Polarization in Communication: How to Avoid Polarizing Speech

As politics and other issues drive Americans further apart, it is commonplace to see polarization in communication in messaging online and in other sources.  Polarization encourages both those without a position to pick one and those with a position to commit to a more extreme version of the position.  The prevalence of polarization has increasingly alarming impacts on the people it affects and society as a whole.  Understanding what polarization is, how to spot it, and what the causes of it are can help combat the language and keep away from the extremes on either side.  In this article, we will discuss polarization in communication, the root causes of it, how to identify polarizing speech, and ways to avoid or overcome it.  The aim is to aid critical thinking when encountering extreme viewpoints presented in everyday language.

Polarization in Communication:

Polarization is language or actions that attract or reinforce a person’s position on a binary or what they view as a binary.  While many of the issues where polarization is present exist in some form of a sliding scale, polarization prey upon the inability of the English language and others to describe the areas in between.  It is hard to describe the area between good and bad when there is no exact language for a position.  Polarization uses this binary thinking to encourage those that are conversing about the issue to believe that where they fall has to be on one side or the other.  It can also encourage the people already planting themselves on one side or the other to further plant themselves in their position or become more extreme.  When polarization takes hold, it forces one side to view the other as an enemy and view any information from that side as bad.  Polarization has found its way into much of our daily life in America, so understanding when it is being used is important to make reasonable decisions.

What Causes Polarization in Speech:

Polarization can be caused by several sources depending on the arena where the polarization is showing up.  In some cases, people may choose to use and speak in polarizing ways, yet it is more frequently a byproduct of the way their group thinks and acts rather than a conscious choice.

Common causes of polarization include:

  • Binary Thinking: As stated above, binary thinking contributes to polarization. When an individual or group sees the world in black and white, it leaves little room for anyone to stand in the gray.  The more strongly the group holds onto thinking of an issue in binary, the more likely there will be polarizing speech from the group.
  • Escalation: When there is a conflict between groups that escalates, it can often contribute to the view that the other side is an enemy and drive the parties further into their respective camps. Polarization will often lead to further escalation as well, and that can cause polarization.  Once this cycle begins, it can be incredibly difficult to bring the parties back together.
  • Reinforcement: Another common cause of polarization is that the viewpoints believed by both sides are reinforced by those in power or that seem to be powerful. For example, if a viewpoint is confirmed in the news or by an expert, people will often either decide to agree with it or have their views confirmed.  This leads to further polarization as the separate viewpoints move further away from each other.

Polarization can be caused by a variety of actions and words that reinforce each side’s viewpoint and increase their resistance to anything else.

How to Spot Polarization in Online or In-Person Speech:

When considering how to address polarization, it becomes important to identify polarization in everyday speech.  Polarization can be evident in everyday conversation, finding its way in front of us through face-to-face conversation, online, and other forms of media that we consume.  Being aware of when it is encountered can help people involved avoid the language and any escalation that may happen as a result.

Some common signs of polarization include:

  • Hyperbole: A hyperbole is an exaggeration to make a point. Hyperboles are often used to stir up emotions or strong morals in someone to get them to side with a view or at least be curious.  These are incredibly common in polarizing speech because they are often effective at stirring up emotion and forcing people to choose one side.  Noticing that someone is purposefully exaggerating a fact to convince a person of a viewpoint may be an indication that there is polarization happening.
  • Encouraging Violence: Because polarization includes viewing the opposite side as a threat or enemy, polarizing speech may call for or encourage violence against the other side. If speech is threatening or calling for action against the other side, it may include polarization.
  • Objectification: Another sign that speech includes polarization is when it is objectifying the other side. By likening people to inanimate objects many times in a row, it can make it easier for people to carry out violence against them, whether that violence was encouraged or happened on its own. When repeated objectification of opponents happens, there may be polarization in the speech.
  • Sorting: A common theme in polarizing speech is that it sorts everyone into either the for or against category. A person’s view on the issue either gives them an “in” to the group or excludes them. It creates an identity around the belief that sees itself as superior.  When speech refers to groups and draws a sharp line around those included in a group, there may be polarization happening.
  • Generalizing: Polarization will also make over generalizations of the group as a whole. This means that they will assign characteristics of some member to the whole group without any reason.  Doing so begins to reinforce that those within the “in” group are superior.  This can be a sign of polarization.
  • False equivalence: False equivalence is when someone states that their experience is similar to another person’s experience when it is not. This happens frequently with polarization because the experiences that those within the group attempt to compare to their own will often be deeply moving and emotional ones, so the equation is often intended to invoke an emotional response in the other person and further drive the people apart.
  • Names: A final effort that many people using polarized speech will attempt is name-calling. They will do this when they have run out of talking points are arguments and intend only to harm the other side, not to convince them of anything.  Witnessing someone using names, particularly derogatory names, can mean that there is polarization happening.

Noticing these characteristics and others that encourage division over inclusion will often mean that polarization is present and needs to be addressed.

Addressing Polarization:

Once polarization has been identified, it can be addressed and avoided.  There is not one catch-all way to avoid polarization, but there are some actions that people can take to discourage polarization both within their speech and those around them.  These actions include:

  • Compassion: Practicing compassion, especially for those with differing viewpoints, will help to avoid polarization. Because it preys on the need to treat someone we disagree with poorly, polarization cannot flourish if we are consistently encouraging compassion.
  • Collaborative Projects: If the two sides of a debate can be around each other, creating a collaborative project may help them find their commonalities and create a space for them to humanize the other side.
  • Motivations: Another way that polarization can be avoided or handled is by each group sharing their true motivations for their position with the other. This can humanize the other side again and can help everyone understand why the view is important.
  • Alternative Dispute Resolution: When the polarization has caused a full-blown dispute, it may be best to enlist the help of a specialist to help the sides of the debate come together and have a worthwhile conversation. Mediators are trained to help navigate difficult conversations without completely ruining the relationship.

Throughout these ideas, a common theme is that avoiding or addressing polarization requires the parties to see the other side as human. When we get to know one another on a personal level, it makes it difficult to view each other as the enemy.


Polarization is a rampant phenomenon in the world today. It can cause groups of people to splinter off and reject anyone without the same experiences and viewpoints as their own.  Polarization thrives on binary thinking and capitalizes on escalating tensions.  As these views continue to be reinforced, it leads to a troublesome host of behavior, yet it continues to happen.  The best way to avoid and address polarization is to humanize the other side because it is more difficult to harm a friend or a nice person than it is to harm an enemy.  When we begin to eliminate our extreme differences, we often find there is more that we have in common than we previously thought.

Emily Holland
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