The Damaging Politics of Polarization


Public comments by politicians can bring issues such as anti-immigration and racism to the forefront in a powerful way. It’s easy to have an emotional reaction, whatever ‘side’ they’re on. However, it may help to understand what’s happening in an objective manner by looking at it through the lens of an assessment tool I often use: The Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI). This model identifies the developmental path an organization or individual might take to greater intercultural competency.

Navigating Differences

Diversity is a multiplicity of differences. I work with a wide range of organizations who want to go beyond the numbers of achieving diversity, towards intercultural competency. I help them navigate the reality of the natural differences they would encounter when bringing different people to the team, to work better together, to become more inclusive. The goal of intercultural development is to move organizations or individuals from a monocultural to an intercultural mindset.The IDI helps to identify where the organization is on a continuum so they can plan for further development.

Election Campaigns

The Alternative Right, or Alt-Right, has emerged in support of Donald Trump’s platform, generating a lot of tension and discussion. This is because they see the outcome of diverse cultures coming together as conflict, not inclusion. Any discussion about equality and inclusion is being called  “political correctness.”

The Alt-Right wants to be able to say anything about anyone, whether it’s true or not (i.e: all Mexicans coming across the border are drug dealers). This creates conflict and tension.

A tenet of the Alt-Right is anti-globalization – opposition to global ideas and objectives. Another is anti-egalitarianism, which projects the notion of equality as a fairy tale. We have been seeing this movement across Europe, and whether Trump wins or not, the seed is planted.

But this way of thinking isn’t isolated to the U.S. presidential campaign. In Canada a candidate (Kellie Leitch) for the leadership of the Conservative Party has proposed screening immigrants for “anti-Canadian values.”

Leithch’s recent proposal doubles down on her earlier suggestion during the last Canadian general election for the creation of a “snitch line” for Canadians to report the “barbaric cultural practices” of other Canadians. The Conservatives lost that election after a clear rejection by voters of the polarizing effects of such ideas.

Polarizing Orientation

The Alt-Right is fundamentally polarized as defined by the intercultural development continuum. A Polarization orientation has an ‘us versus them’ view of different cultures. Individuals in Polarization believe their way is superior to other cultures and often act defensively as they feel threatened by anything different than their way of doing things.

The kind of claims and statements Donald Trump and Kellie Leitch makes are classic examples of a Polarization orientation. Many of Trump’s supporters have become more vociferous in their convictions due to the mainstreaming of this way of thinking. The nature of the Alt-Right’s way of thinking is to separate people into different camps, so they actually move people into Polarization.

Diversity LogoAppearing to be Accepting

Based on polling results Trump, however,  may have pushed things too far for some American voters. Now he seems to be scrambling to appear more accepting of cultural differences.

Acceptance is an orientation along the intercultural development continuum; which means recognizing and accepting differences, and being eager to find ways to bridge those differences.

Trump’s latest outreach to African Americans indicate he’s trying to look like he’s in Acceptance.  However, moving directly from Polarization to Acceptance is too big a leap to be feasible. Intercultural competence is a developmental process, and acknowledging common cultural traits needs to be worked through first. And based on his statements, Trump is nowhere close to bridging the gap. Therefore, his gestures come across as opportunistic, desperate and inauthentic.

Lessons Learned

What would Polarization look like in an organization? Simply put: people would take sides. Diversity would feel “uncomfortable.” There would be conflict and tension. Cultural differences would be seen as a threat. Individuals with diverse perspectives and approaches would not bring their whole selves to the workplace. The organization would be less productive.

The first step towards an intercultural mindset would be to create an environment of “curiosity” about differences within the organization. But it would require commitment of leaders, time and resources, and professional guidance.

Find out where your organization lies on the Intercultural Development Continuum and what it takes to progress.

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