Listening in a polarized world
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
By Charlotte Dufour
Is it just me, or does the world feel more polarized than ever?
Pro-vaccines vs. the “anti-vax”, vegans vs. meat eaters, youth exasperated by inaction on climate vs. paralyzed politicians, private sector vs human and earth rights defenders… so many aspects of our daily lives seem to be subject to controversy, debate and outright conflict.
Polarity is inherent to a world formed through the dance of duality. But maybe this polarity feels more intense than ever as digital technology and social media have simultaneously broken down barriers of communication and reinforced segregation between like-minded communities. The globalisation of information made possible by the internet brings into an ever-expanding arena a greater diversity of communities that previously existed within their own space, where their own world views and values were not questioned. As the arena broadens, some divergences between communities may be smoothened, but others are cutting into the fabric of families, organisations, and communities of practice. At the same time, algorithms reinforce the clustering of like-minded individuals into isolated “filter bubbles”.
Now, everyone is given the opportunity - or even enticed - to hold and express an opinion on pretty much anything and anyone, be it with “likes”, hearts, angry faces, praising comments or violently disparaging remarks. The speed and brevity that characterizes social media leaves little space for nuance, analysis, doubts, questioning, thereby further intensifying the “black and white” and often simplistic portrayal of the reality – or rather realities - we live in. As an individual who profoundly dislikes conflict and prejudice, these dynamics leave me highly uncomfortable and troubled.
A conversation with Patrick Caron, researcher and founder of the Montpellier Advanced Knowledge Institute on Transitions (MAK’IT), opened a door for me. He explained how polarities and divergences hold the creative energy we need to constructively face the complex challenges of our times. This is why MAK’IT brings together researchers from different disciplines with divergent points of views to invent and co-create approaches to navigate these complex issues.
So how can we embrace the polarities constructively? It seems so difficult when navigating what sometimes feels like a jungle of judgements, where parties and individuals take the moral high-ground with one another. A person working for (or associated with) the private sector has “sold out” and whatever they do in the name of sustainability or equity is green-washing or suspicious. The UN is bureaucratic and completely dysfunctional. Earth rights and human rights activists are naïve idealists who don’t understand the realities of the economic system we live in. These are caricatures of common opinions, but these attitudes often lurk in the background of our interactions, as we lump individuals and institutions into unified categories.
Finding a common ground is not easy as we all tend to see an issue or system through the lens of our own priorities. An environmental activist may focus primarily on avoiding at all costs the environmental degradation caused by food production and transport, while a government facing rising food prices and a growing urban population might prioritize feeding the population and generating jobs, even if this means more deforestation. Is one cause more just than the other? Is one set of individuals more “evil”or “misled” than the other? Embracing such differences is not easy as our positions are not just a product of our rational mind, they are fueled by our life experiences and emotions. We care. A lot.
The most challenging divergences are often those that cut across groups working for the same cause. We agree on the goal, but not on the means to get there. A common tension lies between those who choose to work within the existing structures – bearing the risk of perpetuating a system that itself generates inequities and destruction – (e.g. sustainability strategies in large Multinational corporations), and those who believe the system must be completely overhauled while inevitably being part of it and using it to thrive (e.g. environmental activists flying to the COP meetings and using Facebook to do their campaigning).
We are somehow all entangled in this web of complexity. A web where polarization is intensified as the world experiences challenges that are shaking the very foundations of the social, economic and cultural fabric we have lived with for decades and even centuries. Tension is an inherent property of transitions, when new forms of being are wanting to emerge while old structures cling on to what has been and, partly, still is.
So how do we handle all this?
That is where listening is so key…
Listening to each other, for one. This requires a safe space where divergences of opinions can be voiced and heard. The space can be created through careful curation and facilitation and setting some ground rules and principles, such as respect, openness, embracing complexity and acknowledging the fact that multiple and even competing perspectives co-exist. Multiple spaces of this kind are being created, especially as webinars offer new and flexible opportunities for engaging across borders and communities. One example is the Food Systems Dialogues methodology, which was designed to gather stakeholders holding multiple perspectives on food systems to exchange on potential ways forward that address challenging trade-offs (e.g. feeding a growing urban population while protecting forests). The goal is not necessarily to reach consensus, but to navigate complexity, together, allowing perspectives to evolve as dialogue progresses, and finding new opportunities for collaboration along the way.
The quality of facilitation and applying techniques of deep listening is key for the dialogue to be genuine. Inclusivity and diversity are also decisive features. Where diversity is poor, “dialogues” can merely strengthen existing “echo chambers”; where it is rich, silos can be broken and generative dialogue emerge.
Listening to one’s self, is fundamental to any other kind of listening. This is key for our own well-being but also to be able to genuinely listen to others. So much of what we hear and process is filtered through the lens of what some call our “emotional patterns”, or our “soul wounds”. Knowing our wounds and emotional patterns can help us understand why we get triggered by certain situations, individuals, or statements. Knowing why and how we react can help us be open to what the other is expressing, reducing the degree of personal interpretation that risks distorting what was expressed. Knowing our patterns also helps us recognize others’ emotions. Listening to ourselves is an essential component of empathy. It is also by listening to our “deep Self” - a self that goes beyond our mere physical form - that we can become more agile in putting our ego aside.
Listening to the “Deeper wisdom”. It is hard to find words to describe what I choose here to name “Deeper wisdom”, as each one of us has a different way of describing and relating to it. While we can recognize things are not all black or white, good or bad, and that multiple perspectives co-exist, at some deeper level, our intuition, our heart, our gut does seem to discern that some things feel more “right” than others. Who feels joy when seeing a forest torn down to be replaced by a soy field? Who can consider it OK that original peoples are expulsed from their lands and massacred? Across cultures and faiths, we find core common values, such as harmony, peace, taking care of one another (“another” including all life forms), compassion, love.
At a practical level, this is reflected in the Golden Rule – “treat others and the planet as you wish to be treated”. Humanity has translated some of these values into universal Human Rights, and these rights are still evolving. It took the Holocaust to recognize genocide as a crime against humanity. Hopefully, as COVID and climate change awaken our consciousness to the consequences of our destruction of, and separation from, Nature, Earth rights will be given the same recognition as Human rights, and ecocide will be recognized as a universal crime. After all, are we not part of Nature?
There is also a very personal dimension to connecting to this deeper wisdom. I personally found the compass that guides me in the science of Yoga. On this path, the “right” (“dharmic”) direction is that which leads to “union” (Yoga), as opposed to separation – union with one’s deeper Self through which one connects with the whole. It is not a bland union which seeks to erase diversity, but rather one which celebrates and embraces it.
In the Listening Inspires team, we believe and experience that practices such as listening to Nature, contemplation and meditation are essential keys to connect with and be guided by a deeper wisdom as we navigate this complex field. It is a form of practice which requires grounding and humility. Each one of us has different ways of doing so, each one of us is exploring. We find strength in coming together, we find inspiration in our differences.
Listening in a polarized world is a constant journey, full of creative potential. Listening is a state of being through which polarization can be transformed from a source of conflict to a source of harmonious creativity. We look forward to exploring this journey with you.
 I speak here from the perspective of Oriental spiritual traditions, namely the path of Yoga, which posit that the material world we live in, maya, is inherently dualistic (you need darkness to see the light, for every up, there is a down, death is an inherent to the experience of being alive...).  A term coined by Eli Pariser circa 2010 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filter_bubble  I am deliberately avoiding the words “find solutions” as many problems are too complex to be simply “solved”.  The idea of “holding competing perspectives simultaneously” comes from the blog by “Comfort in Complexity” John Atkinson and David Nabarro, from the social enterprise 4SD. This blog and others (Feeling Systems, Seeing into systems, and Encouraging systems change” are all valuable reads and sources of inspiration for the present article.  See www.summitdialogues.org for more information on the methodology and how it is used in the context of the UN Food Systems Summit preparation and follow-on.  The following 4SD videos with John Atkinson on “The art of curation” (https://youtu.be/N5b-YUuwMb0 ) and the art of facilitation (https://youtu.be/TuqtjocS7xo) are very useful in this regard.  I recommend here the book by Lise Bourbeau “Heal your wounds and find your true self” and for the francophones La clé de votre énergie by Natacha Calestrémé.  A must read on the topic of Earth rights and ecocide : Polly Higgins’ Earth is our Business.  The word « humility » comes from the latin « humus » - the soil…