Divided we stand: why I’m co-hosting a new podcast on depolarization

 “A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.”

As such is the Two Minute Hate, where Party members in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four must express their hatred for Party enemies for exactly two minutes.  George Orwell succeeds in painting a visceral picture of Manichaeism, which teaches an elaborate struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.

Nineteen Eighteen Four is fiction of course. But it’s not far from my own personal experience.  I have been active in Conservative politics for nearly 15 years.  Being on the right, I’ve got used to the eye rolls when I say which party I represent and have perfected my pitch to justify why I’m a Tory.  But the hatred I have experienced in recent years – simply because I identify as a Conservative – has been significant. One standout is being bricked in the 2010 elections with my OAP mum (a swing voter, in case you’re interested).

Psychologically, we have a very strong tendency to see others in highly simple and categorical ways.  Right vs. wrong. Good vs evil. Leave vs. Remainer. Left vs. Right.  In-group vs out-group.  We treat people very differently depending on whether they are in our (psychologically constructed) group or not. The way we categorise people in our social world stems from the way our perceptual systems have evolved to see a cluster of stimuli as only one coherent form at any given moment. Look at this picture. You might see the vase first. Then you might see the image as two faces. BUT you cannot see both the vase and the faces at the same time.


Being in an in-group makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, giving us protection and increasing the chance of survival.  But as Jonathan Haidt describes in his epic book the Righteous Mind, what binds us also blinds us.

The problem is that the way we feel about people in the ‘other’ political group is getting more extreme. My anecdotal experience corresponds to what we see in survey data. Over 80% of us in the UK and US think our country is divided (Ipsos Mori).  UK political party supporters have become far more polarised. In the US, academics at Stanford found nearly half of Republicans, and about a third of Democrats, said they would be “displeased” if their child married a member of the opposing party. This was close to zero 30 years ago.  We are increasingly polarised and spending more and more time with people who think like us – made worse by the vast echo-chamber that is social media.  It’s not just the ‘masses’ but the elite too – Congress is polarised, at a 100 year all time high (see here).

Polarization is not the same as strong disagreement. It’s something more. This article on why polarization matters has a nice definition:

By polarization I mean . . . an intense commitment to a candidate, a culture, or an ideology that sets people in one group definitively apart from people in another, rival group. Such a condition is revealed when a candidate for public office is regarded by a competitor and his supporters not simply as wrong but as corrupt or wicked; when one way of thinking about the world is assumed to be morally superior to any other way; when one set of political beliefs is considered to be entirely correct and a rival set wholly wrong.

This increasing polarization matters.  Progress is generally made when people with different perspectives come together and you get viewpoint diversity.  We must use the best ideas to solve problems – regardless of where those ideas originate.

So when my friend and old-colleague Ali Goldsworthy approached me  and another ex-colleague, Laura, to co-host a new podcast via Open Democracy on when and why people have changed their minds I was massively excited to say yes.

We are interviewing leaders from politics, academia and business about a time they have changed their mind.  We’ll also explore the science behind forming and updating beliefs and what works and what doesn’t work to change beliefs.  In the wider context of increasing polarisation and Ali’s Depolarization Project based out of Stanford, the thinking is that it’s never been more important to encourage open-mindedness and tolerance. And to show it’s OK to change your mind.

Guests include:

  • Jonathan Haidt – Professor of Moral Psychology at Stern School of Business, NYU, and best-selling author
  • Peter Gabriel – Singer-Songwriter of Genesis fame, musician and humanitarian activist
  • Deborah Mattinson, former pollster to Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of the UK, and Founding Partner of Britain Thinks
  • Derek Black, son of a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan

Go to the ‘Changed My Mind’ section of the Depolarization Project to listen to the podcasts and subscribe to the series. Happy listening!

4 thoughts on “Divided we stand: why I’m co-hosting a new podcast on depolarization

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