How Do We Escape Our Toxic Polarization?

In a new book, “The Way Out,” Professor Peter T. Coleman explores how conflict resolution and complexity science can provide guidance.

Eve Glasberg
June 01, 2021

The partisan divide in the United States has widened to a chasm. Legislators vote along party lines and rarely cross the aisle. Political polarization is personal, too. Surveys show that Americans have become more fearful and hateful of supporters of the opposing political party, and imagine that their views are more extreme than they actually are. How can we move forward, and start working on our most pressing problems?

The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization by Peter T. Coleman, a professor of social psychology and education, explores how conflict resolution and complexity science provide guidance for dealing with seemingly intractable political differences. Coleman meticulously details principles and practices for navigating and healing the difficult divides in our homes, workplaces, and communities, blending compelling personal accounts from his years of working on entrenched conflicts with lessons from leading-edge research. 

Columbia News caught up with Coleman to discuss the new book, the best book he ever received as a gift (and why), and how he will spend his summer.

Q. Why did you write this book?

A. Several elements combined to move me to write The Way Out. First, I felt an increasingly urgent need to try to help pull the U.S. back from the brink of mass red-versus-blue psychosis and political violence. Second, because our now 50-plus year trajectory of escalating partisan divisiveness is a first-order problem—as it impairs our capacity to effectively address the many other wolves at our door, such as our crises around climate change, cyber-insecurity, inequality, global pandemics, and racial injustice. Third, because most of the excellent books being published today on polarization focus heavily on the nature(s) of the problem, but offer few original insights into how to address it.

But the tipping point came when groups like My Country Talks approached me for advice back in 2018, and I came to realize that too many of these well-intentioned attempts at promoting dialogue between reds and blues misunderstand the complex, structural nature of this type of more intractable divisiveness. They are often insufficiently informed by science, and, therefore, too often do more harm than good in how they go about trying to address the problems. So I decided to try to translate my 25 years of research and teaching on intractable conflicts—and the conditions under which they end—into a set of practical, straightforward actions that Americans can take in their lives to find The Way Out.

"The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization" by Columbia University Professor Peter T. Coleman

Q. The events of the past year make your book especially timely. Is that just a coincidence?

A. Yes and no. I have been tracking Pew Research and other such groups, which have been monitoring these divisive trends for decades. In fact, I gave a TEDx talk on this in 2012. However, after the past few years—which brought more extreme politicization of the media, unchecked vitriolic discourse on social media, foreign interference in our elections, the Trump administration’s weaponization of fear and division, an increase in the awareness of racialized violence in policing, and the rapid spike in hate groups across the country—we have arrived at our current state of emergency. Clearly, we need solutions.

Q. What’s the best book you ever received as a gift, and why?

A. One of the most influential books I have ever read is Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom (which, I believe, was given to me as a gift by my spouse, Leah). It is an extraordinary personal account of Mandela’s life from a young child in his village through to the presidency of South Africa. He first wrote it on toilet paper during his 27-year imprisonment on Robben Island off Cape Town, and buried it in the grounds outside his cell, but it was eventually discovered and destroyed. So he wrote it again once he was freed.

The book is a harrowing but fascinating story of life under apartheid, and of Mandela’s adaptive capacities to use every means at his disposal—the decency, compassion, and respectfulness that was modeled for him by his family; his ferocious training as a litigator and a boxer; his deep knowledge of nonviolent resistance as well as the ancient Chinese military treatise, The Art of War; and his exceptional political acumen. He helped steer his country out of the depths of apartheid and closer to his vision of South Africa as a thriving democratic, multicultural nation.

Q. What are your summer plans?

A. To work, rest, and celebrate (if possible). I have various book-launch events, panels, and media interviews scheduled through July. My daughter is getting married (a very small, COVID-friendly ceremony) in June. I then hope/plan to take much of August off to recover and repair from this year, unless we continue to see the egregious parade of hate crimes or police violence, in which case I will take to the streets with others and march.

Also, I am currently starting work on two new books—one featuring insights gleaned from our research on sustainably peaceful societies, and the other on our studies of more adaptive forms of conflict mediation.

Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

A. A tough question. Today, I’d be inclined to invite James Baldwin, bell hooks, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, as they are some of the most original, clear-eyed thought leaders on our racialized nation. I would also love to ask Dave Chappelle and Maya Angelou for dessert.  

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