The tendency to polarise

The tendency to polarise

This post discusses polarisation, a theme that is covered in more depth in my book The Psychology of Sex.

The last couple of days I’ve been thinking and writing here about academic and political debates, particularly the tendency that these have to become polarised into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ positions (here and here). Whilst I was writing I became wryly aware of the fact that, whilst seeing all these problems with polarisation on an academic level, I was regarding things in very polarised ways in all kinds of other aspects of my life.

So I thought that it would be useful to reflect here upon our tendency to polarise. This is both because it is a useful thing to recognise and to challenge in ourselves, and because greater awareness and empathy about the strong magnetic pull to either/or positions is a helpful thing to bring to the kinds of academic/political debates which I’ve been writing about.

What does polarisation mean? I’m understanding it to refer to our temptation to categorise things as right or wrong, good or bad, positive or negative, in a very ‘all or nothing’ kind of way. It relates to the tendency to seeing things in dichotomous ways, which we also seem to have. Things are either this or that, there is little room for a continuum or spectrum of experience, for the possibility for something to be both/and rather than either/or, or for things to be outside the dichotomy entirely. We see this, for example in common understandings of sexuality (gay or straight), gender (man or woman), mental health (well or ill), behaviour (normal or abnormal), progress (success or failure) and so many other things.

So, for example, when faced with a decision we often find ourselves assuming that there are two possible options, one of which is right and the other of which is wrong. Starting from this taken-for-granted assumption we can easily tie ourselves in knots trying to decide which is which. What can be much more helpful is to question that foundational assumption. Are there only two options or might there be many we could consider which are in between those two or outside of them? Even considering the two options that we have on the table, might there be both positive and negative possibilities along both potential paths rather than one being all positive and one all negative? And might we further question our polarising of positive and negative things here, recognising that what we regard as positive is likely to contain some negatives and vice versa? We might reflect on the times when things we have really wanted have come with unanticipated difficulties, and the times when things we’ve dreaded have been very useful in some ways.

Similarly when we consider anything in our lives: jobs, people, relationships, holidays, tasks, etc. we can notice our tendency to polarise. This job is either all good or all bad, meaning that I should stay or I should leave. This person I have met is either my kind of person entirely or not at all and I should pursue a relationship with them or close down that possibility. This label is one that I embrace or discard. What I’ve achieved is either a success or a failure and I should celebrate or berate myself accordingly. This group, or way of thinking, or set of ideas, is either an ‘us’ thing or a ‘them’ thing, and I accept it or reject it accordingly.

We know very well in psychology about the dangers of ‘us and them’ thinking. So many studies demonstrate that these kinds of polarisations are the first step on a path towards doing harm to others. See people as ‘them’ and it becomes easier to ignore their suffering or to regard them as less worthy of humane treatment. But on an everyday level, in our personal relationships, us and them thinking hurts us and those around us as well. When we see somebody as totally ‘us’ (the close people in our lives, for example), it can be incredibly difficult when there is a disconnection between us. We might find their reaction hard to understand or realise that we have very different opinions on an issue. Because we have categorised the person as ‘us’, this results in a much greater conflict than if we recognised them as a different person who is both like and unlike ourselves in all kinds of ways. At the extremes we may be tempted to reject them entirely for differing in some way that we regard as fundamental. Or we may force their difference into being a similarity in a way that hurts them: for example when we insist that we understand their pain because of some pain that we ourselves have been through, despite very different circumstances. Similarly, when we’ve determined that a person in our lives is ‘them’ – the enemy – we may fail to see the connections between the two of us, such as the fact that their ‘difficult behaviour’ comes from a place of fear, pain and vulnerability which is something that we ourselves can easily relate to.

I find mindfulness to have some helpful things to offer when it comes to our tendency to polarise. It suggests that our suffering and struggles in life are often rooted in ‘craving’ which is our desire to grasp hold of everything that we want (e.g. approval from others, material things and good feelings) and to hurl away from ourselves everything that we don’t want (e.g. disapproval, pain and unhappiness). Perhaps this tendency to categorise everything in dichotomous ways is grounded on such habitual patterns of grasping or hurling away. And because we are so used to approaching the world in this way, having done it all our lives, it becomes very difficult to do otherwise. Thus I notice that only seconds after criticising anti- and pro-porn academics for their inability to regard pornography in a more nuanced way, I am trying to decide whether I’ve had a good or bad day on the basis of how productive I’ve been and then rushing to escape the ‘negative’ feeling this results in.

So what are the alternatives to polarisation? In my posts about more academic/political debates I suggested that it would be useful to see the objects of such debates as multiple rather than singular things, as well as recognising that – when we polarise – we often position other people in ways that pushing them also to extremes, rather than enabling them to connect with us in the messy complexity of it all where they might be more able to see our point of view and vice versa.

So when we are drawn into polarising about a certain issue, person, decision, or situation, perhaps we can ask ourselves in what ways it is multiple, complex, and changing, rather than slipping into fixing it as one unified, static, stable thing. That might involve remembering all of the different sides of a person in our life; or seeing the differences between people in a particular group or category as well as how they are similar to each other; or determining to consider a situation from as many different perspectives as we can.

When decision-making we could deliberately aim to consider options between and outside those we are currently imagining, perhaps writing down all of the options we can possibly think of. It might be helpful to recognise that we, ourselves, are multiple rather than singular, and giving a voice to all of our different perspectives on the matter. We can consider what is lost and gained in each possible choice (including choosing not to choose), and what may open up and close down, rather than being tempted to see one way as all good and another as all bad.

Mindfulness teachers suggest that, rather than grasping tightly or hurling away, we can hold onto things gently and embrace the uncertainty that comes with this. Rather than leaping to conclusions and actions we can stay in the state of non-knowing for longer. This can be a painful place to be (because we struggle with uncertainty) and it can also be a relief from the intense struggle of all-or-nothing thinking, which can lead to more compassionate and wise decision-making. We might practice embracing uncertainty on easier matters in life to help us to do it on more loaded issues. This is what meditators do when they tune into the first tiny sensations, thoughts and feelings which bubble up and try to notice whether they are labelling them as positive or negative, and what this leads to.

So can we just stop this habit of polarisation? Not really. To misquote one of my favourite films, The Big Chill, ‘I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy polarisations’. And probably we could replace ‘day’ with ‘hour’, or even ‘minute’. We’ve been polarising our whole lives so it is not an easy thing to stop doing and we need to go gently on ourselves, remembering that judging ourselves as good or bad on the basis of how much we are polarising is yet another polarisation. But perhaps if we make space to pause several times each day and to notice how we are polarising we can create the possibility for other ways of engaging with our lives and our decisions. And, if we do this, we may start to be able to bring such approaches to the big debates and issues which we find outselves involved with.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).


  1. […] also talk about something that I have written about here recently: our tendency to polarise and to assume that there are always two possible choices – one of which will turn out to be […]

  2. Reblogged this on Jeez, not you again! and commented:
    Pro, anti? Interesting how polarisation impinges upon all aspects of our lives, from the public to the private. The dichotomy of right or wrong is a particularly removes the whole option of a rather greyer, blurrier centre. Thought provoking piece.

  3. […] feminist-produced videos, sexting, mainstream porn mags, and images of consensual BDSM practices. Polarised debates often shut down helpful dialogue and obscure the likely possibility that most things have both […]