Mediate This!

Dr. Peter T. Coleman Discusses How Modern Journalism Created Toxic Polarization

August 27, 2021 Matthew Brickman, Sydney Mitchell Season 1 Episode 36
Mediate This!
Dr. Peter T. Coleman Discusses How Modern Journalism Created Toxic Polarization
Show Notes Transcript

Matthew Brickman and Sydney Mitchell interview esteemed Social-Organizational Psychologist Dr. Peter T. Coleman ,  author of the book, "The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization."

Dr. Peter T. Coleman holds a Ph.D. in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. He is Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University where he holds a joint-appointment at Teachers College and The Earth Institute and teaches courses in Conflict Resolution, Social Psychology, and Social Science Research.

https://www.thewayoutofpolarization.com
The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization

https://sps.columbia.edu/faculty/peter-t-coleman-phd

Peter T. Coleman, Ph.D.

Lecturer; Executive Director, Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity in the Earth Institute
https://twitter.com/PeterTColeman1 

Speaker 1:

Hi, my name is Sydney Mitchell. Hi, I'm Matthew Brickman, Florida Supreme court mediator. Welcome to the mediate, this podcast, where we discuss everything mediation and conflict resolution

Speaker 2:

Years ago , uh , back in 2009 , um, I had an idea Peter to go virtual with mediation. So I had Cisco , uh, communications build may my own mediation platform. There was nothing out there that , I mean, nobody knew it. Microsoft didn't have anything, nobody had anything. So I had them build me up , um, a platform that was quite expensive back in the day, but didn't matter. And so I started to branch out doing , uh , mediations, not just locally, but I ended up getting some around the, around the United States and even some international , um, which was good, of course, you know, trying to , um, get that up and running. I've spent years and then COVID happened. And it's like, and then of course, you know, the 638 plus attorneys that I work with were like, you already have a system don't you? I'm like, yes, I'm already in a place. Everyone was trying to figure out, okay, what do we use? And, and whatnot. And so what was interesting was, was when that was created and when I started to do the virtual mediation , um, I noticed that there was this , um, there was a different mentality around resolving conflict, having dialogue, having , um, the, you know, dialogue versus debate , uh , because a sorta went into a surreal type of an environment. But I, I found that, you know, since I'm home, most of the time , um, even just flipping around on the channel, like, you know, you go to a D like all the ads are targeted towards like a certain age demographic , um, and whatnot. So with the news, I'm sure that they're doing that because I noticed that working from home more, that that's happening as well. Um, and I think, and I think it's intentional with the media, as well as social media, because fear sells, you know, the slippery slope argument they're coming for your guns. They're gonna, you know, they're coming for your body. Like those generalities create fear and create polarization. Yeah,

Speaker 3:

No, I think you're hitting on something important, which is that there is a basic business business model, more and more in journalism and in social media, which is about tapping into our kind of primal instincts, right. To come competition. Um, and that is part of what's dividing us. I mean, what's interesting in journalism is that, so the news used to be , uh, you know, a common service that , um, uh, broadcasters would offer and they would lose money, right? So news always lost money until 60 minutes when 60 minutes became , uh, you know, investigative reporting show that actually made a profit, it changed the nature of news because suddenly people were like, wait a minute, we can make money from news. Well, how do you make money from news? You make money from news by having it be sensational by having it be provocative by having, you know , uh, contestants, basically heightened competition that triggers us against them. And so the , the news media have followed that trajectory. And that's been part of both the entertainment visitation of news, which is part of the business model, but also ultimately finding your base and speaking to your base. And so that's happened there and on the internet, as you suggest, you know, again, the internet is relatively young society. There aren't really norms in many of these spaces. They're trying to figure those out, but, you know, so I tell a story, I'll tell it quickly , um, in my book about , uh, going, being invited to a pop-up meeting in New York city a couple

Speaker 2:

Of years ago. Yes. That's a great story. And the guy from Facebook, not, not Zuckerberg, but yeah ,

Speaker 3:

Yeah, exactly. So this is a group of people that was organized for a day, just to talk about polarization on , on the internet and what to do about it. And it was a bunch of the jigsaw club , Facebook, Google sort of execs , and then some tech , uh , um, journalists, and then, you know , a couple academics and they wrote on the board, what kind of dialogue should we be having to promote a healthy virtual society? And I said, what do you mean by dialogue ? They didn't know. I made distinction between dialogue and debate. Then there was another moment of silence. And then one of the founders of Facebook that was there said, oh, well, if that's dialogue , then there are no major platforms that promote that. They're all about social comparison, competition confrontation, challenging you being as provocative as possible because that's the coin of the realm. Those things go viral, right? Everything else, people aren't that interested in. And , and that was terrifying to me because it really spoke to the business model. That's inherent to these major platforms that have now billions of followers and are making trillions of dollars and with a business model like that, how can you be in business and not follow that? Right. So, so many others have followed that same trajectory. That's the context, the media context and the information context that we're operating in. So of course we're more polarized. It's a natural outcome of these kinds of structures. And until we take those seriously and reign those in, we face quite a challenge.

Speaker 2:

Well, then you mentioned too. And I think that where social media has no incentive to make us better people. Um, but a lot of that is because we are the product. Yeah. We're not the consumer, we're the product. And they didn't have an incentive. I mean, you know , yeah. I actually, I actually got suspended a number of times and going back to the book was introspective. I got, you know, with , with the whole political divide last year and everything going on , um, you know, I was on social media and, you know, social media just props you up, makes you make, makes you feel empowered in the dark, right. To behind a computer screen. And I got suspended a couple times on Facebook , um, for , for, for simply reposting things. And then it turns out that they're not even true. And like, there's so much satire. It's not even true. You know, I love that. I love that. I think it's the, a state farm commercial where the, you know , the girl goes, yeah, I'm dating a French model. And this schlub walks up with a camera and goes bond . Your , you know, it's like, well, they can't put anything on the internet. That's not true. Right. Um , it would be great if they could reign that and be like, no, maybe like, if it's not sure you can't go there because I mean, it just fed and fed and fed. So I got, I finally got off social media finally just said, look, I don't have a filter. I I'm , I'm having a trouble self filtering. What ? I just got to cut myself off. I deleted my account disappeared. Every buddy went crazy high people coming up to me, Peter going, Matthew, you're not on social media anymore. That you're aware I got my news. And I'm like, you got your news for me. Never be getting your news from me. They're like, they're like, oh yeah, I always watched your posts. It's like, I'm like, no, no, like don't, but, but you know, I wasn't able to, but then, you know, it was interesting, Peter, just like you were saying with the book is I was like, and my wife , my wife is a great sounding board. She's a phenomenal sounding board. And , um, but I think that , I think, I think a lot of it has to do with generation two she's 17 years, my senior. So she's almost 64, 65 , um , from a different generation. Um, and so she's not really into this whole social media thing. Like, like I am, and definitely my kids at 26 and 23 or 24 are completely different than even me on social media. I'm like, ah, I don't know if I'd be posting that or go in there, like, you know, and so there's these different levels of, okay, what can you do? What's acceptable. What's not. But I found that, you know what I had to unplug from the media, I had to unplug from social media. I had to unplugged from media and I had to go outside and I had to engage people. And I found that people were not that bad. People were not that bad. They were not as bad as they were being sensationalized. Demonized on the news. Yeah.

Speaker 3:

Sydney , do you have the same? Do you face the same kinds of dilemmas on social media? The , um , in terms of, you know, finding yourself seduced into becoming more provocative than that ? Absolutely.

Speaker 2:

Which is why I had to unplug. And then I had to go introspective and be like, Matthew, you're a mediator, you're a peacemaker. You're there creating dissension you're out there and , and , you know, create. And I was like, wait a second. That's not who I am. Just like you were saying, you know, you're , you know, you have your angry side, you have your debate side, you have your passionate side, but, you know, I mean, you know, and , and for me, I mean, I mediate, like there's, there's, I think, I think I'd figured out there was like 151 actual work days in a calendar year. Like if you take out the weekends, you take out the federal holidays, you go on a two , two week vacation or holiday. Okay. There's 151 workdays . Well , mediation wise, like last year I had 211 mediations a year before 196. Um , and in 20 was a 2015. I had 282 and 151 days. Like I spend my life creating peace, but when I'm not, oh , I was stirring it up on social media because I was getting stirred up on social media and I found I needed to unplug and walk away. Yeah .

Speaker 4:

I see it being increasingly difficult, you know , as somebody in their mid twenties, you know , um, to, to separate from that, to sever from that, because we've been, you know, at least for me, you know, I've never known life without, I mean, I got my cell phone when I was in middle school. I've never known, you know, being, you know, that age without a phone. I've never known life without the internet. You know, I was having conversation with , um, a friend of mine the other day , um, because at work, I mean, even just to do our jobs, there are so many platforms and softwares and online programs that we even have to learn how to use just to be an employee and do our daily tasks. And so, yeah, it is, it is absolutely, you know, again, just speaking from somebody in my age bracket, it is, it is so much more difficult to separate because that's, that's kind of the reality that we've been been brought up then. Sure. Are

Speaker 3:

You growing up in that space? And that is where so much, not only just information exchange, but socialization, right? That's what my children are about your age Sydney . And they too grew up with, you know, that's where you, you know, that's how you hanging out. It's like, well , you know, your text, you, you know, it's , it's all social media, you know, even if it's just the facilitation of getting together, it is all through social media. So that, that space is so important. And yet we've not, you know, certainly, and I don't think the business side of social media is going to be quick to change the model, right. I mean, that's what we see is they're too powerful. They can afford too many lawsuits, too many lawyers for too long, right. They, they have the GDP of many major nations. And so, you know, they're not going to necessarily police themselves and the government, unfortunately often just doesn't understand social media. Have you ever seen these hearings with Serco Berg and the others in front of Congress? The questions that Congress asks are , oh my God, I know that, I know that. Why are you asking that? Why don't you have smart young staff saying that's not how it works. This is what needs to happen.

Speaker 4:

Yeah . And I , and I do want to say, you know, there , you know, it's very easy to, you know , talk about the negatives of media. I , you know, I do want to put out there, you know, there, there are a lot of people using social media for very good things. There's a lot of good that it is doing. Yeah . You know, and just for our listeners, I want to preface that, you know, the media is doing a lot of, a lot of people are using it, using it well, using it wisely. Um, you know, but unfortunately, as you mentioned, Dr. Coleman, it's, it's the provocative, it's the competition oriented, you know, types of media that are the ones getting the most attention. And that's where, you know , the business comes in, you know, you're ,

Speaker 3:

Uh , th th that's a very important point to make, because anything as big as a social media ecosystem is going to have positive and negative consequences. Right. But where I find fault is with the businesses that are making money off of these things and the incentive structures that they set have set up. Right. Because I do think what it does bring out our lesser angels are the greater devils and our Mo and pathologies, social pathologies within us in between us. And that's really the space it plays in and it plays to , um, but you're absolutely right. Social media is help helps, you know , uh, groups organize for, you know, resurgence movements or independence movements. It helps people that can talk to each other connect to each other. They're all kinds of fantastic things about social media. And there's a lot of dangerous things. It's a young society. It is the kind of our myth of the wild west of kind of lawlessness. And, you know, it's that

Speaker 2:

Kind of space.

Speaker 3:

It is still that space. And so we need some kind of clarity. And again, I think Congress is trying to figure out how to introduce that, but it's going to be a long road because they're up against a lot of money on the platforms.

Speaker 4:

Yeah. That's not something that can just change overnight. That's for sure.

Speaker 2:

No , one of the things, you know , talking about the , about one of the positive , so my parents , um , are missionaries over in Africa. They've been over there for 10 years. So, you know, having seven, you know, depending on daylight savings, time, seven, eight hour difference from whatnot. Communication can sometimes be difficult. Social media has kept us connected , uh , prior to Facebook and whatnot. They were over in , uh, Russia for , um, for, for a time. And so my mom would send , um, emails. I think it was, was how she was trying to communicate with the kids and with family and whatnot, but it was very, very, and so with social media, you know, that's how they are able to keep in contact with us kids and family here, back in the states, and then, you know , um , whatnot . So when I went off social media, my mom was like, well, how am I supposed to contact you now? You know, because, because again, they were there , they're using it for good, they're using it for business. Like, you know, my dad conducts his business online, you know , um , they're running an orphanage, they've got, you know , donators and, you know, and then they've got the family and when assume they're using it in a positive light, of course, when there's not a power outage or the internet doesn't go down or whatnot, but that is a positive. And I think that, like my grandmother, when, when, when , uh, when she was , uh, so alive number of years ago before she passed, she, you know, that was how she was, you know, keeping in contact with friends, not everybody is mobile. Not everybody can just get in the car and drive. You may have some physical limitations and it does help keep people connected. I think , um, you know, a lot of it is just how you're going to use it. So I've got a question real quick , um, um, to, to sort of , sort of move towards the end here. Um, so in your lab , talk to me about this, about, about the lab that you've got there at Columbia university. And then also, I think I either heard, read or watched something about like basically the demographics of your research. And I've got a question about that. If it's, if what you're telling me is true, let's see. Sure.

Speaker 3:

So yes, we, we, we founded a thing called the difficult conversation lab about 15 years ago, one at Columbia. And then , uh, I have a former student who is now professor , uh, in Germany , um, in Munich. And so we have had these two labs where we've done research on , uh , conversations, over divisive, moral issues. And what we do in the lab is study the conditions under which when people are divided on an issue, the conditions under which those conversations go well enough, you know, in a half hour, 40 minute conversation that they feel like they continue the conversation. They thought they learned some things, they felt like, you know, they would be willing to talk to the other person again, because you're not going to solve a pro-life pro-choice issue in a 40 minute conversation, but they can go well, or they can just get stuck and people refuse to ever see that person again. Right. So that's what we've been studying. And so we've been systematically working through different kinds of conditions to understand what helps these conversations go well or go poorly.

Speaker 2:

So you ask people. So, so tell me to understand the structure. So, so, so for example, you would say, Hey, Matthew and Sydney, would you want to come into the lab? And can you guys discuss the topic of X and then you guys would observe, and it would, we know anything else, are they two complete stranger? Like how does that work? So that you're able to really capture, because again, we were talking about like, people don't understand mediation. Well , it sort of happens behind closed doors. You don't understand it. So how can you really tear it apart, analyze it and whatnot. So how does that even set up in the lab so that you can really get the great analysis that you're getting, that's giving you the insight to do the work that you've been doing? Yeah.

Speaker 3:

So again, part of what you're addressing is that there are, and this is one of the challenges is all research and conflict or mediation is the ethics of it. You know, can you like, you know, do research on something like that. So what we try to do in our lab, but there are other labs that I'll talk about, but in our lab, we bring in people, we have them address , uh, uh, you know, fill out a questionnaire about their attitudes and different divisive issues. And sometimes those issues are divisive kind of more right. Left division. Like pro-life pro-choice. And sometimes we'll, we'll work with this specific community like Columbia undergraduates, which tend to be highly progressive, but we'll be very divided on whether you have, you know, no meat spaces on campus, right. Or no, no animal product spaces on campus. Right. So some people, or like surveillance on campus, it's good for reducing crime. It's bad for privacy. So we'll take an issue that even within a more progressive or more conservative , uh , group of participants, you'll still see big divides. Then we study the conditions under which they work. Um, so yeah, we've because we're at Columbia and our lab is we built a thing called the capture lab, which allows us. So most research that's done on conflict is either done, you know , post-talk like surveys or people's experiences or case studies of particular things or their , their simulations. You know, imagine you're a meet , you're a manager and you're an employee and you have a dispute. We wanted to try to bring intractable conflict into the lab and make it as real, as possible without having people, you know, having to be dangerous for people. So we measure people's attitudes on these divisive issues, and then we just match them most of the time they have never met before. And that's different from there's a lab that studies marital conflict, which you might be familiar with John Gottman's lab in the west coast. They use a similar kind of methodology and technology, but it's with couples, right? And then they have the couples talk about, you know, sex or money or the things that they have conflict over. And then they study them over time. We study strangers with these political, social political issues , um, and then ha and then study the conditions under which they work. And one of the limitations of our research, as I said, is because we're a Colombia , it's the people that can physically come to Columbia to be in these conversations. Um , although we can find issues that divide even Columbia undergraduates, right. But what doing now is we've built a virtual capacity to expand our outreach. So that's what the, you know, and this was COVID enforced on us. We COVID shut our lab down. We can't bring people in face-to-face. So we've built the virtual capacity to have zoom conversations, and these are minimally facilitated. Right? I mean, we, we sometimes introduce a particular structure to see if that has an impact on the conversation, but basically the facilitators are just there to shut it down if it gets ugly. Um , but otherwise they're supposed to mostly stay out of it so we can see the effects of whatever it is that we're studying.

Speaker 2:

Right. So, okay. So, so that's interesting because that does exactly lead into, then my question is , so, like I said, many years ago, I , I had started virtual mediation. And one of the things that I always try to in an actual physical location was tried as much as possible to have a round table, not a square table so that we could all do there , there there's, you know, it seems to take care of that power balance. No one's sitting across from each other. What I noticed going on lot

Speaker 3:

Of the way king Arthur knew that. Right. Right. He knew that is the point. Yes . Um,

Speaker 2:

And so, so when I went , when I started doing the virtual mediation, what was interesting was , um, had a hundred percent settlement rate. Everything online was settling, but here's here was the interesting thing. It was, it was generational. Um , so the millennials , the new generation refused online mediation. This was all pre COVID, refused it. They either one of two things they either said as probably a scam or Hey , you know, which is the downside of like social media, oh, it's a scam. Or going back to what we talked about before social media, their idea of resolving conflict was I'm going to get into a room. And the most loudest obnoxious person is screaming and yelling wins . You can't do that on social media. I mean, you, you, you know, you can't do this on this platform because I'll mute you just like, just like you were saying, like your moderator, could you like, shut that down? Like this is, this is not good. And so what was interesting was the people that were embracing, it was the baby boomer generation. Now granted they had to have their kids or grandkids come over and set them up. But they embraced it because I didn't seem like that generation was about, okay. We have different ideas. Different is okay. It's not a demonization. Different is . Okay. Um, I mean, I , I remember , um, who was it? There was a, it was a guy, it was a motivational speaker. Um, can't remember his name off the top of my head. Anyway. He used to say, he used to say, look, if there's two of me or, I mean, you know, if yeah, but there's two of me wanted me as unnecessary. Like, you know, like, like we cannot all be the same boring would the world be, if we're all identical, like it's our differences that actually creates, you know, life as we know it. Um, and so, so what was interesting was that that baby boomer generation, it was more about, look, I have a different view than you that's okay. We just need to peacefully just move on and just go our separate ways, no harm, no foul, but the older or the younger generation was like, no, you're going to pay you. You, you hurt me. And so I'm going to berate. You y'all eat well . So doing it online, it was a different generation, a granted now that COVID happened and everything went online. Um, it's interesting. I had one guy recently. It was, it was the funniest thing. It's a divorce or no, it's , it's actually a post-divorce modification. Now he has a new attorney. His wife has the same attorney she's had from day one. And the attorney and him have never gotten along in the courtroom out of the courtroom. I mean, it doesn't matter. They just don't get along. Well, he was getting all heated and he ended up in ABI. And on , on, on , on video, he ended up standing up and pointing this finger and yelling until all of a sudden you could see that he realized like, wait a second. There's nobody here. I'm standing in my room . I'm standing in my office and he's looking at himself doing this sort of self-realization realize he looks like an and he sat down, calm down. And we were able to then have a conversation and move through and , and create resolution that in a real world setting, he wouldn't have had that, that, that reflection. Um, but also it seems to create a surreal environment where you're not sitting across the table in a room, in a geographic location with the person that you're arguing with across from the table.

Speaker 3:

Yeah. I think there are all kinds of differences that are happening with dispute resolution online that we're just beginning to understand their consequences, but let me just say something about millennials. So, you know what I find at ? So I work at a university and what I find so important about younger people is that they have passion. They have time and they have energy. And so when anything of substance happens at Columbia university, when they're forced to divest from fossil fuels, when they're forced to divest from South Africa. Sure. It's because young people said, we're not going to have, we're going to protest it. They're the engines of change. I think that's been true for pretty much every generation, certainly in the sixties. It was true. You know, I mean, I think the fifties was a little different in terms of what the norms were around that, but basically we need young people to push us. So it's interesting to me that they see this, or they, you know, feel more passion around some of these issues. But what I found is that, you know , we would be in trouble without them, right. We need kind of engine to push us forward as a society. And it's right in left, you know, you have, you have passionate people that are young people that have the time energy and, you know , passion to really make a difference

Speaker 2:

To good use or they can then go and destroy it. Yeah, absolutely. I think like , which would , whichever one you're going to feed and it's just like social media can have a positive, it can have a negative, you can have a millennial that's doing good. You can have millennials doing better .

Speaker 3:

And part of what I think is you're , you're alluding to, is that, you know, as Sydney was saying, social media, she's grown up on social media. She understood that's, you know, a very familial for , for familiar forum for her and people in her generation. And so being inter invited to come into social media to do something that you have never done before, maybe a little suspect, cause you've been in there and you know, what a boxing match that tends to be. Right. So it , it may be very counter-cultural for, for baby boomers was like , you know, we got on social media when we have to, when it's our grand valves , you know, bar mitzvahs , solitaire, you know, so it's a, it's a whole, th there are a lot of factors that contribute to why you have that selection bias and who would be willing to do it. That will probably change as it becomes more normative. And it's totally

Speaker 2:

Changed since COVID yeah , absolutely totally changed since COVID , um, it's , you know, because people had to, there was no choice. You can't just stop the judicial system, you can't stop Congress. You can't stop everything forever for a period of time. Fine. But , uh, of course the backlog that got created. Sure . Um, you know, and then there were a lot of techno, you know, there was a , there was a huge immediate technological learning curve. Sure . Yeah . I mean, it was, it was immediate. Like you didn't, you didn't get to dab your toe into the swimming pool of technology and see if the water's warm, like you're high board jumping off or pushed. And that was,

Speaker 3:

It was the same with teaching and are teaching in face-to-face to online was , uh , you know , radically different and much more difficult to make compelling.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. Well, this has been amazing. Um, Dr. Coleman, I really, really appreciate you coming on and just sharing your insight and , um , I'm gonna plug your book again , um, the way out, how to overcome toxic polarization. It's really good read. Um, and I think, I think it's a good launch pad for people to start taking an introspective look , um, I think is where change starts as in each and every one of us. And then we can start to, you know, find the good in the world and go out and make a change. So thank you so much for coming on. I really, really appreciate it. Thank you both. It was

Speaker 3:

A pleasure to meet you and to talk to you and hopefully we'll do it again. All

Speaker 2:

Right. All right. Be well, are you too, bye-bye

Speaker 1:

Occasionally Sidney and I will be releasing Q and a bonus episodes where we will answer questions and give you a personal shot .

Speaker 4:

If you have a comment or question regarding anything that we discuss , email us@infoatichatmediation.com that's info@ichatichatmediation.com and stay tuned to hear your shout out and have your question answered here on the show

Speaker 1:

For more information about my services, or to schedule your mediation with me, either in person or using my I chat mediation virtual platform built by Cisco communications. Visit me online@mediating.com . Call me at (561) 262-9121 toll free at 8 7 7 8 2 2 14 79 . Or email me@mbrickmanatichatmediation.com .