In his new book "The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization" (coming in June from Columbia University Press), Peter T. Coleman, co-executive director of the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity at Columbia University, examines conflict resolution, the importance of overcoming political and social schisms, and healing the divides.
Read the author's preface below, and don't miss Susan Spencer's interview with Coleman onApril 4!
While Rome Burns
It feels both urgent and frivolous to sit with my laptop and opine about the science on reducing toxic forms of polarization, while my various devices send me constant updates on the reality of the increasingly tense, poisonous, fractured state of our union. Initially, the context was Birtherism, Benghazi and Brexit, but then jumped to Russian hacking of our elections, the Mueller inquiry and Trump's impeachment. Then, amidst this crisis of Western democracy, my family and I suffered the profound, unexpected loss of a dear, 27-year old friend of ours, the only son of our closest friends. Immediately afterward came COVID-19 (which we contracted in February), a near-complete worldwide social and economic shutdown, and unprecedented levels of civil unrest in our streets triggered by the perpetual stream of brutal killings of unarmed black Americans at the hands of our own police.
I am deeply shaken. We are destabilized.
In the context of this maelstrom, I wrote this book. It will not rid us of predatory despots, racists, misogynists, anarchists, or other types of extremists and opportunists who take advantage of our divisive human tribal tendencies in order to gain power. These are pathologies afflicting societies around the world – which are nearing epidemic levels in the USA – and which many leaders in politics and the media have learned to play like maestros. It is clear to me that these forces must be actively challenged, fought, blocked, controlled and legally constrained if our original vision of American democracy – of optimism and egalitarianism and fairness and E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) – is to ever be realized. However, this book is not about how to win this fight.
It is about finding another way out of it.
I grew up in middle America in a lower working-class family who struggled to make ends meet. Born in Chicago, my mother, siblings and I fled a dangerous situation there (my father drank, gambled and owed money to violent men) and moved to Iowa when I was ten, where I was thereafter raised in a single-parent home. Although my mom worked to exhaustion, we found ourselves needing to go on welfare, so I began working at ten-years-old to help out. Since then, I have held over fifty different jobs, many of them menial labor, to make my way out of hard times. Despite being pigeonholed as an indigent "Industrial Ed" kid in high school, I attended college at a state school, moved to New York City, eventually got a PhD, and today live on the Upper West Side where I am proud to be a professor of peace and conflict studies at Columbia University.
All this to say that I feel a genuine connection with, and concern for, both Americas: rural and urban, poor and well-off, progressive and conservative. No, I am not a fan of Donald Trump, and feel his mean-spirited divisiveness, trivialization of facts, truth and science, and profound selfishness and recklessness are dangerous in a president. But I understand why some see him as a folk hero, and so am an advocate for many Trump voters as well as adamant anti-Trumpers – I understand how they got there. Because I, too, am angry.
There is an old tale about a Cherokee elder who was teaching his grandchild about life, who said, "A fight is going on inside you. It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, greed, arrogance and ego. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, kindness, generosity and faith. The same fight going on inside you is inside every other person, too." The child thought about it for a moment and then asked, "Which wolf will win?" The old man replied, "The one you feed."
These days, my enraged, fearful, arrogant wolf is well-fed. I feel perversely energized by my distain for leaders on the other side of our political chasm and bewildered by their followers. I feel constantly pulled into fits of self-righteous certainty and disgust. There is an obsessive, addictive, contagious quality to all this. Our violent wolves are battling their vicious wolves to the death – damn the consequences! All the while our kinder, more generous, hopeful wolves are left battered, withered, quivering on the ropes. Writing this book is my attempt to resuscitate our compassionate wolves.
A hundred years ago, Mary Parker Follett, one of the great unsung heroes of the 20th century, did exactly this by offering a vision for quelling violent labor strife and oppressive management practices in the U.S. Follett was an American social worker by trade who wrote prophetic essays about business, industrial relations and management. In the early 1900s, she offered a view on reducing worker-management enmity that was a radical departure from the prevailing orthodoxy, which believed in the raw use of threat, coercion and control to overwhelm one's opponent. At a time when management philosophy was deeply rooted in what came to be known as "Theory X" (the belief that workers are basically lazy, irresponsible and greedy and need to be controlled by a strong hand)[i], and when coercive, "power-over" approaches to employee management and union strategy prevailed, she offered an alternative. She wrote,
"It seems to me that whereas power usually means power-over, the power of some person or group over some other person or group, it is possible to develop the conception of power-with, a jointly developed power, a co-active, not a coercive power… Coercive power is the curse of the universe; co-active power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul."[ii]
In Follett's view, one of the most effective ways to reduce the use of abusive forms of control and stem the battle in industry was to make them less relevant – by developing the idea, the capacities, and the conditions that foster co-active power and integrative solutions for all involved. As such, she was able to rise above the poisonous, polarizing struggles between labor and management that had threatened the survival of many organizations of her time by appealing to those in the middle and encouraging both sides to see the value of working together to improve their mutual conditions. Although it took decades, Follett's vision was ultimately transformational, spawning widespread movements – in participatory leadership and inclusive management practices, constructive conflict resolution, and employee empowerment and teamwork in organizations – that continue to enhance our lives today.
My aim is similar. While I fully recognize that the battles against our more destructive political forces and tendencies must continue unabated, I hope to offer an alternative way out of our current dystopian struggles – one that will be sufficiently hopeful, attractive and feasible to make the more combative approaches to them become much less germane. In the end, while we may need both wolves to survive, our humanity, our decency, and our sense of community and solidarity depends on the capacities of our kinder ones to thrive.
The pathological nature of the current climate of contempt that we are trapped in is a first-order problem. Unless our nation can find its way out of it, we will never be able to come together sufficiently to address the other wolves at our door – deadly novel pandemics, the tipping-point of climate change, the unsustainable brutality of racism and inequality, and the quite sudden disappearance of a majority of our jobs to emerging technologies. Existential challenges of this nature and scope require a unified response. They demand we be at our best.
Recent events have reminded me, once again, of the incredible promise of the human spirit and of the devastating fragility of life and brevity of our time on this planet. They have made me refocus my energies on doing everything I can to make our world a more just and generous place. So, in good faith, I offer this book to my America, to our America, with the genuine hope that it can help us all to find a better way out together.
[i] McGregor, D. (1960). The human side of enterprise. New York, McGraw-Hill.
[ii] Follett, M. P. (1924). Creative Experience. New York: Longmans, Green; Folette, M. P. (1925). Power. In E. M. Fox and L Urwick (Eds., 1974), Dynamic administration: The collected papers of Mary Parker Follett, 66-87. London: Pitman.
Excerpt from "The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization" by Peter T. Coleman. Copyright © 2021 by Peter T. Coleman. Reprinted by permission of Columbia University Press. All Rights Reserved.
For more info:
- "The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization" by Peter T. Coleman (Columbia University Press), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available June 1 via Amazon and Indiebound
- Peter T. Coleman, director, Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, Columbia University