Getting to We: Communicating in the Age of Polarization

Spring 2022

By Myra McGovern

This article appeared as “Getting to We” in the Spring 2022 issue of Independent School.
In the fall of 2001, John P.N. Austin, then academic dean at St. Andrew’s School (DE), witnessed an extraordinary shift in American education. In the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, teachers across the nation put their lessons aside and talked with students about what was going on and what it might mean for the country. As Austin wrote in “The Art of Arguespeak” in the Winter 2008 Independent School, these discussions were “problem-based, open-ended, and driven by a spirit of urgent inquiry.”
But then, he writes, “as the country moved toward war, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, and the political climate tensed, advocacy groups on both the right and the left mobilized to ensure that this ‘teachable moment’ was taught in the right way. Some schools, fearful that the curriculum would become politicized, discouraged discussion about the war.” Many teachers returned to their traditional lessons rather than embracing an opportunity to nurture deeper discussion. 
Now head of school at Deerfield Academy (MA), Austin again sees a moment in history when Americans are hungry to explore complex issues, but partisan rancor is prompting schools to limit the discussion. “I’ve seen lots of school heads and campuses torn asunder by polarization,” Austin says. “We all want our kids to flourish. Conflict [in the community] can take away from that.”
Educators and parents alike want to help students become informed and engaged citizens, which requires opportunities to practice thinking about and discussing the issues that impact the country and individual communities. But how can we provide opportunities for students to grapple with complex issues and engage in them civilly when many of the adults in the community struggle to do the same? How can schools use language to rise above the fray of the current “culture wars” so they can explain our mission and value proposition authentically and more accurately?

How Did We Get Here?

“Affective polarization” in the United States—the tendency of Democrats and Republicans to dislike and mistrust one another—has been growing since the 1970s, but the trend has accelerated in the 21st century. “Democrats and Republicans both say that the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded,” writes Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar and a team of academics in the 2019 issue of the Annual Review of Political Science, “and they are unwilling to socialize across party lines, or even to partner with opponents in a variety of other activities.”
The reasons for this growing animus toward members of the other party, the researchers explain, are related to the ever-increasing number of people identifying with a party whose membership is now more increasingly aligned with race and religion. Thus, people react more emotionally to in-group/out-group threats because these threats affect so many of their identities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated polarization in America. We have faced threats to our lives and—for many—livelihoods, putting many people in a heightened state of alert for months at a time. We’ve faced supply chain issues and resource scarcity that have caused anxiety and frustration. All of this can lead to greater tribalism.
On top of that, the physical distancing and self-isolating strategies used to mitigate the spread of the virus have led more people to interact online. People may be less inclined to consider the emotions of others when they engage in this way, given the lagtime between actions and reactions and the fact that many people are anonymous online and less accountable for their actions. Indeed, anonymity in online interactions often leads people to reveal more about themselves or to act more hostilely toward others, a phenomenon known as the “online disinhibition effect.”
People are also far less likely to encounter divergent opinions in online spaces. A 2020 Cornell University study, “Echo Chambers on Social Media,” found that Twitter and Facebook, in particular, created rewarding user experiences by displaying content that the user would agree with. (Users who feel more validated are more likely to spend more time on the platforms.) These algorithms influence what information people are exposed to and leads users to assume that their opinions are more common than they really are.    
For many Americans and for people around the world, the pandemic has been a prolonged period of unparalleled stress and uncertainty. Unsurprisingly, this has affected almost every aspect of school life. Heads of school have noted widely divergent opinions within their communities on topics such as whether to convene class in person or online, masking, vaccines, and diversity, equity, and inclusion work, to name just a few. Divergent views, when amplified by stress and anger, can affect the climate on campus. Many school leaders have reported conflicts at parent association meetings or in carpool lines. In some extreme cases, families have threatened schools or vented on social media (leading others to threaten the school). In other cases, faculty members have quit dramatically, families have decided to remove their children midyear, or schools have declined to reenroll students as a result of parent behavior.

Don’t We All Want the Same Thing?

We’re all familiar with the universal human need for food, water, and shelter. But a growing body of neuroscience research suggests that the brain treats social needs similar to physical needs, seeking to minimize threats and maximize rewards.
Researchers at the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) have developed a framework to help explain what can activate the threat or reward systems in social situations. Called the SCARF model, it describes five domains of human interaction. David Rock, a co-founder of NLI, describes them: “Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe. Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.” Interactions that activate these domains cause individuals to approach or avoid situations.
When faced with rewards in these areas, people are more likely to engage, to try difficult things, and to develop novel solutions, Rock says. Conversely, when threatened, executive functioning becomes more difficult, people tend to generalize more, and they are less willing to take risks because they perceive things as more dangerous.
How might these triggers play out in independent schools? A parent, anxious about a child’s college prospects, might blame a teacher for devoting time to student well-being rather than focusing on math formulas, fearful that it will lead to limited college options. A teacher, uncertain whether her own child will be able to attend daycare the next day and anxious about the fragile health of her parents, may be angry at parents who push for unmasking students. At the root, both the parent and the teacher want students to succeed, yet they feel at odds with one another in this context.
Independent schools should be among the most united communities. People choose to affiliate with them based on the mission, ethos, and reputation of the community. And yet, in this moment, so many school communities feel fractured. Could changing how we communicate help shift the culture? Often, the very language we use triggers responses that we don’t intend. In a seminal book from 2007, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, political strategist and communications expert Frank Luntz explains, “You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs.” And, he continues, “how that person perceives what you say is even more real, at least in a practical sense, than how you perceive yourself.”

Bringing the Community Together

How can independent school leaders communicate more effectively? At the heart of this is understanding who you are, both individually and as a community, and understanding what language speaks to individuals’ motivations and what triggers listeners’ threat centers.
Recognize your own blind spots. More In Common, an organization that aims to bring people together to build more united and resilient societies, asks, “[W]ith today’s personalized social media feeds and our tendency to live in bubbles of like-minded friends, are we getting each other wrong?” In its "Perception Gap Study," the third study in its Hidden Tribes of America Project, the organization sought to determine the forces that contribute to greater societal polarization (for more about this project, see “On My Mind”). The research found that Americans have deeply distorted views of people who ally with the opposing political party. People on the extreme ends of the political spectrum have the most distorted views. Neither news consumption nor education level decreases the perception gap. And people with the largest perception gaps were most likely to describe their opponents as “hateful” or “bigoted.” 
How can we close the gaps? Becoming more conscious of biases and intentionally exposing ourselves to perspectives that differ from our own can help deepen our understanding of an issue. But simply following pundits from an opposing party on social media or watching a different news channel actually contributes to greater polarization, according to the Greater Good Science Center. To decrease polarization, sustained contact with real people is necessary. As we get to know people more deeply, we see the elements of their experience that contributed to the views they hold. Understanding someone's motivations also helps us view them as we view ourselves, as a rounded, complex individual. And we’re less likely to consider everyone who holds a particular opinion evil if we know that our dear old friend, who has so many great qualities, also holds that view.
Really listen to better understand perspectives. Opportunities to listen actively to one another have been curtailed as the pandemic has eliminated many casual interactions and restricted some face-to-face meetups. But practicing these skills and intentionally working to learn about other people’s perspectives can help us better understand the nuances of those perspectives.
Often in the modern world, our conversations become debates, particularly with complex topics. But there is another way to converse: dialogue. When we debate, we set out to make a case, to convince others that our perspective is the right one, and to win. In a dialogue, people collaborate to better understand one another. In a dialogue, we don’t have to resolve every disagreement; having differing opinions is OK as long as we respect one another’s humanity. 
Decenter the binary. Nuance is critical for sharing our own perspectives, too. So often, complex issues are presented as a fight between polar opposites. In truth, the majority of the population is somewhere in the middle on most issues, with nuanced perspectives based on their own personal experiences. In the book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, psychologist Adam Grant notes that “presenting two extremes isn’t the solution; it’s part of the polarization problem. Psychologists have a name for this: binary bias. … When the middle of the spectrum is invisible, the majority’s will to act vanishes with it.”
This is not to suggest that we should convey neutrality in all situations. As the late Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Highlight areas of agreement. Mentioning the views we have in common can help people who feel their ideological differences are intractable see the similarities between their perspectives and those of their opponents. Rather than “othering” one another, we can reinforce our collective humanity.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we should ignore cultural differences or identities. We can simultaneously celebrate our diversity and the strength that it confers to our community. One way to do this is to focus on larger, superordinate goals (goals that require the cooperation of two or more groups), which can help polarized communities unite.
University of California, Berkeley professor and 2021 People of Color Conference keynote speaker john a. powell refers to “co-constructing a larger we.” In the Winter 2019 issue of Nonprofit Quarterly, he writes, “One of the major ways of promoting belonging is by bridging. … Bridging is about creating compassionate space and practices where we can acknowledge each other’s stories and suffering. … Through bridging, people experience being heard, being seen, and being cared for.”
Use stories to unite. “Story—sacred and profane—is perhaps the main cohering force in human life,” writes Jonathan Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. “Society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story.”
In schools, stories communicate the ethos of the school and reinforce the mission and goals of the community. Stories help us place ourselves in others’ shoes, building our capacity for empathy. And they help us form connections with one another. 
Stories can also help convince others. When we hear facts, the data processing centers of our brain are activated, and our brains are primed to be skeptical to help us sort through the information. Stories, however, trigger the social and emotional centers in our brains, helping us see connections.
Of course, not every story will appeal to every person, particularly if the situation involves change. In Think Again, Adam Grant writes, “Research shows that when people are resistant to change, it helps to reinforce what will stay the same. Visions for change are more compelling when they include continuity. Although our strategy might evolve, our identity will endure.”
School leaders who aim to tell a story that will appeal to everyone in every circumstance run the risk of diluting the true and unique value proposition of the school. A narrative that explains the authentic nature of the community can help families self-select what works for them. And a community of people who are confident about what the school offers and who support the mission will make for a healthier, happier community.  

Charting a Course

When Austin sat down to write an address for Deerfield’s family weekend in October 2021, he was excited to speak to parents in person for the first time in nearly two years. But the incredible turmoil that all schools had been through over the previous 20 months also weighed heavily on his mind. He thought deeply about what this moment in time meant for his school community. He wanted to speak not only to parents and students but also to faculty, staff, and trustees, and most important, he wanted to provide a framework that could help everyone in the community grapple with the tough issues of the day civilly. He described Deerfield’s long-standing twin goals of sustaining a climate where all students can thrive and supporting a learning culture that honors free and open inquiry. 
Austin was deliberate in the language he chose to include and that he chose to omit. He thought about the words and phrases that are widely misinterpreted, and words people with one viewpoint use that are completely absent in others’ discussions of the same issue. He aimed to talk openly and frankly and emphasize positive attributes while avoiding the words most likely to inflame. He spoke about conflict and strife and referred to argument inclusiveness instead of viewpoint diversity.
“Learning is social, relational, and holistic. Building relationships of trust, support, and challenge with young people is the essence of what we do,” Austin said, highlighting a view that resonated with teachers, students, and families. He noted that, “Children tend not to thrive when adults are at war with one another.” And then he identified a common goal that would require the cooperation of all Deerfield constituents: “When so much public discussion is ugly, toxic, and disparaging, we need to cultivate norms of discussion ... that elevate classroom discussion.” He outlined a number of practices that support argument inclusiveness, open inquiry, and inclusive, principled neutrality.
Austin received many positive emails from parents in response to his remarks. He then held meetings with groups of faculty members to start a conversation about how the school could model inclusive neutrality. What would it look like for teachers to foster dialogue without asserting their own views? At first, faculty members were skeptical. Some said that they wanted to know where Austin stood on various topics, and that it was important for students to know that silence on an issue did not indicate consent or complacency nor did it condone the problems that they saw in the world, such as policies that seemed to target one group or that failed to protect others.
While Austin agreed that those were important considerations, he urged faculty to turn hot topics into objects of inquiry and discovery in the classroom. “Our core values run deeper than the issue of the moment,” he said. “I think we can stand for our deepest values and give [students] tools to engage.”
Indeed, among Deerfield’s stated core values are “Citizenship in a spirit of humility, empathy, and responsibility,” “interactions characterized by joy and generosity of spirit,” and “reflection and balance, promoting intellectual vitality and self-understanding.” Highlighting those values through speeches and in the classroom is a critical way to reinforce a positive school culture. He also reminded everyone of the common goal, uniting them around a vision focused on students: “There is no conflict between making good people and able citizens while also remaining agnostic on political and ideological questions. In the end, it’s not my voice that matters; it’s theirs.”
Myra McGovern

Myra McGovern is vice president of media at NAIS.