A Journey of Self-Reflection and Dialogue in an Age of Affective Polarisation

Affective polarisation is on the rise worldwide, casting its profound influence on various aspects of our lives, from families and workplaces to entire societies. To address this issue, our first step should be to confront our personal barriers. 

Affective polarisation, characterised by strong negative emotions and beliefs towards individuals with opposing views, has increased substantially in the United States and countries of Europe in recent decades. The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic have only served to intensify this divide.

This trend is perhaps most evident in the United States. In 2020, a research study co-authored by Jesse Shapiro, a professor specialising in political economy at Brown University, in collaboration with Stanford University economists Levi Boxell and Matthew Gentzkow, provided the first multinational analysis of the long-term evolution of “affective polarisation.” Their findings showed that in the United States, affective polarisation has increased more significantly since the late 1970s compared to eight other countries they studied, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden. However, even in these countries, polarisation has become more prominent.

Across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, for example, a study commissioned by the Policy Institute found that following the 2016 Brexit referendum, the number of individuals strongly identifying with a particular political party has decreased noticeably. Instead, a strong allegiance to one side of the Brexit vote has become more prevalent. People on both sides of the Brexit vote strongly disliked the opposing camp, even if they didn’t fundamentally disagree with their positions on key issues.


Polarisation’s Far-Reaching Impact on Society

The ongoing societal polarisation goes well beyond political differences, seeping into the very fabric of our communities and even tearing at the bonds within families. In the United States, recent polling data suggests that the increasingly stark ideological divides in American politics have had personal consequences, with nearly one in five voters, or 19 per cent, reporting that politics had strained their friendships or family relationships.

This polarisation has even infiltrated the workplace, where approximately one in four workers, or 26 per cent, reported experiencing differential treatment, both positive and negative, due to their political views or affiliations.

This trend is a matter of serious concern, as it threatens the cohesion and unity of societies across the globe. The growing divide, particularly when it spills over into personal relationships and workplaces, calls for a concerted effort to address and mitigate these polarising forces in order to foster greater harmony and understanding among individuals and within communities. There is hope, however.

Geraldine Moodley draws hope from the younger generation, who are growing up with a natural understanding that diversity is the norm. Take Generation Alpha, for instance – the children growing up in places like Amsterdam with blended cultural backgrounds or parents who embrace multiple cultures. Diversity is an integral part of their identity. Whatsmore, they effortlessly perceive other dimensions of intersectionality as a unified whole, such as individuals who identify as both black and neurodivergent or those who embrace a fluid approach to gender. These aspects seamlessly coexist within their understanding.

Generation Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history, with over 48% being non-white. In the U.K., it’s estimated that 40% of the population will be non-white by 2061. Similarly, in Brazil, a majority of the population identifies as Black or mixed race. The world’s population is becoming increasingly multicultural, and young people are growing up exposed to different cultures and living in more diverse communities than their parents. It is no surprise that most young people demand equal access to opportunities and social justice. In a recent survey, 83% of Gen Z candidates emphasised the importance of a company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion when choosing an employer.

While younger generations understand and accept that diversity is the norm, what about the rest of us? It raises questions about how the rest of us can fully embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion as modern-day leaders and what it means to confront our own barriers. There is hope for us, though.


The Importance of Confronting Personal Barriers

Geraldine eloquently puts it, “People can’t lead diverse teams because they have not dealt with their own barriers.” What she means by this is that individuals need to confront and address their own biases and preconceptions before they can effectively lead diverse teams and foster inclusive environments.

Quaker and teacher Parker J. Palmer has made significant contributions to the field of personal and societal transformation through his work at the Center for Courage and Renewal. His teachings and insights offer a profound mental and practical framework for addressing the complex challenge of polarisation, discrimination, and bias that permeate our societies.

One of Palmer’s key teachings revolves around recognising and dismantling the artificial division between our internal and external lives. In essence, he invites us to explore the interconnectedness of our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and actions. By acknowledging that our inner world deeply influences our outer behaviour, Palmer urges us to confront the biases, prejudices, and stereotypes that may lurk within our own minds. This introspective journey is essential because it allows us to identify and address the root causes of division and discrimination.

Palmer emphasises the critical concept of “othering.” This term encapsulates the harmful process of creating false hierarchies among individuals or groups based on attributes such as race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, disability, socio-economic status, religion, age, or other characteristics. When we engage in othering, we perceive certain individuals or groups as somehow inferior or different from ourselves, leading to their marginalisation and oppression.

By highlighting the concept of othering, Palmer underscores the pervasive nature of discrimination in our society. He reminds us that othering is not limited to a single issue or form of bias but encompasses a wide range of prejudices, including racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, classism, religious prejudice, ageism, and nationalism. Palmer’s intention is to show that these forms of discrimination are interconnected and that addressing one aspect of bias can contribute to dismantling the broader systems of inequality and division.

In essence, Parker J. Palmer’s teachings call upon us to embark on an inner journey of self-awareness and self-examination. He challenges us to confront our own biases, preconceptions, and judgments, recognising that these internal attitudes can shape our external actions and interactions. By dismantling the artificial divide between our internal and external lives, we can begin to break down the walls of division, discrimination, and polarisation that persist in our societies.

Palmer’s work encourages us to engage in open dialogue, empathy, and deep reflection as we strive to create a more inclusive and equitable world. It reminds us that meaningful change begins with a transformation of our own hearts and minds, ultimately paving the way for a more just and compassionate society.


Bridging Divides Through Dialogue

At The Argonauts, we firmly believe that the journey toward a more inclusive, empathetic, and harmonious society starts with the profound art of conversation. This includes not only the dialogues we engage in with others but also the essential conversations we hold with ourselves.

The first step in this process involves turning inward and delving into a dialogue with our inner selves. This introspection is a vital tool for personal growth and transformation. Through these inner conversations, we can unearth our hidden biases, prejudices, and preconceptions—those aspects of our psyche that we may have unconsciously shunned or relegated to the shadows of our conscious awareness. By acknowledging and confronting these elements within us, we take the initial steps toward self-awareness and personal development.

Simultaneously, we advocate for conversations with others rooted in curiosity, presence, and openness. These dialogues represent a collaborative effort to understand the diverse perspectives and experiences of those around us. When we approach conversations with genuine curiosity, we create an environment where every voice is valued and respected. We foster a space for authentic sharing and learning through active presence and open-mindedness.

At The Argonauts, we achieve this through what we call Trust Circles. These transformative spaces bring teams and individual leaders together to engage in connected, meaningful conversations that foster trust, creativity, and innovative action. They do so under the expert guidance of one of our facilitators and by committing to the foundational pillars of vulnerable sharing, curious listening, refraining from advice, and withholding judgment.

In these dialogues with others, we encounter a wealth of wisdom from different voices and backgrounds. Each perspective adds a unique facet to our understanding of the world, enriching our personal growth and broadening our horizons. Through this exchange of ideas and experiences, we can begin to bridge the false divides that separate us. We come to realise that, beneath the surface, we share common hopes, fears, and aspirations as human beings.

As we begin to bridge these false divides, we come to live and act with greater integrity, showing up with greater authenticity, which helps others trust us in relationships and leadership. This can lead to transformed workplaces and organisations.

Join us at The Argonauts and be part of the change. Explore our website to explore how you can engage in transformative conversations, confront your own biases, and contribute to a more just and compassionate society.

About the author

Eveline van den Heuvel

Eveline works as a facilitator and product developer at The Argonauts. She is a Neuroscientist and Psychologist trained in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, meditation and Breathwork.

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