’re all on the same page, then you can discuss finer and finer points
HOW POLARISATION CAN HARM
However, too much polarisation/differentiation can result in some ill effects. Externally, unless there is the capacity to negotiate with and understand other cultures, then war/violence is increasingly seen as the only option. Internally, unless there is the capacity to negotiate with and understand dissent, then internal war/violence is increasingly seen as the only option.
In this vein, disadvantages of polarisation include:
Limited ability to cooperate with cultures dissimilar to one’s own, resulting in resource poverty
Limited ability to operate smoothly when there is internal disagreement, resulting in operational paralysis
Polarisation is very easy on social media. The whole thing is predicated on going to smaller and smaller segments of society, and allowing them to create ghettos in which they can create their own languages, and exclude others. A one way ratchet can become dominant, in which groups develop more and more internal solidarity, and less and less external tolerance.
This creates a temporary illusion of cohesion, efficiency and subtlety. Reading the posts between members of groups, one can see how narratives emerge, and then get refined, to help each separate group feel more and more justified. Opposing groups are talked of as more and more ignorant.
However, the effect on whole communities is to ghetto-ize them into smaller and smaller units, with little cross talk. And the richness of cooperative debate is dependent on cross talk.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO IMPROVE THE SITUATION?
There are a few things, in terms of individual behaviour, which might help to prevent the worst of the problems that can arise.
Here are a couple of suggestions:
Try to find friends who are not necessarily in tune with you, so that you can expand your experience and language
When you see generalisations being thrown between opposing groups, try to offer more subtle discussion to help the cross talk
Next time you’re in an argument, try to reflect on what polarisation is going on. Then look for a middle way, where you can find language which bridges the apparent gap between cultures. Use formulations such as ‘I appreciate that ……., but I wonder about ………..’ That way, you are acting as an example for the promotion of understanding, and are demonstrating the capacity to hold more than one viewpoint in your mind at the same time.
The social media world has fallen victim to polarisation, the separation of people into opposing interest groups. This can increase coherence, efficiency, and subtlety of communication within each group; but limits the ability of groups to inter-communicate, and to handle dissent within their own ranks.
A rich debate depends on good cross-talk between opposing interests. To improve your ability to help generate understanding, make sure you keep a wide circle of friends with diverse points of view. Furthermore, when you see polarised argument happening, try to help the subtlety along, and demonstrate that it is possible to hold and respect more than one possible view at a time.