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How Do We Navigate the Culture Wars in Everyday Life?

Our psychology is designed to divide us, but we can overcome it.

Key points

  • We may be living through the culture wars, but we often have more in common with our political opponents than we think.
  • Social Identity theory and fMRI studies explain how we remain emotionally vulnerable to political divisions even when our ideas overlap. 
  • There are steps we can take to deal more rationally with political opposition.
Liza Summer/Pexels
Source: Liza Summer/Pexels

Around the world we are constantly hearing about societies being caught up in vicious culture wars, dividing nations into distinct halves and causing rifts in our personal lives.

And everyone can relate to those all-too-familiar dinner party debates, the ones which leave you angrily washing dishes and wondering how you will ever agree with that friend or family member who so quickly transformed into a rival before your eyes.

The differences that divide us

There are a couple of key psychological processes which drive these divides and prevent us from rationally navigating these challenging conversations.

First of all, humans are intrinsically motivated to identify with groups. Social identity theory describes how our self-esteem is often derived from belonging to a group that we view as superior to another. Henri Tajfel even found that "minimal" groups created on arbitrary criteria (i.e., random assignment to a preference for one artist over another) and rapidly developed hostility and negative stereotypes towards each other.

How much more powerful are such processes likely to be in politics when we have chosen our own political party opinions? The drive for a positive social identity quickly leads us to regard our group as morally and intellectually superior to another, and media stories which regale extreme examples of the opposition’s wrong-doing are welcome supporting evidence of these comparisons.

You can see the psychological incentive here. Why would we want to hear what someone has to say if we think it’s going to challenge our belief in our own brilliance?

This has gone so far in recent decades that fewer than half of British Labor and Conservative supporters are open to discussing politics with someone from the other side.

If this is the case, then we’re shutting ourselves off from discovering potential commonalities, leaving us less equipped to deal with those dinner table disputes.

The reality is that certain groups, such as journalists and politicians, use our tribal inclinations to their advantage. By disseminating inflammatory stories which reinforce our party beliefs and lead us to distance ourselves from the other side, they are also deepening loyalties and growing their own support bases.

Secondly, brain scanning techniques reveal that discussing politics is highly personal and evokes powerful neurological reactions. As political beliefs have become so intertwined with our identities, any opposition is a threat to them, and the brain dutifully goes into fight mode to protect our identity and belief system as opposed to engaging in more rational reasoning.

Given these emotional brain activations, it is no surprise we often find ourselves frustrated, gleefully picturing that dinner guest spilling their wine. We are not rational automatons, but biological responders, alert to real or imagined personal threats.

Unfortunately, this emotional reaction pushes us further away from each other, as we ignore the facts and rational thinking in favor of self-preservation.

How to bridge the gap

Given all of this, how can we fight against the culture war divides in our everyday lives and deal more rationally with difficult conversations?

  • Seek out cross-party commonalities. Our research shows that, despite contradictory narratives, 80 percent of people in the UK tend to agree on a host of supposedly “heated” issues. If we can agree on some things, we can more safely discuss what we don’t.
  • Diversify your sources. Engage with other news outlets and listen to different people talk about the issues. We’re not going to bridge the divide by sticking to our separate camps.
  • Be discerning. Don’t buy into inflamed, clickbait headlines which are designed to stoke the fire by reinforcing our self-congratulatory group beliefs and supercharging our emotional responses. They intentionally mislead and divide us and can take a huge emotional toll.
  • Remember that difference is a good thing. We tend to forget that ideological differences keep us on our toes, broaden our perspectives, and hold leaders accountable. Without our political opponents, we are no longer a functioning democracy, so a degree of difference is positive, and we could try to welcome it.

These practices will take time, but so do most worthwhile pursuits. We must remember that the aim of the game isn’t to win the culture wars, but to become more informed, rational participators… and hopefully save a few good dinner parties on the way!

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