Could Massively Parallel Processes Make Hyper-Polarization Worse?
Newsletter 77 -- January 31, 2023
From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion
By Heidi Burgess
A Reader’s Question
We received an email from one of our readers asking some good questions. I wrote back, asking for his permission to post his questions on the blog, and he never responded. However, his questions are ones that others are probably asking too, so I’m posting his questions, lightly edited, and I will add his name, giving him credit, if he does respond with permission to do so.
In the meantime, he wrote:
When you recommend the MPP [massively parallel peacebuilding] approach to problem solving, that seems to make some very strong implicit assumptions about the nature of the problem. Some problems benefit from massive information sharing, because incentives are properly aligned. Other problems are going to be positively harmed by the exact same information sharing. (For instance, you probably don't want to share where a police/neighborhood watch will patrol on a public forum).
With polarization, there are also actors who benefit from exacerbating the problem, both cynical and idealistic. So why do you assume the kind of coordination you propose would favor the forces working to reduce polarization, rather than those which might make it worse? For example, Twitter is a platform that allows people to globally collaborate in ways that could reduce polarization. But it seems to turn out to be more helpful to the forces that wish to increase polarization, rather than reduce it.
A very natural 'attack' on such an effort at public coordination might be to raise the question about whether the coordinating website/team/project should exclude events/efforts/etc. which tolerate bigoted or transphobic content. I'm not saying this dilemma is unsolvable, but I'm wondering if you've given any thought to how to ensure the result of this public coordination doesn't actually work to exacerbate the issue (e.g. by forcing debate over the thorniest issues)?
By Heidi and Guy Burgess
First, MPP doesn’t assume massive information sharing. Much of it occurs without any direct information sharing at all. It works more like the economy which responds to “the invisible hand.” With a capitalist economy, which is very much a complex adaptive system, everyone “does their own thing,” buying things that they need, and trying to earn money by producing things that other people need. A good businessperson, when starting out, does a market analysis, trying to figure out whether what they are proposing to produce will be wanted at the price that they can afford to produce and sell it, or whether the market is already saturated with that good or service, so the chances of success are slim. In order to succeed in business, the businessperson must, indeed, talk to all of their suppliers and their customers to negotiate deals to get what they need to produce a particular good or service, but they don’t need to talk to everybody who is producing similar things (and in fact, they may not want to, as they might want to keep their “special sauce” secret).
The same is true with MPP, although we will note that it is unfortunate that so many peacebuilding organizations are forced, by very limited funding, to behave as if they are in competition with each other (which, indeed, they are), instead of being able to collaborate with (and learn from) each other, which often would yield greater benefits for the clients (and the larger society).
I’m not sure it is bad for police to say where they are patrolling…maybe it is, but maybe just saying something can keep crime down. (I know our city uses cameras to enforce speeding and and other traffic laws, and they tell drivers where their cameras are in advance. It generally slows down traffic, from what I understand.) But we agree with your wider point. Some people are doing things that are legitimate, but are best not shared. That’s fine. It’s not inconsistent with MPP.
But, many more people who are doing things in secret, I would guess, are those who are doing things that are not legitimate. And that’s a problem, but one for another day.
You were also right when you said that “with polarization there are actors who benefit from exacerbating the problem both cynical and idealistic.” We call the ones who are doing so cynically “bad-faith actors.” Understanding the complex dynamics that drive their behavior and learning how to counter those dynamics is a huge problem that hasn’t been adequately addressed by the conflict and peacebuilding community—or by us, yet, although we have started to work in that area and plan to do more.
You are also quite right in pointing out that massively parallel processes can make things worse as well as better. In last week’s newsletter we talked about “massively parallel partisanship.” There is also the process we call “massively parallel polarization,” where the same massively parallel dynamics that allow for successful social movement advocacy, instead, to are used to drive people apart or, worse, drive them into some sort of direct and potentially catastrophic confrontation. In this case, two (or conceivably more) sides latch onto a simple narrative—one that says that “the other side” is wrong or evil, and
is the primary source of all the problems the “good side” is experiencing. Once you believe that, you commit yourself to your group’s dominant narrative and do everything that you can (including, sometimes, crossing what you previously would have considered ethical boundaries) to defeat the evil people on the other side. So Trump supporters believe what Trump tells them without question and do what he wants them to do, without question. Progressives do much the same thing with regard to the progressive narrative and agenda.
I am guessing (though I’m not sure) that the people you describe as trying to increase polarization from the “idealistic” stance are those who believe that one needs to increase polarization or escalation of a conflict in order to raise awareness of a problem. This is what Louis Kriesberg calls “constructive escalation,” and, why a number of the people on this discussion have argued that polarization can be (or sometimes they say “is”) good, not bad. That is an important topic that we continue to discuss in the article “Is Polarization Good or Bad?” and elsewhere in the hyper-polarization blog.
You asked why we assume that the kind of coordination we propose would favor the forces working to reduce polarization, rather than those which might make it worse. Sadly, the MPP approach is useful both for good-faith actors and for bad-faith actors, and in some ways, the bad-faith actors have been much better in working in that way than have the good faith actors so far. That is, in part, what has made them as successful as they have been.
This raises an extremely important point that we plan to explore in more detail as we get into the bad-faith actor problem. Provocateurs pursuing “divide and conquer-type” strategies have long ben good at exploiting (and sometimes creating) inflammatory incidents that can rally supporters in ways that produce a renewed (and massively-parallel) opposition to the other side. This is the essence of political propaganda — something that is becoming increasingly dangerous in today’s information environment with its micro-targeting of individuals, based on sophisticated analyses of their psychological motivations. In other words, bad-faith actors have figured out how to engineer massively parallel social movements.
But that isn’t a reason to turn away from massively parallel approaches. If they are the best way to influence complex adaptive systems (which we think they are), and if the socio-political system is a complex adaptive system (which it most certainly is), we don’t want to leave the best strategy for influencing that system in the hands of the bad-faith actors alone. We have to figure out how to more effectively utilize strategy to build a society in which we would all like to live.
At the same time though, that doesn’t mean all good faith actors need to (or can or should) coordinate with each other. They just need to be somewhat aware of what others are doing and work roughly in parallel to achieve similar or related goals. Two of these words need further explanation: “similar goals” and “roughly parallel.”
When we started the Constructive Conflict Initiative about four years ago, we said our goals were to promote awareness of the many ways in which our future is threatened by destructive conflict, promote collaborative problem solving and constructive advocacy strategies as alternatives to us-versus-them escalation and hyper-polarization, and scale up constructive conflict strategies to work at the societal level. (We had a few more goals too.)
Two years later, we focused more closely in on hyper-polarization with our CRQ article, but at the same time, that article put us in touch with a lot of people and organizations who, while they were also concerned about polarization, framed the problem differently than we did. But all of them were somehow involved in efforts to repair or strengthen or upgrade our democracy. So that is the broader arena we now see ourselves as focusing on. In that arena, we would say that in order for all of us to be as successful as possible in maintaining and improving our democracy — both in the United States and elsewhere — we need to work in a variety of different areas, all of which seek to strengthen a set of democratic goals to which we all aspire.
What are these goals? That’s an interesting question, and one we want to discuss at length in a coming newsletter. But briefly, we’d include accountability — leaders are elected by and are accountable to the citizens, liberty — people are free to live, work, speak and worship the way they want, as long as they allow others to do the same, and justice — everyone is treated fairly and equitably. There are more, and there are certainly many nuances to these. But for the purposes of this essay, I’d say that as long as everyone working in the democracy improvement, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding “space” is willing to pursue these (and perhaps other) fundamental goals of democracy, then they can do so in a way which makes the most sense to them. Depending on where they are geographically, what professional position they are in, who they are associated with, and what their individual skills, interests, values, and beliefs are, the actions will be different. But if they are all consistent with efforts to make democracy more robust and fair to all citizens, we would say that they are engaging in
MPP. a massively parallel effort to restore protect and strengthen democracy.
Finally, you raise a lot of thorny issues in your last paragraph, asking, for instance, “whether the coordinating website/team/project should exclude events/efforts/etc. which tolerate bigoted or transphobic content.” The first problem here is deciding what is, indeed “bigoted,” or “transphobic.” These are very loaded terms, interpreted by different people in different ways. Half of the country would be very uncomfortable if the other half defined what these terms meant and enforced them in that way. That’s why we think one should fall back one fundamental value of democracy in the United States—free speech. People should be allowed to say what they think and believe, as long as they allow others to do the same. So if one side wants to assert something someone else sees as bigoted or transphobic, we believe that they should be allowed to do so. Then the other side can explain why they see this view as wrong. Silencing voices only makes them angrier and louder. Respectful listening enables everyone to learn.
However, it is also true that, especially in today’s high-tech information environment, there have to be some limits on free speech. Deliberately spreading false and inflammatory information in a way designed to provoke hate and violence is one obvious example. In general, we should not place limits on the free speech of others that we would not like to have placed on us. For example, we should not place limits on the ability of others to disapprove of our behavior, if we don’t want similar limits placed on our ability to disapprove of their behavior.
In that last paragraph you also ask if “coordination” wouldn’t lead to further escalation because it would “force debate over the thorniest of issues.” It all depends on how it is done. We have to be able to discuss (a word we prefer over “debate”) the thorniest of issues, and come to some kind of agreement on them if we are going to be able to successfully address any of our thorny problems: racism, LBGTQ+ rights, climate, immigration. inequality. You name it. We can’t solve any of those problems unless we can talk about them — and come to some agreements on them — with the other half of the country. Talking just to people who agree with us is not going to get us where we all need to be.
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