Polarization, Social Cohesion and Data

The extreme polarization around communities, where a seemingly innocuous good time can turn into an “us vs. them” confrontation, demonstrates how fragile our society has become.

While the informal feeling is that the situation has worsened since 2016, no real proof appears to exist, in an age of big data, that would demonstrably quantify that polarization. An annual survey would start measuring it, potentially posing the following questions:

  • Are you more likely or less likely to watch a news program that you would say does not normally correspond to your political views?

  • Are you more or less likely to consider a partner from another political party? Another race? Another religion?

The likely response to all of those questions feels like “less likely”, but it’s hard to know.

Annual Report on Polarization and Social Cohesion

An Annual Report on Polarization and Social Cohesion would help policymakers and communities try to get to grips on the elephant in the room — our intense polarization and how it impacts our daily lives from budgets and government shutdowns to stress in the supermarket line. Stress levels alone, it probably costs us billions of dollars in time and money.

Even a statistically significant short survey — 25–30 questions — delivered in an initial number of cities would help understand the cultural climate in cities and communities. The survey would help not only highlight needs to address the divisions in a certain community, but also to learn from communities that appear to be more cohesive.

Given the impacts that digital advancement has had on our democracy, tech companies could and should play a role here — with no strings attached to data collection — to better understand polarization. If the role of tech proved too contentious, then entities such as the Pew Research Center could build such a survey into their already excellent work.

Our need to understand the other and promote a culture of dialogue is paramount, particularly in discrimination. Being ignored in line and being called flat-out racist remarks when buying a coffee are still shockingly commonplace. And then we ask why someone “overacts” to a seemingly innocuous incident? Answer: It’s been repeating itself for years. Take a walk in their shoes for a few days and you begin to understand.

This approach has been tried in Germany, where the Bertelsmann Foundation has a Social Cohesion Radar, which gives results in individual states, as well as in big cities such as Bremen and Hamburg.

Willingness, Knowledge, and Practice

Any policy change and its impact won’t come overnight, but to move us collectively in the right direction needs a willingness to leave our comfort zone of what we think we know and question. Turning our fear of the unknown into curiosity, asking ourselves why someone reacts in a certain way, and acknowledging the challenges in the lives of what we consider our “other” is a step in the right direction but it needs practice.

We all come with our bubbles and our baggage. It is crucial that for our collective good we take another look before (re)acting and potentially worsening an already tense situation. Small-scale incidents seem to be proliferating in the last number of weeks.

Endless debate, tit for tat and “us vs. them” only serves to build walls between us. We have serious challenges — homelessness, poverty, education, health, and climate change to name but a few.

Dialogue, not debate, could reduce the polarization in our society leading to a real exchange of views and better understanding our motivations behind those views. A Survey on Polarization and Social Cohesion would be an important first step, providing a baseline to inform the policy dialogue around seriously addressing the challenge.

This piece originally appeared on Medium.com - direct link is here: https://medium.com/@dion.richardread/polarization-social-cohesion-and-data-1dc3a064f05f

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