Perilous Polarization

The Us vs Them Trap

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Auschwitz Concentration Camp Main Gate
Auschwitz Concentration Camp Main Gate with the cruelly euphemistic slogan, "Arbeit macht Frei" - work makes you free. 

As a daughter of Holocaust Survivors, I have a visceral understanding of where marginalizing a specific group can lead. Thus, I’m profoundly concerned about the increasing polarization of views these days with an utter lack of acceptance for those who might not share one’s sentiments. I have personally seen differing opinions on political correctness, Brexit, Donald Trump, religious beliefs, the pandemic and COVID-19 vaccines split apart marriages and decades-long friendships. Since when have intolerance and demonization of those who don’t agree with us become the norm?

All sides of these various debates seem to produce their own version of exaggerated fear porn, in the hope of scaring more adherents to join them. Back in the day, if I were writing an academic dissertation, critical thinking and original source documentation were key, without which I would have received a failing grade for my work. What goes viral on social media today doesn’t need any of that. This is one of the main reasons why Holocaust denial manages to get so much traction. Anyone on the internet can upload an emotionally compelling presentation that has no need to be backed up by facts to gain a massive number of viewers.

It is human nature to divide ourselves into tribes—Us versus Them. In 1968, just after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Iowa schoolteacher Jane Elliott asked her all-white class of third graders, “How do you think it would feel to be a Negro boy or girl?” They all agreed to find out what it would be like to experience discrimination, so she separated out the blue-eyed children. On the first day, they were the stupid, lazy inferior ones, and not only did the other kids become increasingly discriminatory and mean towards them, but also the blue-eyed kids became more submissive and performed less well academically. On the next school day, it was the other group who were the untrustworthy, lazy ones. The blue-eyes were somewhat less nasty towards them, most likely because they had already felt the sting of discrimination.

The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, set up by Professor Philip Zimbardo, arbitrarily divided up a group of test subjects into prisoners and guards. says Zimbardo, “Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.”

A controversial experiment on obedience to authority took place at Yale University in 1963. Organized by social psychology professor, Stanley Milgram, the study demonstrated that ordinary people could be easily persuaded to torture others. The subjects were told they were involved in an experiment on learning, and were asked to administer an electric shock to a strapped-down learner if he got the answer to a question wrong. The learner was an actor, who appeared to suffer pain and demanded to be set free. About 65% of subjects continued to give him electric shocks up to the highest levels.

These experiments show that the veneer of civilization can be very thin indeed, revealing humanity’s brutish nature underneath. Censorship of unpopular views is often the first step, followed by severe social consequences on whomever is considered to be the outsider. Who is swept into the marginalized group may change from one minute to the next. During the Cultural Revolution in China from 1966 to 1976, some of those who led “struggle sessions” to humiliate and torture so-called “enemies of the people” become targets of struggle sessions themselves as different political factions gained ascendancy.

Polarization will always weaken a society and threaten people’s freedom. So what’s the solution? For me, the answer is to try to stay true to my core values yet do the best I can to avoid condemning others just because their opinions might not match mine. I may initially see something as an obvious binary choice—yes or no, good or bad, black or white, but then I might become aware of shades of grey that I may not have noticed at all at the beginning. I have found that the more judgmental I am, I the more likely I am to discover later that I was completely wrong.

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