Democracies fail when politicians are unwilling or unable to compromise. Jared Diamond, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis
Recent headlines tell the story: “Alabama Governor Signs Controversial Abortion Ban Law,” “Virginia Abortion Bill: Ralph Northam Defends Infanticide.” When did we decide that the proper response to extreme proposals by the other side is for our side to become more extreme – often rabidly so? Upping our own extremism is not the way to counter, let alone repudiate, the other side’s extremism. It is not just abortion. Look at immigration, income inequality, climate change – we grow further apart rather than coming together to hammer out solutions that would benefit all. The sure way to get warfare, but no progress, is for each side to deify their own purity, move further apart and trigger the other side to move in the opposite direction.
This process has a name, Destructive Escalation and it is a psychological process that moves opposing parties down a path of growing extremism, conflict and carnage. I wrote about it in a Huffington Post article entitled, “The New Religion: Destructive Escalation” in January, 2017. The process has been studied, the five steps are widely known and highly predictable:
1. Retaliate: Escalation begins when one party believes the other party has deliberately provoked them. They then retaliate, setting off an ever-increasing cycle of blame and aggression.
2. Stereotype: Each side begins to stereotype the other side as all the same — bad. Whether the sides are divided by race, region, ideology, theology, gender — indiscriminate discrimination rules.
3. Disassociate: Each side then cuts off communication with its adversaries and associates only with their own, leading to increased misunderstanding and distrust
4. Polarize: Within the group, members become more homogeneous as moderate voices are silenced, punished and often expelled. Leaders compete for power by making more vicious claims about the opposition. Media coverage rewards the most extreme voices.
5. Violate: The last stage is escalation to physical or emotional violence as the parties completely de-humanize each other, legitimizing elimination of the “other” — literally or figuratively.
Unfortunately, we continue in a Destructive Escalation cycle where both sides feel the need to become more radical and extreme, futilely attempting to get the country to bend to their view. Each side uses the most extreme examples and most provocative language to impugn the motives of the other side: “Oppressively trying to control women’s bodies” you hear from one side. “Engaging in willfully killing of human babies” you hear from the other side. Several states like Louisiana move to further restrict abortions, Illinois moves to expand “abortion rights.” Each side justifies becoming more extreme by painting the other side in the most extreme light possible.
The abortion debate pivots off of two very good, noble ideas: women having freedom and control over their own bodies without oppression and the protection and preservation of human life. The rub comes when one of those begins to compete with the other for which is primary – and if it comes down to one or another – which one prevails. The devil, these days, is in giving an inch – on any detail. Often the greatest wrath is reserved for those on either side that hint at compromise.
When Compromise Is a Dirty Word
Once upon a time “compromise” was a positive word. Before it fell into ill repute, it was seen as something mature, something strong people did to accommodate differences, to stay civil and connected, where both parties got some of what they wanted. Too often today, it has become branded as weakness, diluting your principles, selling out. “Uncompromising” is today’s media star exalted as strength, purity, and principle – and unfortunately warfare.
A distinction is important. Each of us must decide where we are personally on abortion or on any number of controversial issues. We can calibrate and stick to our views to get them just right. But, our personal view is not the question.
The question is how shall our nation, made of people with wide and varied views, deal with this complicated question. No matter how important the issue, it is not possible for all 327 million of us to get our way exactly. So, the goal is to find the solution that best accommodates the views of our nation. Over the years we had reached a compromise on abortion, tweaked from time to time, that totally satisfied few, but was tolerable to most.
Now comes those who want to de-compromise – to blow up the tentative peace – by requiring the other side move to their more extreme position. You know things are pretty extreme when Pat Robertson of Liberty University, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Jack Graham pastor of a mega Southern Baptist church in Dallas do not support the Alabama bill. And, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris all decline comment and support for Virginia Governor Northam’s statement.
It seems we need to rehabilitate compromise.
Why Are We Embracing Oppositional Extremism?
Contrasted to compromise is oppositional extremism: responding to the opposition on ideological or theological issues by adopting a more radical stance. If Destructive Escalation helps us understand “how” we do it, the next question becomes “why.” Why are we engaging in it? The short answer is that most of us aren’t. Nonetheless, in the world of news, social media and public debate with ever more extreme views and the attendant debate and fights that drive attention, eyeballs and ad revenue – oppositional extremism seems to dominate. Why do we get sucked into this downward spiral? Let me suggest three reasons.
1. Embracing ideological greed: Perhaps our lust for more financial gain has spawned a new strain – ideological greed – where excessive or rapacious desire for wealth or possessions has now invaded our ideology and theology. Perhaps our “consumption society” has taught us we should get exactly what we want, when we want it and with little effort – not just for us, but imposed on the masses. Maybe we seek the Amazon Prime of ideological fulfillment. Progress, rather than invoking gratitude, fosters feelings of scarcity, victimhood, anger and entitlement. Accumulation morphs into hoarding and feeds desire. The more we get ideologically the more we want.
Yet we are not alone in this world – we live in groups: family, friends, communities, work organizations, city, state, country. Life is a team sport. The power and essence of a group is its ability to cobble together unity of purpose and function in the midst of differences. Organized religion has been rightly criticized for sometimes attempting to impose its will on others. As politics has become the new religion, it seems we have adopted a collective greed that condemns others and attempts to force our views on them.
2. Politics is a poor substitute for religion: For years some religious groups have become more political – at substantial cost to their brand – and now politics has returned the favor. It is hard to know which is worse, politics becoming the new religion or religion trying to dominate politics. When politics is substituted for religion, – it risks combing the worst of both worlds: rigid belief, self-righteousness, contempt for non-believers and purity-focus but sorely missing the counter-balance of confession, forgiveness, grace, love of neighbor and serving others. Politics is for dealing with the common good guided by our collective personal values. Religion is for dealing with personal values/beliefs that help inform but not dictate views for the national good.
Two defining trends in our society is the defection from political parties and organized religion. Defections from political parties have doubled since 1945 and independents (“none of the above”) now substantially exceed the number of Democrats or Republicans. Membership in organized religion is at historic lows and the percentage of people unaffiliated (“nones”) has doubled since 2005. Many have left religion and many are leaving political parties because they have taken on such a tribal, partisan tone. It is a telling, toxic combination: smaller and more extreme. It is my belief that politics and religion each would do much better to stop acting like the other.
3. Wounded people, wound people. We have two related types of wounds that feed destructive tribal relationships. First is isolation and loneliness. Loneliness, which has the same mortality impact as smoking, is up 65% among adults over 45 in the past decade. A just-released study by Parkland Hospital in Dallas found that 80 people visited four county emergency rooms collectively 5,139 times in a 12-months period – three had more than 500 visits. What was behind this? Their research revealed a painful reality. The cause for most of the repeat visits was loneliness: “It’s a lack of relationships and support structure.” In my company we conducted analyses of stores and bank branches on five continents and found similar patterns and causes: a few “lonely” customers account for a disproportionate number of visits – sometimes daily. In fact, some were tagged with the pejorative “service hogs” because they dominated finite resources crowding out other customers – similar to how extreme views crowd out moderate ones in today’s media. Tribes can become the emergency room of lonely people seeking belonging and meaning.
Second, are the wounds of unprocessed anger and even rage. Us-against-the-world tribes can be a seductive place to join the “ain’t it awful” club to focus anger and blame on others. Social media has become a hyper-fertile hothouse for organizing those harboring resentment, anger and unchanneled anxiety. Whether soldiers with PTSD, survivors of sexual assault, people bullied or with bi-polar or any number of legitimate reasons to be upset – distress can be multiplied immediately, globally, emotionally and anonymously -- like never before. We have geometrically increased our ability to wound people but emotional and psychological healing is as slow and laborious as ever. It is a mismatch. The head of software development in my company had a saying: “if you give a fool a faster tool, what you get is a faster fool.” We have become a society of faster fools.
Are You a Warmonger?
Warmonger – one who fosters warlike ideas or advocates war – is a thing and it transforms disagreement into warfare. There are times to go to war, but it is not all the time, everywhere and against everyone including masses of people we have never even met. Warmongering is incredibly convenient and easy today, which requires us to be more intentional to avoid Destructive Escalation.
What does intention look like? Try these questions: Do you count to 10 as a mental speed bump before hitting “send” in response to messages that trigger you? After all, speed – today’s wounding weapon of choice – kills. Who have you actively or passively “broken- up with” or de-friended on the other side of the ideological divide? They may be your lifeline to broader, more meaningful understanding. Where do you need to look for compromise first in disagreements and avoid using the most extreme example to stereotype the diverse members of the other side?
Today’s golden rule is this: if you try to impose your will on the other side – on issues pivotal to you – you can be assured they will try to impose their will on you. Longer term it leads to few winners, lots of casualties and ultimately crumbling democracies.
Robert’s latest book, “This Land of Strangers” is now in paperback. A “recovering CEO,” he has authored 150 published articles and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, The Huffington Post, The CEO Magazine. Robert's website: www.robertehall.com