We can abandon need to trounce opponents.
Our political parties seem more polarized than ever, dedicated to winning and not in the mood to take prisoners. Meanwhile, our fellow citizens seem to be getting tired of it all. The time is ripe for a quiet revolution - one that involves not guns or boots, but listening.
I have written in these pages about sharing the personal experiences that lie beneath our most polarizing beliefs, and about sharing our uncertainties about those beliefs. Today I reach back to Aristotle for his distinction between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. My argument is that we can reduce polarization by weakening the pull of necessity and strengthening the experience of freedom.
According to Aristotle, necessity is what governs us when we are hungry, unhoused or vulnerable to enemies. If we or our children are starving, fleeing or dying of disease, we have no choice but to do whatever it takes to survive - without stopping to consider who to elect as mayor. In the realm of necessity there is no freedom, because freedom belongs only to those who are not desperate.
Aristotle argued that only after our basic needs are met can we participate in ruling and being ruled in turn, which constitute the life of a citizen. It's easy to point out that our world is not fifth-century Athens, propped up by slaves. Yet today we still suffer the push and pull between necessity and freedom.
Beyond the homelessness, hunger, disease, disaster and war that trap millions in lives of desperate need, polarization also threatens to reduce us all to the realm of necessity. When we fear that a genetically modified organism will poison us, that our health care will vanish, that a war will break out, that a shooter will target our football game, that immigrants will take our jobs, or that our children will overdose, the realm of necessity looms. Political leaders who stoke these fears instead of cooperating to address them preside over our descent.
The quiet revolution that is going on right now involves citizens who want to reverse this process. They are sick of echo chambers, and one by one they are deciding to resist the pull of necessity and embrace freedom. How we do this is as diverse as our individual situations, but there are three elements we share: dialogue, navigating the perspectives of others, and collaborating to make decisions.
Dialogue involves recognizing that we answer not just to ourselves, or even to the person standing before us - nodding, smiling, looking puzzled, bored or offended - but also to people who are absent (family, friends, mentors, colleagues) and to the values we share with them or argue about. If we want to be free, each of us needs to study this complex constellation of personal influences, some of which may be in conflict (religion, tradition, the law, reason), just to understand how we have come to the conclusions we embrace. As we probe the roots and branches of our own beliefs, we begin to see connections to possibilities we thought we would never consider.
We begin to break free of polarization not just when we look within ourselves, but when we try to navigate the perspectives of others. This is different from studying other people's ideas in order to anticipate and disarm their arguments, on the way to winning. Navigating the perspectives of others involves discovering how other people can reach conclusions very different from our own, yet also be decent human beings. This process is something we engage in face to face, listening to other people's personal experiences and doubts, and probing the depths of the values they answer to.
Navigating alien perspectives promotes empathy, and with empathy comes the possibility of discovering common ground. When a few years ago I was researching the apparently intransigent conflict between pro-life and pro-choice advocates in the abortion debate, I discovered that both sides were interested in the possibility of adoption. Today there are websites like adoption.com devoted entirely to exploring this common ground.
This is not to say that abortion is no longer a polarizing topic - only that when we forget about trying to change other people's minds and instead listen to their experiences and doubts, we can discover common ground.
If polarization is to recede, it will not be because political leaders become less divisive, but because citizens become more difficult to trap in the realm of necessity, at the mercy of their desperation or their fear. If polarization is to recede, it will be because at the grass roots we abandon the need to trounce our opponents, even as we insist on working with people with whom we may never agree, to achieve solutions that are never good enough.
Sharon Schuman, author of "Freedom and Dialogue in a Polarized World." This is the last essay in her six-part series on polarization.