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Turi: Today. We’re thrilled to be talking to Alex Evans. Alex is one, he’s a friend, but two, he’s also the founder of the collective psychology project, which just recently became larger us this year links in the show notes. He’s also written a book on the power of storytelling to bridge communities called the myth gap. And it was an advisor to the UK government under labor administration. He’s worked for the UN and many other places. But most importantly, he spent years looking at the breakdown of common ground and the rise of polarization across Western societies and further.
And he’s also worked against it all his career. Um, so we’re thrilled to be talking to him about precisely that’s the breakdown of common ground and the rise of polarization and what we can do, Alex. Thanks so much for joining us.
Alex: Not at all. Thanks for having me,
Turi: Alex, let me start at the beginning and ask you, um, You know, what’s caused this breakdown. Is it real? How does one measure it?
Alex: Wow, big question to start with. So there’s all sorts of competing theories about what drives polarization. Um, there’s in particular, in the academic literature of very lively debate between people who think it’s essentially economic and it’s drivers with some scholars focusing in. Particularly on so-called perceived relative deprivation, which is when you think you are doing either less well than you used to be doing or less well than you think others are doing. And that’s argued by some people to be a powerful driver of polarization. Uh, but then there’s also political explanations for polarization that look at things like, um, increasing homogenity, uh, political elites and how they’re perceived to be quite different from, um, lots of ordinary voters, uh, questions about trust, political accountability.
All these sorts of things. Um, the aspect of polarization and its drivers that I became especially interested in was the psychology of it, which when I first began thinking about this seemed like a kind of relatively underexplored area. Um, the way I got into this was that I’d been working at a campaigning organization called Avaaz as one of their campaign directors and spent most of my time there running a voluntary Brexit campaign. Which was a very remained leading campaign to try and secure a second referendum. And if we’ve managed to do that, uh, fight hard for the UK to remain in the EU. And I believed very much in that campaign. I wasn’t home and I live in Romania, but I just felt this uncomfortable sense that grew over time, that our campaign and other remaining in campaigns. What part of the problem in the sense that we were contributing to this profound polarization that has opened up on Brexit without doing anything to heal that rift, or to set us up for a kind of rapprochement once the issue was eventually settled. And that contributed to my decision to take a sabbatical in 2018. Um, we ended up through various coincidences living in Jerusalem, uh, for that period for my wife’s job. And it was the first time I’d been there in more than a decade. And the degree of polarization between Israelis and Palestinians was really striking and so much worse than when I’d been there before in 2005.
So that was very depressing to see. But the thing that was hopeful and fascinating and that’s, so the seeds of what became the collective psychology project was meeting a group of trauma. Psychologists who said, look, if you want to understand polarization between Israelis and Palestinians, you’ve got to understand the mental health context. And in particular, the endemic incidents of so-called continuous traumatic stress. Which is a bit like post-traumatic stress disorder when it’s not post, when it’s your everyday lived reality. And, you know, as they explained to me, the symptoms you’d expect that to cause individuals or things like anxiety. Irritability hypervigilance, where you’re scanning the environment for threats all the time, and especially a propensity towards othering. The people that you perceive to be your enemy or from whom the perceived threat is emanating. And when everybody is exhibiting those symptoms, of course, they leach into the political system.
And produced deep polarization. And this fascinated me because I’ve been reading up on polarization and the literature around it. And I hadn’t really seen much on this aspect of the psychology, particularly of threats perception. And so I came back to the UK, determined to kind of dig into this. Um, got a bit of seed called, uh, money from a foundation, uh, and started researching that. And it’s just been fascinating. The further I got into it.
Turi: Alex, this is perhaps the part of your work, which I find most interesting is bringing this psychological element to these underlying causes that you’ve also just highlighted the political economic, the demographic, these big changes that take place, put it in the real world in the outer external world. And do you map onto them? Um, these deep, psychological, um, causes as well you’ve described elsewhere, the fact that the external and the internal worlds are not separate, they need to be brought back together in some way. Help me understand what it is that you’re getting at here.
Alex: Sure. Um, so I think it’s maybe helpful to think about this in terms of three ways, uh, that the psychology goes collective and effects polarization. Um, the first is the obvious point about how so much of what makes our lives meaningful, whether that’s. Beliefs or behaviors or emotions is collective and often contagious. I mean, to take a very obvious example, we all know how you wanting or giggling can be contagious, can ripple through a group of people. Um, and the same is true, of course, of, um, beliefs. I mean, that’s very obvious with something like believe in conspiracy theories, for example, it’s true of behaviors. There’s lots of data to show that. If all of your friends smoke, for example, then you are more likely to smoke yourself. Um, and it’s also, you know, even true of things like violence or suicide. These are all things that ripple through social networks. So that’s one way in which it makes sense to look at the collective aspects of psychology.
Another way that we’re especially interested in larger us is in the feedback loops between inner and outer. If you like between our States of mind, And the state of the world. So I started thinking about this, particularly when I was working at a vase and we were looking a lot at Cambridge Analytica. And of course, you know, now that there’s been more recent evidence to suggest that the role that Cambridge Analytica played in Brexit and then Trump’s election in the U S has perhaps been overstated. But back then, what everyone thought had happened was that Cambridge Analytica had effectively managed to. Weaponize our own anxieties against us through this unholy mashup of psychological profiling together with social media, micro-targeting in effect kind of pressing our buttons with a really surgical, uh, degree of precision to get us, to see the world and them and us terms just when it counted during election time. And of course, you know, similar charges are laid at the door of things like social media companies and the ways that the content algorithms will. Push a task, the kind of content that monetizes our attention most effectively, which will often be stuff that’s outraging or scary. And all of this stuff can push us into them and us rather than larger us mindsets. So those are examples of how our States of mind. Can affect the state of the world because they affect how we behave as citizens. How we think about issues, how we communicate about them in our social networks and ultimately how we vote. But then the same is true. The other way, round the state of the world also affects our States of mind.
I’m, uh, I like very much Johann Hari’s observation. That’s uh, in his book lost connections that 20 years ago, if you went to see the doctor with depression, The doctor might well have said, well, this is just an imbalance in brain chemistry. Uh, we’ll readdress that with an antidepressant drug like Prozac, and you’ll be fine. And what’s much more likely, hopefully these days is that a doctor will have a much more sophisticated understanding. That includes the fact that often just the way we live. Fails to meet our mental health needs. If we’re lonely, for example, or if our work is something in which we don’t take, uh, you know, if we don’t find meaningful, just if we’re facing poverty or systematic injustice, of course, all of these things affect our States of mind.
So you have these two vectors. If you like, of how state of mind can affect how we behave as citizens and therefore the state of the world. And of course also how the state of the world affects our state of mind. And what we’re especially interested in is how these can lead to self harm feedback loops. And the one that we worry about is what we call a breakdown loop, where, you know, imagine that you’ve got huge trends like climate change or COVID kind of real world crises. Um, that make us feel depressed or anxious or feel threatened. That takes us into a more triggered state in which we act in less pro-social ways. We’re more likely to succumb to them and us framings as citizens. And that then erodes our capacity to take collective action to deal with these fundamentally shared challenges. It’s this kind of deep irony that just at the time, we really have to come together to tackle these crises. Uh, our capacity to do so is being eroded by our emotional responses.
So you can see how the stage could be set for a very vicious circle. So one of the things we’re really interested in is how would you reverse the polarity? Of that cycle, such that progress on real world issues makes us feel inside more open and secure and confident that leads us to behave in more pro-social ways as citizens and open up political space for actually solving these enormous issues. And that’s what you could call a breakthrough loop rather than a breakdown loop. So that’s the second dynamic, the one between inner and outer. So the first one is between individual and collective. Second one is between inner and outer. And then the third one finally is how all of this can play out in the specific context of political polarization, because when polarization begins, um, if we see the people at the other end of the political spectrum from us as presenting some kind of a threat to us as individuals or to our way of life, and if we go into a kind of triggered state in which we then start.
Acting out and perhaps displaying contempt for the people we think are at the other end of the political spectrum that then activates their sense of threat perception. Um, making them act out all the more. And again, you’ve got a different kind of positive feedback loop where people are sort of moving away from the center towards the fringes of the political spectrum and the more they do. So the more they’re firing up the people on the other side of the political spectrum. So that’s how polarization can kind of self amplify through its emotional impact. So all three of those sets of dynamics are really interesting and I think often overlooked or under-explored in how we think about politics.
Turi: That’s fascinating, Alex, thank you for going through those. Um, there’s lots of fascinating data which shows that in. Societies have some stress, whether that’s poverty or increased disease, you tend to find, um, political systems, which veer much more towards the authoritarian. Uh, and the xenaphobic than societies, much more at ease.
Um, and there are other societies. Apparently the Iroquois used to have a government for war and a government for peace. The government for war was made up of young men. The government for peace was made up of older men and women. Um, so you, we can see these psychologies played out in political systems, but, um, when you talk to the issue of us versus them and transforming it into a larger us, is there a question as to whether the us versus them is baked into us?
Not just at a sort of an individual psychological level, but also evolution. Really? We compete to pass our genes on at an individual level. And group selection now shows that we do that at a collective level too. We’ve seen that we’ve seen psychologists and social and social psychologists like Karen Stenner or John Hibbing. Who’ve identified actual sort of political types, psychological types that reject others more than, um, more, more than the most authoritarians secure Italians and others is this is us versus them baked into not just our psychologies, but into the very structures of our societies.
Alex: Yeah, I think it is absolutely. So it’s a completely fair point. And it’s one of the things where I guess I changed my mind where I’ve learned something in the course of doing this work, because certainly when I started out, my assumption was that them and us dynamics are always bad and larger us dynamics are always good. And you know, it was kind of four legs, good, two legs, bad kind of proposition. Now. I think that they’re more an inevitable part of the human condition and also sometimes necessary but polarization is not always bad, I think it was Jurgen Habermas who made the point that sometimes polarization is good when it shines a light on issues or injustices that have gone overlooked for too long.
I mean, I think it’s certainly possible to think of huge injustices where it would be wrong, not to polarize against them. There’s of course, all sorts of subtleties there about, are you polarizing against leaders or the people that support them or the values or against institutions? I mean, there’s all of that level of nuance that we can get into. But nevertheless, I mean, if you think of an example like apartheid in South Africa, I think it was absolutely necessary for polarization to exist to overcome that. The big question is what comes next, because I think that them and us dynamics. If they’re left, unchecked can become a prelude to a complete unraveling of the sort that Europe saw in the 1930s.
Conversely, if them and us dynamics are the prelude to steering into the difficult issues, working through the injustices that have surfaced and bringing them to resolution before moving to some kind of restorative process that brings everyone back into a larger, that can be a much more positive approach where in effect, you know, the root causes of the them and us dynamics are surfaced and work through. Um, and then, you know, there’s this transmutation of those energies back towards a larger dynamic. And I think again, South Africa is a great example. You have absolutely clear polarization between, for example, you know, the ANC and the apartheid regime, but at the same time beyond that, you have. A profound commitment to coming back together to reconciliation and restoration on the part of leaders like Nelson, Mandela and Desmond Tutu. So it’s instead of them and us as bad, larger us as good, it’s more like does the them and us dynamic lead to a larger us rapprochement, which absolutely involves working through the difficult issues, not sweeping them under the carpet, or does it lead to an unraveling of the sort that puts everyone in danger?
I guess the other thing that’s worth touching on is, is your fascinating point about the evolutionary aspects here. And I guess there, I think of one of my favorite books of all time, which is, um, non-zero by Robert Wright, which is a kind of, uh, a history of human cooperation, rooted both in evolutionary biology. And in game theory and Robert Wright’s argument in that is that, you know, throughout human history, it’s the story of a larger and larger us. We start out as kind of, you know, uh, nomadic hunter-gatherer bands and then fast forward a few thousand years, and we’re in settled tribes or chiefdoms a bit more you’re into city States and then nation States all the way up to today’s, uh, kind of global level diasporas and nascent global governance institutions. Um, the point that Robert Wright makes is that it’s not as if there’s any predestination to this happening, but the dice are loaded in favor of a larger and larger us. And one of the reasons he explains why that might be. So is that sometimes. You know, humans cooperate across different collectives because it’s a win-win proposition.
So you get trade between different peoples for examples, for example, and that benefits both sides. But even when Wars happen that also supercharges. Cooperation within each of the warring parties. And so whether the overarching situation as a peacetime, one of kind of trade or a wartime, one of conflict, either way, the dice are loaded in favor of intensified cooperation. And over time that produces these larger and larger levels of complexity and aggregation so I think that you’re right, that them and us dynamics are part of evolution, but that’s not necessarily at odds with a larger us.
Turi: Is there a sort of concertina or kind of heartbeat, like pattern here that you have, um, an, an expansion. Uh, uh, than a pause and expansion than a pause or even expansion contraction expansion here. I mean, could you point to historical moments where we have been more us and others that have been much more us than them?
Alex: Well, I mean, I’m, I think anecdotally, yes. I mean, I, haven’t done a sort of detailed data crunch of the kind of macro historical cycles, I guess you’re going to, you know, deep into those grand sweep of history. Uh, historians like kind of HG Wells or Toynbee at that point. But I guess what I would say is that you can point to lots of instances in history where moments of deep crisis have produced new settlements that have resulted in higher degrees of organization. And complexity. Um, so you look at something like, you know, the way that you have the 30 years war, you know, profound crisis for Europe in the 17th century, which nevertheless produced the doctrine of national sovereignty at the peace of Westphalia and thereby set the stage for the emergence of the kind of modern system of nation States, or more recently, the way you have. That kind of systemic crisis, like world war one and then the great depression and then world war two, and that produces the United nations and the Bretton woods system. And I think that, you know, I mean, I I’ve written separately from my larger us work, but with my friend and colleague David, Steven, we’ve done work for Brookings.
And then more recently. Under our own banner of the long crisis network, looking at this idea of a long crisis of globalization, um, that sort of began with the financial crisis and hasn’t really finished. And then COVID in a way as the kind of latest manifestation of that crisis because it, you know, feeds straight back into the same vulnerabilities that were exposed and exploited by the financial crisis. And. You know, there is a future in which this leads to intensified cooperation towards much more effective and coherent global governance, but there’s also a future in which the opposite happens. Um, so again, you know, there’s nothing predetermined about this, but whenever you have systemic crisis, there is the possibility there of intensified cooperation and of a kind of larger level, a larger scale, larger us as a result of that.
Turi: So, Alex, you’ve talked about three ways in which. Um, one can look at fixing sort of the systemic issues, the political, the economic, the, the demographic you’ve talked about and triggering politics. Um, reducing the sense of a group based threat perception. You talked about addressing the real grievances, obviously. Probably foremost amongst those would be inequality or perceived inequality, which you mentioned at the beginning of this podcast. And the last is this idea of rebuilding common ground, where you talk about developing a sense of empathy and common identity. What strikes me about your, these two, two of these three, um, uh, approaches the triggering politics and, uh, rebuilding a sense of empathy and common identity is that you’re looking at political, economic demographic, social trends and responding to them psychologically on some level.
Alex: Yeah, that’s right. Um, and I think that. You know, it’s been really interesting when, when I got back from Jerusalem and got the sequel and funding, the first thing I did was a kind of an inquiry. Um, I just took six months to talk to about 200 people, um, who work in different ways in our inner. And outer worlds. So some of them were people from my previous existence as a policy advisor and a campaigner, um, in NGOs and government in the media and so on. But then a lot of them were people who deal with our inner world, whether that’s psychotherapists or psychiatrists, psychologists, even faith leaders, and so on, and three themes that emerged, uh, from that inquiry. That just, just themes that seem to come up again and again, in conversation after conversation as factors that mattered. In whether we tip towards them and us or a larger us, um, and that sprawl across the lines between both. Individual and collective and between inner and outer, these three themes were what I now think of as ABC, which stands for agency belonging and conscious self-awareness. And so agency first is about whether we feel a sense of power in our lives, in our communities, and ultimately in politics. When we feel like we have the power to chart our own cause to make a difference to shape our lives and our futures, then we’re more open and confident. Conversely, if we feel powerless, which is a fairly chronic condition for lots and lots of people at this point in history, there’s lots of evidence to show how strongly that correlates with reduced empathy and increased support for extremist politics. Um, B secondly is for belonging and that’s about whether we feel connected and valued, or whether conversely we feel disconnected, um, lonely and so on. And again, there’s lots of evidence that when people are chronically lonely, you see that same support for extremism, um, um, reduced empathy. And then the C finally stands for conscious self-awareness. And that’s really about. Whether we have the capacity to choose how to respond to things that we might perceive as threatening rather than our amygdala, the part of our brain that deals automatically with threats and can take us straight into that fight flight freeze reaction. Um, whether we have the presence of mind, the self mastery, to be able to make that conscious choice rather than our amygdala hijacking our brain.
And, you know, when you dig into the elements of conscious self-awareness, it’s so interesting. It’s partly about how we perceive the world and partly about how we respond to what we perceive. So if you think of the perception bit first. No. Are we aware for example, of our own cognitive biases, the way that our minds play tricks on us and distort how we see the world. Um, another thing that really matters in the perception space is what are our information sources? Are they any good or are we sort of succumbing to fake news or conspiracy theories or. Most definitely just kind of doom scrolling constantly. I’ve certainly been guilty of during COVID, but you know, this really matters. Are we perceiving the world accurately or are we systematically getting our perceptions wrong because of our mental habits or because of our information sources and that in terms of how we respond, I mean, you can train your mind, um, to respond in a wiser way. To perceive threats. I mean, part of this is about things like mindfulness before the event.
And so that, you know, you’ve just got that habit of mind pausing for a moment and thinking like, you know, what’s really happening here and just grounding yourself, but then also, you know, it takes hard work and training to be able to manage your emotional, emotional state. In the heat of the moment, you know, when something really triggering happens and you’re feeling anxious or furious, um, you know, there’s very effective techniques that can be learned about how to ground yourself through, you know, things that will engage your prefrontal cortex and give it a chance to take control of your thought process from that more reflective, calm, rooted space, um, things like. You know, being aware of your emotions without judging them and then disclosing them through conversation or journaling or whatever. All of this stuff is really helpful in creating the capacity to, um, manage our mental and emotional States and be able to choose how to respond. But the thing that gets me about all of this stuff is that, you know, whether you’re looking at agency.
Or belonging or conscious self-awareness. These are really important capacities for citizenship in the 21st century. I mean, in a lot of ways, not just our individual wellbeing and mental health, but actually the health of our democracies may depend on our capacity to develop these, you know, these abilities and these responses and instincts. And we’re really unsure whose job it is. To help train us in this. I mean, this isn’t stuff that people are trained in routinely at schools or a university. It’s not stuff that employers do. It’s not really stuff that most of the government really thinks about. Um, and so we’re into this fascinating area where, you know, it’s dawning on us that. You know,our inner states of mind, really matter for the state of the world, but, you know, even as we’re mapping how this stuff works, we’re also having to figure out, you know, what are the response strategies and who who’s in charge of those.
Turi: So a couple of those feel very much like they’re still plausibly in the realm of, um, of government and of sort of society and institutions, et cetera. One really isn’t that, that last piece that you talk about, this kind of self knowledge. Um, and, um, and a move from sort of anxiety or fight, fight, and flight to, to greater self awareness. You described it, but from a, from a policy perspective, what would your recommendations be in terms of agency and belonging?
Alex: Well, I think that, you know, there’s a lot that government could do on those three. I mean, in terms of agency, for example, um, there are. Ways to get much more participatory in how we do government. I mean, we could get really serious about decentralizing. We could get serious about participatory mechanisms like citizens, juries, or participatory budgeting. Um, and. You know, you could also reform the way that our electoral system works. So that rather than elections being decided by a handful of people who are swing voters in marginal constituencies, that you have a degree of proportionality or indeed a full proportional system where everyone’s votes matter equally. So that might give people more of a sense of agency.
Turi: There’s lots of data suggesting that in fact, two-party politics accelerates. The polarization process, because part, because citizens on either side end up sorting completely into one of two camps where both politics, both, both sides of the political, uh, political divide, uh, ma much more incentivized electorally to drive their voters out, to vote rather than trying to convince members of the other side. So you’re obviously playing at the extremes of either.
Alex: And, uh, and as you alluded to that, sorry, there is this sociological phenomenon happening in the background of sorting whereby our social networks are much more homogenous than they used to be. It’s much more likely these days that the people who we. Uh, our friends with who we work with, who we studied with, who we marry, all of these things come from pretty similar backgrounds and outlooks and mindsets to our own. And that means that when we do come across the other on social media, for example, it can be a bit of a shock. We haven’t really got, got used to that kind of, you know, the warp and weft of just dealing day in, day out with people who see the world differently.
And 50 years ago, that would have been pretty different. It was much more normal back then to meet a kind of cross-section of your compatriots, whether that’s. Yeah. At church each week or, um, doing national service. I mean, one of my friends who thinks a lot about social contact theory, observes that these days about the only place you are sure to meet, to cross section of your compatriots as if you get called up for jury service. But the rest of the time we’re in these kinds of. Echo chambers offline as well as online. So, you know, that that’s, that’s a big deal, uh, and implies a lot of work required to not just rebuild our social fabric and address this scourge of loneliness that is so chronic at the moment. And it is great that the UK government has now a minister for loneliness, but it goes much deeper than that. It’s also about. Creating opportunities for us to, to find the other and meet them and explore each other’s opinions and perspectives in, in a safe way, rather than a way that kind of triggers us and drives us even deeper into polarization. But although, you know, there’s useful stuff that government can do on that. You know, I mean, I used to be very top down in my instincts and always looking for the kind of, you know, the policy solution that could be done by kind of pulling a lever and white tool. Um, and nowadays I’m much more bottom up in, in my thinking. And I think a lot of this does have to start at community level.
I mean, we’ve seen through COVID that, you know, in the UK we have a government that has very centralizing instincts. And so I think to some extent, you know, people have to get on do it for themselves rather than waiting for government to provide the opportunity. And there are really interesting weak signals of that happening. I mean, we all remember the first phase of lockdown last spring a year ago, and that great flowering we saw of COVID mutual aid groups, hundreds and hundreds of them all over Britain and indeed internationally as well. And that absolutely you can get people a sense of agency without relying on, you know, having to wait for government to take a lead. Um, and similarly, when you look at work to combat loneliness, I mean, There’s so much that can be done at grassroots level again, without waiting for government. So, you know, there are policy responses, but they’re not the be-all and end-all conversely, I mean, just to contradict what I just said, I think that, you know, I’m not sure I agree with you that there is no place for government on C in terms of conscious self-awareness because of course, one of the big shifts we’ve seen over the last decade is that government has got much more into the whole area of wellbeing.
Both in the sense of using that as a benchmark for evaluating policy and indeed, you know, in. Kind of creating infrastructure, uh, for, for, you know, teaching happiness, if you like. I mean, you think of the kind of great enthusiasm at the labor government and then David Cameron’s government after it for Richard Layard’s work on happiness. Um, this was a really interesting foray of public policy into the emotional realm. If you like now, there’s a, there’s a great debate about, you know, his happiness. The right metric. And how do you measure happiness anyway? I mean, is it head on it happiness that kind of, are you enjoying yourself today kind of benchmark or should we be looking at something a little different? That might be more about meaning and purpose for instance, but I think that, you know, again, to repeat what I said earlier, this is. A set of skills that can be learned and taught. And I think it would be great if more of this were introduced into educational curricular, because, you know, as, as I said, these are really important skills, not just for our individual wellbeing, but for the health of our democracies too,
Turi: That’s fascinating. And thank you. Um, last question before I want to jump in and ask you really what you’re doing with larger us, but is there an argument to be made that. There is sort of nothing more liberal than trying to expand what counts as the in-group. And in fact, that is what defines the liberal approach to society and that a conservative approach to society is to limit and protect the ingroup from threatening outsiders. Is there a, is there an argument that your larger us and the world. Psychologizing of, um, these political tendencies risks, branding conservatism as a sort of psychological floor?
Alex: No, I don’t think so. I mean, for one thing, you know, my own, uh, North star in all of this, if you like, is that I think when you look at culture Wars at the moment, you very often got, you know, clashes of, uh, basic philosophies, which are often, uh, disputes between competing universalisms. Or relativisms. I mean, it takes me straight back to studying political theory as an undergraduate. And I think that, you know, one of the. Things that we have to do at this point in history is figure out how unity and diversity can be reconciled with each other. I mean, so often at the moment you have cultural as well. One side is, you know, demanding a particular kind of unity. Um, and then at the other side is sort of calling that out and saying, no, we need more diversity.
And we seem to struggle with this at this point. Whereas when you look at mature ecosystems, there is no problem there in reconciling unity and diversity. If you think of the Amazon, you have this enormously complex ecosystem, which has astonishing levels of diversity, all of which is part of this fundamental unity and cohesion. That is what makes it such a successful ecosystem. I mean, these aren’t just things that aren’t at odds. They’re fundamental to each other. The diversity creates the unity. The unity enables the diversity and the pistol logically that feels like. Our basic challenge at the moment. And in terms of, you know, is this a liberal project?
I mean, I guess in one way, yes. In the sense that I do have a belief in, in human progress in that evolutionary dynamic that we touched on earlier at the same time, I think that, you know, is liberalism guilty of, you know, focusing on in-groups rather than out-groups. Well, I mean, I guess. My take on liberalism is that it’s, you know, concerned, especially with the individual, with the rights of the individual, but also with the universal, with what rights we all have. And also, you know, what obligations and responsibilities we all have to each other. That’s where you get into social contract theory, social contract theory, rather. Um, and so on. But I don’t think that that has to be. At odds with conservatism. Um, I think, you know, there’s the scope there for a conversation between the two. And I guess that’s really where I end up that, you know, I, I, I think the, kind of the universalism that I’m most interested in is the possibility of deep dialogue that can be transformational for both sides that presupposes that each side has something valid. Uh, to bring to the table and that looks for the possibility and always expect the possibility at least of synthesis between the two. Um, I mean, I remember studying Jurgen Habermas, the idea of the ideal speech situation or David Bohm’s work on dialogue and just finding this really inspiring and also just this fascinating idea that what if the. Um, the, the thing that we need to agree on is not a particular set of values. It’s not a particular set of policies, but a particular way to have a conversation, um, that has this very, very hopeful starting point of assuming that at least the possibility of consensus is all with that. As long as all parties are engaging in the conversation, in the right spirit of kind of inquiry and respect. Um, so that’s, that’s the kind of vision that inspires me or one of the visions that inspires me in all of this. And I don’t think that’s a uniquely liberal perspective or a uniquely conservative perspective.
I do think it provides a platform where those two schools of thought can have. An interesting conversation that potentially needs somewhere.
Turi: That particular approach to conversation has been hotly. Debated continues to be a hotly debated, whether it’s a, whether it’s a form of language, whether it’s a type of civility, whether it’s an approach to reason, what’s so striking about your work and the work of larger us is how central you put sort of a psychological approach intention, um, to, uh, to that, to the, to the ways in which you frame how to have a conversation. So, um,
On the, on this podcast, we have, um, spoken to lots of people, philosophers, psychologists, political theorists, to ask them how we fix this polarization crisis. And we’ve had answers, which include everything from close the social networks, get off the social networks. De-politicize your life. Stop thinking about politics. Go off on fishing trips. We should educate people more. We need to fact check more. We need more freedom of speech, less freedom of speech. Um, what’s so striking about. The work that you do at larger us is that back to this point, that you’ve made that the external and the internal are very, very closely linked.
You described large us as a place where States of mind and the state of the world intersect. That seems to be the framing of your approach. Can you give, can you give me, can you help help me understand that a little bit more? And then let’s talk about the actual work that you’re doing.
Alex: Well, I mean, I mentioned earlier the two feedback loops that we’re really interested in between. On the one hand, you’ve got the breakdown loop where, um, troubled States of mind, um, reduce our ability to, um, come together to solve problems in the state of the world, which in turn affects our state of mind negatively and so on. It goes. And how do we reverse the polarity of that so that we get to a breakthrough loop where. Progress on real-world issues makes us feel more secure and confidence internally, which improves how we behave as citizens and so on. But in terms of getting into the guts of that, um, we’ve just finished doing the first two prototypes of, um, our larger ask course, um, which was an attempt to sort of explore, well, what kinds of questions and what kinds of capacities and training would be involved in really.
Navigating this, this line between inner and outer and building up our capacities in both. And the way we construed that in this very first kind of, you know, as I say, prototype version of the course was after an initial week where we set the scene and said, you know, here’s the crisis of polarization that we faced. And here’s why we think it makes sense to see that, um, partly in psychological terms, what we did in weeks, two, three, and four, over the remainder of the course was look at respectively, work on ourselves. What is the work we need to do? You know, in our own lives, um, on our own States of mind individually then week three was about work with each other in our relationships and in our communities. Because very often, of course, you know, with polarization, you know, it’s tempting to see that this is national or even global in scope. You know, you look at these huge issues like Brexit or Trump, but very often in the real world, polarization or demonise dynamics happen at quite a local level. I mean, you think of, there’s lots of evidence to show that, you know, local social media, like local Facebook groups or local WhatsApp networks are really important in driving or enabling them and us dynamics in some situations.
Um, there’s lots of evidence to show that, you know, rapid local demographic change can create tensions when the composition of a neighborhood changes very quickly. And so, you know, the question of what are the skills that we need to develop. In our relationships and in our communities is a really important one. Um, and how people can be equipped as you know, kind of in effect local peace builders when the need is there. And then finally, the fourth week of our course was about the work we need to do together to change, you know, um, to drive social or political change. And that’s really about. How do we stand firm for our own values whilst also respecting those of others? And how do we find our way to theories of change that construe victory in terms of healing, rifts, rather than, you know, defeating our opponents and running them over with a team. And so I think that it’s helpful to see those three levels of work on ourselves, work with each other and work together. And, you know, we need to work on all of them simultaneously. And I think that one of the things that fascinates me perennially is that. Traditionally until perhaps the mid 1960s. This is what religions at their best. And I’ll caveat that immediately by saying, religions are frequently not at their best, but religions at their best do all three of those things. I mean, if you look at the way that. Religion was the underpinning of Gandhi’s movement in India or of the civil rights movement in the United States and the fifties and sixties, or going further back the abolition of slavery in Britain. You had religions, absolutely. That kind of advocating for that necessary social change. But, you know, with a very strong going back to that ABC framework that I mentioned down here, it’s not just the aid agency that kind of campaigning and organizing stuff, but that also religions offer.
Uh, very, you know, have offered a very powerful lockers for belonging. I mean, the whole point of religious congregations is that they’re places where we feel like we belong and are valued in spite of all the things that make us different. And in spite of our own shortcomings and that’s something else that’s been lost as our social fabric’s been eroded and finally religions at their best have always been all about conscious.
Self-awareness about giving us tools to manage. Our mental and emotional States, whether that’s, um, you know, meditation or prayer or studying wisdom texts or whatever, you know, it’s very much concerned with the things that are both inner and outer, that of both individual and collective. Now, of course, What most developed countries have seen since the mid 1960s is this steep decline in religious observance. Um, and you, you know, you may think that’s a good thing, more about thing in terms of the, kind of the theological aspect, but from a sociological point of view, that’s a big deal because religions historically are the institutions that we charged with operating at the boundaries of inner and outer and individual and collective. So, you know, The, the, the term that kind of religious, the religion shaped hole in society is one that really matters. I think for polarization, uh, as well as more broadly,
Turi: you’ve spoken elsewhere about the fact that. Religion in part has been taken up by a much less external and more internal sort of personal spirituality, whether it’s the mindfulness trends or, uh, or the, the various different spiritual movements that emerged in the night precisely in the 1960s and seventies, out of California and elsewhere. But, but in parallel, And again, so to, within your model, that pure focus on the internal perhaps slightly narcissistic approach to religion or spirituality obviates one, the capacity for community belonging in the same way at a, at a large scale and to really the impetus towards social change. But there’s it, there’s another element here as well, which we’ve seen in the, in the, in the gap in that.
Religion shaped hole in all our lives, um, which has only accelerated in fact, globally over the course of last 10 years, pretty much everywhere, except for the Soviet union, which has seen a resurgence of religion. Um, what has also happened is that, um, that religion shape hole has often been filled in. With politics. So we see across the U S lots of data suggesting that when people move away from religion, that purpose, that purpose gap, that that desire for meaning is filled up with political affiliation. In fact, it’s such an extent it’s become profoundly identitarian, um, and perhaps contributes. In fact, not, no, I don’t believe perhaps I think definitely contributes to the kind of polarization that we’re seeing there. There’s um, there’s a awful piece of it. There’s an awful study, which shows that we’re 30, 40 years ago. This wasn’t particularly nice at the time. If you brought somebody of a different race or a different religion back home for dinner and told your parents that you were marrying them, they would have been outraged today, not at all.
But if you tell them that you’re bring back at Democrat or Republican from the other side, you get exactly the same response. So, so on the one hand you have this sort of personalization of religion, which obviates the need for any social action on the other. You have religion being taken over the collective elements of religion, being taken over by quite brutal and polarizing politics.
Alex: Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. Um, I mean, it’s really interesting, you know, to, to ponder what happened in the sixties to prompt this divorce, if you like between the inner and outer practice. I mean, Adam Curtis, the filmmakers really interesting on this, he suggests that maybe it was the experience of the Vietnam protests, where. You know, people, you know, you had these enormous mobilizations, huge marches against the war, which made no difference politically, as far as people could tell. And so. You know, as he puts it, there was this kind of movement of saying, Oh, well, you know, we can’t defeat the man. We can’t save the world, but we can save ourselves.
And so you have this, the beginning of this extraordinary period of innovation with kind of self-help, um, mindfulness, yoga, the rise of Eastern philosophy in the West, um, psychedelics and so on, you know, all flowing out with, from the Esalen institutes and onwards. And it leads to, you know, as I say, an extraordinary period of innovation, but as you alluded to. Very often I kind of narcissism that came with it because that sense of social witness of engagement with a world that, you know, increasingly in recent times has looked like a world on fire. That’s been absent and, you know, it’s captured really well in this anecdote from, um, Michael Venturo. Who’s a writer I really like, and he has this whole series of dialogues with James Hillman, the great Dean of unions, psychology and.
You know, Ventura recounts this anecdote of one day in San Francisco, he saw a homeless man in a really awful condition and it really moved him and, um, kind of brought him to tears and he was on his way to therapy. And he went into the room and said to the psychotherapist that just seen this man. And it had moved him so much. And you know, what could he do about it? And the psychologist or the therapist the response had been. That’s really interesting. Let’s explore what this raises for you in terms of your father issues. You know, this kind of compassionate response is being stamped on and, you know, reduce back into this kind of narcissistic. Well, this must be about me at some level. And I think that conversely, the opposite has been happening in politics that, you know, we’ve also had 50 years of extraordinary innovation.
In social movements in organizing, you know, you’ve had the growth of modern environmentalism NGOs have huge social movements, um, which again have been enormously innovative, but have lost a lot of that inner practice. That was a central part of the work when, you know, religions, health, inner and outer together in these things like the civil rights movement. And so. You know, no one could accuse those social movements of being narcissistic. They’re very much concerned with the state of the world, but because the, the inner practice is not always there. You get this kind of chronic burnout that we see so often among people working for social change. Um, often these very. Toxic cultures, which are really endemic and so many big NGOs at the moment, for example, and above all this propensity again, to other political opponents to assume that we’re right. We’re the good guys. They’re the enemy. They’re wrong. And, you know, and so the polarization continues. And one of the things that fascinates me is, you know, is it possible that the stage is now set for a re confluence of those two rivers that flowed in different directions 50 years ago in the late sixties, that we might now be ready for, you know, a remarriage of inner and outer practice. And there are interesting signs of this. I mean, you know, if you look at extinction rebellion, for example, I mean, XR has. Many many faults and has made many missteps, but nevertheless, it’s this idea at the heart, a bit of regenerative culture of activism that does tend to the inner as well as the outer is a really interesting one and has so much kind of potential to go further and.
I I’m really kind of, I feel it’s not just fascinating, but deeply necessary that we bring those two streams back together because when we divorced them bad things happen,
Turi: Alex, what a lovely way of describing the work that you do, the work, the larger arts does and, um, and the work that Parlier aspires to, to, it’s been such a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for taking the time.
Alex: No, it’s been lovely talking to you too. Thanks so much for the invitation to join you.