Polarization is closely related to acquiring and confirming one’s own identity, one’s own mindset. Polarization is an identity provider that we need forever. We continue to affirm our identity as long as we do not realize that we label people and that our mindset permanently distorts reality. Polarization, therefore, concerns thinking frameworks in which our thought constructions take shape. What we don’t always realize is that mental frameworks are ‘creatable’ to a certain extent and can therefore be transformed more or less. Thinking frames form the basis of our mindsets that shape how we see reality. They are culturally determined and are sharpened by our experiences. These experiences are largely created by and with the people close to you. People often feel more comfortable with certain groups than others. In addition, some groups are seen as ‘bad’ or ‘different’. alterity, the distance or separation from the particular others, is an inevitable result of social life. We generate realities and morals within specific groups. Through the conversations we have with people within this group, we get the feeling of who we are, what is right, and what is real. Language is therefore an important medium from which we construct our reality. In case something is ‘good’, we use words that favor certain existing things while we push the absent and the opposite to the margins. However, for every reality there is an alterity. In today’s society, virtually none of us escapes from being undesirable to at least one group. So the challenge is: How do we proceed in such a way that emerging antagonism does not lead to more polarization? (Roels, 2018)(Gergen, McNamee, & Barrett, 2001).
The paper ‘‘Toward A Vocabulary of Transformative Dialogue’’ (2001) gave me an insight into ways to empower the silent middle and how different realities can be fused. Kenneth Gergen, Sheila McNamee, and Frank Barrett (2001) talk about a means of meeting the above-mentioned challenge: dialogue. Dialogue, the conversation form that the silent middle group prefers (Brandsma, 2017), is simply said a conversation between two or more persons. So, to make headway here it is essential to distinguish between specific forms of dialogue. Not every dialogical process can be useful in an antagonistic environment. That’s why I do not want to focus on just dialogue, but on transformative dialogue. Transformative dialogue can be seen as any form of exchange that succeeds in a relationship between those who are committed to otherwise antagonistic and separate realities to one in which there are reinforcing and common realities under construction. More concrete: transformative dialogue is essentially aimed at facilitating the collaborative construction of new realities (Gergen, McNamee, & Barrett, 2001).
So the good news is that polarization is a thought construct that relies on a thinking frame that can be transformed. We are not powerless if we recognize that we are not the captives of our mindset. However, one condition is that we really want that transformation. Creating a strong middle group, where the challenges can be explored in a dialogical context, requires asking the right questions and listening carefully before choosing or stimulating a direction. Gergen, McNamee, and Barrett (2001) talk about imaginary moments that are needed in the dialogue in which participants join in developing new visions of a reality. These imaginary moments sow the seeds for co-construction and shift the position of the participants from combative to cooperative. They move toward a common purpose, redefine the other, and lay the groundwork for a conception of “us.” A way to move toward a joint reality is through locating superordinate goals. This means that opposites temporarily suspend their differences to join in a direction they both support. The focus should not be on fixed starting points, but on the potentials of the dialogue to reveal new, unifying amalgamations of perspective and a viable future together. Maybe an even more impressive practice in conjoining realities is appreciative inquiry. The emphasis in appreciative inquiry is on the narrative. People carry with them many stories and these stories are valuable resources. By sharing stories of value, commonalities and shared values can be located. If you draw them out, listen to these stories and place them in motion, it is possible to sow the seeds for alternative visions of the future. In effect, these stories set loose the powers of creative change. Appreciative inquiry provides an excellent means by which people can move toward the generation of new realities. Dialogue is then employed to fill out the landscape of the vision, to create a new reality, which lays the groundwork for alternative forms of action. At the same time, the participants move from a “we” versus “them” orientation, to a conception of “we’’, building a new unity in which they exist together (Gergen, McNamee, & Barrett, 2001).
Feeling more comfortable with certain groups than others, experiencing different realities, does also correspond with the in-group and out-group theory introduced by William Graham Sumner (2007). People prefer the members of their own groups (in-group) and dislike members of other groups (out-group) in social situations. Sumner already stated in 1906 that people, by nature, like to form groups and have a strong preference for the group to which one belongs. In daily life, you form a lot of groups. Sports teams, unions, and also neighbourhoods are examples of in-groups and out-groups; people may belong to, or be an outsider to, any of these.
The Emmasingelkwadrant is also facing this in-group and out-group situation. I speak from my own experience that the groups in the Emmasingelkwadrant, such as the pushers and the silent center, are groups that residents are not necessarily aware of. What I mean is that the residents in this specific situation are not aware that they belong to a certain group. However, this differs per group: the silent center is, for example, less aware of it than the pushers. Nevertheless, you can classify them by their opinions, (varying) needs and behavior. I want to highlight the in-group and out-group from my previous blog: the older, well-to-do residents in particular think that the ‘foreigners’, mainly referred to the visitors to De Huiskamer, cause nuisance in the neighbourhood. Causing these two groups to oppose each other. The in-group in this situation are the older, well-to-do residents. The out-group are the visitors to De Huiskamer. However, the majority of the inhabitants in the Emmasingelkwadrant are not older, well-to-do residents, nor are they visitors to De Huiskamer. These are the inhabitants that do not belong to the in-group and out-group. This is the silent middle. As I said earlier: I believe these are the inhabitants who can make the difference, by empowering them, entering into dialogue, and ultimately creating a shared reality that all residents could relate to.
But how? I decided to organize and facilitate a dialogue around the theme: ‘Connection in the neighbourhood’. All inhabitants were invited, especially the older, well-to-do residents. But guess who showed up? It were not the older, well-to-do residents who had spoken negatively about the livability in the neighbourhood and the visitors to De Huiskamer, it were the residents who wanted to explore the opportunities in the neighbourhood, wanted to share stories and discover together which shared values and commonalities are present in the neighbourhood. I think that especially these inhabitants, the inhabitants who do not take sides, who do not belong to either of these two groups and want to discover the opportunities, are able to ultimately bring about change.
I facilitated this dialogue in a way that stories of value could be shared, so commonalities and shared values could be located. I focussed on finding a direction all inhabitants who participated support. It was not focused on a fixed starting point, but on the potentials of the dialogue to reveal new perspectives, directions, and alternative visions of the future. The ‘we’ versus ‘them’ orientation, should be transformed in a conception of ‘we’. However, in an effective depolarization dialogue, the participants, in this case the older, well-to-do residents (the pushers/in-group), know that they are problem owners and are willing to take on that responsibility. It is extremely important to invite those problem owners to make statements about themselves. Especially about their own opinion and ideas and not about the opinion or idea of the other. That’s what makes it difficult, because these people were not the ones who showed up during the dialogue. How do you reach this group? How you can make them realize that commonalities, shared values, and a shared reality can be of value?
Now that I know better what my role can be in the depolarization process, it is time to empower the silent middle group. By listening and looking at underlying values and thoughts, being involved, having an open attitude, focusing on the common interest, and stimulating a sustainable connection, a (local) system change is within reach.
I started this blog with the above sentences, and I strongly believe that these sentences should also be the beginning of my last blog.