January 25, 2021
The violent attack on the US Capitol on January 6 shook are country to its core. As the story unfolds, it is becoming clear that for many involved, this was a planned and organized event. Some fully intended to overthrow a democratic election. Insurrection and coup are not too strong of terms to describe what happened. Many experts saw this coming and do not see it as the culmination but a chapter in an unfinished book.
How did we get here? What were once political differences escalated into unresolved conflict and over decades, evolved into a polarized system. Organizational consultant Dave Brubaker, citing the work of Speed Leas, describes what happens when conflict escalates to the highest of five levels. When polarization occurs, people sort themselves into affinity groups with those who share common beliefs and values. They also cut themselves off from those who don’t share those views. Compromise or negotiation are replaced with a win-lose battle mentality. At level five, intractable conflict, the goal is not just winning but to destroy the other side. Language and communication patterns are clear indicators of the level of conflict.1
When inequality and economic stratification increase so does polarization. Unfortunately, many people in this country find themselves feeling marginalized, either economically, socially, or politically. At an even deeper level, people feel their identity is threatened and have become tribal, joining together around a set of key beliefs and values. They ignore the differences that exist between members of their same tribe. In this context, leaders who appeal to fear and anxiety among those who feel their identity is under threat gain traction. Extreme language and action now seem conceivable, if not appealing.
Political science researchers Cassese, Kalmoe, Mason and Theodoridis have found that the violent assault of the US Capitol stems not just from years of increasing polarization of views but from a more troubling process of dehumanizing the other. This is typical of Level 5 conflict. The evidence of this shift was clear in the language being used that day by the White House and in social media leading up to it. “Dehumanization, the practice of believing that groups or individuals lack (either figuratively or literally) certain human qualities… is more than just disagreement or incivility, it is the express denial of humanity… And is associated with a host of consequences, including acceptance of violence against its targets.” 2
Polarization is too simplistic to describe what is currently going on in the country. We are beyond a situation of simply two poles with people separated by opposing beliefs. Radical extremism and resorting to violence have taken over the extreme end of the right spectrum. Extremism feeds on feeling marginalized, ignored, and that you no longer matter. Language, symbolism and weapons all reflect their response to a perceived threat to their identity.
The adoption of extremism is not true for all Trump supporters, although 1 in 5 Republicans said they approved of the perpetrators and 47% said storming the Capitol was mostly legitimate.3 But, with increased isolation due to the pandemic and an unprecedented supply of (mis)information on social media sites to feed conspiracies, more people gravitated to the extreme. At this level of conflict, issues are replaced with personalities—those a group follows and those a group detests and wants to destroy. Information is also no longer a basis for sorting out what is happening as each side discredits the information and sources of the other side.
So, how do we get out? Unfortunately, methods effective at lower levels of conflict are no match for these dynamics. Dialogue is unproductive or even harmful since each side dismisses information from the other side and will not trust anything said by the “enemy.” Bringing opposing groups together poses the real possibility of making things worse. Trying to educate the other side is also ineffective as we are the wrong messengers and our sources are discredited. Trusted moderators might be able to do this at the right moment.
Brubaker proposes that leaders offer hope in the place of fear. Hope (Brubaker, p. 9) requires that we:
Humanize our opponents
Openly state our beliefs
Rather than denounce those drawn toward extreme views, we need to see their humanity, understand their journey and what motivates them. Ultimately, we must accept them as human, see them as whole, not needing fixing. Peter Block says that trying to be helpful reflects a superiority that even if useful, is disempowering. Only with acceptance of the other will my relationship turn from judging to mutuality as I begin to see this person as a gift, not a problem to solve.
We need not shy away from stating our beliefs, especially those that appeal to the well-being of all. Dr. Anthony Fauci modeled this and surprisingly was never fired for openly contradicting Donald Trump. For me, I am committed to nonviolence, equity and democratic process where all people have equal access to participation in the decisions that affect our lives.
At the same time, we must pursue justice. Extending unconditional acceptance to those in our family and community does not absolve leaders and proponents of conspiracies who lied to the public, undermined democratic processes and broke the law. Accountability is a necessary step to healing the nation and to restoring faith in our institutions and the democratic process. To do otherwise would enable extremists to take the next step.
Finally, we must find new ways to engage difference. If those who are on the opposite end of the divide feel truly accepted by us, it opens the door for authentic engagement. Once fear of judgment and rejection are gone, we can begin to better understand where each is coming from, what their deepest fears are and what values they hold dearest to them. Connecting to the other’s passion and pain (and our own) creates the bridge to a future where coexistence and cooperation for a greater good are possible.
1See the Introduction in Brubaker, D. (2019). When the Center Does Not Hold: Leading in an Age of Polarization. Minneapolis: Fortress.
2Opinion | The rise in dehumanizing language has dark implications for political violence
Dehumanization is more than just disagreement or incivility — it is the express denial of humanity. And it's on the rise across America
3Blake, A. (2021). Many Republicans sympathize with those who stormed the Capitol. Washington Post, January 13.