11/05/2010 08:40 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Avoid Polarizing Others

We live in a dangerously polarized country, and we could all avoid being coerced into divided camps. You can resist being polarized, but you have to be alert and creative. Sometimes, when simply watching a football game, I try not to identify with either team. It isn't easy, but it's a good everyday exercise in staying in the tension between two competing groups.

When we choose to polarize, friendship, community and intimacy suffer. It happens in school, when teachers treat their students like they are on the other side of a fence; in marriages, when partners fail to work at their union; in medicine, when doctors and nurses forget that they, too, get sick and need help. And of course it happens in politics, when Democrats and Republicans fail to keep in mind their common objectives and treat each other as enemies.

Two elections ago I had an opportunity to address delegates at the Democratic convention. I urged them to resist the temptation to treat the opposition as the enemy. I recommended that they try to make connections rather than divisions, even if the other side shows no taste for such a lofty enterprise.

"It's difficult to find common ground," they complained.

"It's impossible most of the time," I said.

Maybe common ground isn't the best means of moving past bitter divisiveness. Maybe we should instead focus on our common humanity. I doubt that in most polarized situations common ground will solve the problem. It's too intellectual. It might be better to just see each other as human beings. Former U.N. ambassador and mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young, once told me he often made progress in getting past sharp divisions by playing tennis with the opposition. I understand that it's one thing to feel camaraderie on the tennis court or golf course and another to join hands in politics, but the principle seems sound. Connect somehow, even obliquely, at a basic human level.

There's another way to deal with polarization: not falling into it unconsciously. It may help to have forged a philosophy of life for yourself, in which you decide to try to avoid divisiveness when it creeps into your life. Albert Schweitzer said that he had a three-word philosophy: "Reverence for life." He applied it whenever a situation called for it. You may need a slogan, too: "Division no, connection yes."

Writing this post will probably help me keep the philosophy of non-polarization in mind.
Americans, politicians included, talk frequently about ideals of unity and then indulge in polarization. So a simple personal slogan or even a developed philosophy of life won't work unless you take it seriously and live by it. It has to become a habit, so automatic that when divisiveness appears, your philosophy kicks in.

I'm not talking about agreeing with the opposition or losing or weakening important values that you hold dear. Polarization is usually more about feelings and issues that lie deeper than the matters being discussed. Republicans may keep their distance from Democrats because they see them as heathens. In turn, Democrats may imagine Republicans as aristocrats.

The polarizing may go deeper. One side sees any opposition as an attack on everything they believe and consider holy. A political party often operates like a religion: it's all a matter of belief, faith, dogma and morality. Of course, politics isn't, by nature, a religion, and yet a political party often acts and talks like a religious group defending its tradition.

A few years ago I came across a Christian fundamentalist professor who had attacked one of my books. I wrote to him and tried to dissolve the polarization, at least a little. I failed. Another time, I found myself being interviewed on the radio by a preacher who thought I was a fundamentalist. At first there was some tension, but I kept my philosophy of non-polarization very much in mind. That, combined with this man's basic good will, left us at the end looking forward to another conversation. A rare victory. But after the radio show I had to take a shower because I had sweat so much in the strenuous effort not to polarize.

A kingdom divided against itself cannot survive. I worry about America more because of its inner tensions than those with the outside world. It appears to me that each of us has to try hard not to polarize in our everyday interactions. If we stop doing it, maybe the politicians will catch the drift.

Most of the time in sports I want to root for my favorite team. But it's a good exercise once in a while to try to find joy in either team winning. That kind of extended, double vision comes in handy when someone comes along thinking and talking in ways that seem crazy to you. Listen to yourself. Your ideas are probably just as nuts and just as worth defending.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.