In this lesson, students explore the affective aspects of polarization and apply the hit, hug, handshake, heal framework to their own political formation.
- Students will understand that polarization is affective as well as ideological.
- Students will examine the roots of their own political stances and postures.
- Students will apply the framework of hit, hug, handshake, or heal to their own political postures.
Various commentators have noted that the polarization and partisanship currently affecting society are not just ideological in nature, but have tribal qualities, being rooted not just in what we think or believe but in how we feel about out-groups and opponents. This is evident, for instance, in increases across the political spectrum in the degree to which people assign negative or dehumanizing moral labels to those with differing political views, or in the striking decrease in mixed political marriages (at a time when mixed racial and religious marriages, formerly the focus of disapproval, are increasing in frequency). Having more information does not necessarily help to rectify this situation. If we and our students are to participate with grace and charity in the civic space, we need not only to be informed, but to look at our own formation. What kind of people are we becoming?
This class asks students to reflect on the influences on their own formation and to consider the kind of formational trajectory that they desire. As you teach the class, avoid a simplistic moralism. Aim instead to make space for honest reflection. Consider how your seating layout, tone or use of silence might affect the likelihood of reflection. Encourage students to focus on who they are becoming rather than whether they match up with a correct answer.
Preparing the Activities
For this lesson you will need:
- Internet access for students.
- Copies of the handout What’s Your Political Story
Teaching the Activities
Introduction (3 minutes)
Briefly introduce the idea of a political spectrum running from left to right. Mention that this not the only possible way to arrange people’s political views—we could, for instance, arrange people by how convinced they are of their views on a spectrum from fanatical to indifferent, or by the degree to which they believe their perspective should be imposed by means of authority. But for now, we are going to begin with a liberal-conservative spectrum, which is a common way of talking about political differences.
Phase 1: Locating ourselves (15 minutes)
Give students the handout What’s Your Political Story Ask students to place themselves on the political spectrum at the top of the handout based on their own political beliefs.
Next, instruct students to take a minute to scan the classroom, looking at their classmates, and then write a brief statement stating where they think the rest of the class is on average on the political spectrum relative to them—i.e., more conservative, more liberal, about the same, etc.—and why.
When students have had time to complete these first two steps, introduce students to the Pew political typology quiz or substitute a similar quiz if another is more suited to your students and community. Explain that this quiz sorts people into “cohesive groups based on their values, attitudes and party affiliation” in order to explore the ways in which people within the ranks of Republican or Democratic voters may differ from one another and cluster around particular issues. Have students individually complete the quiz, reminding the class as you do so that each person’s results are private. Allow students to move if necessary to keep students from looking at one another’s screens. When they have had a chance to do so and view their results, display the first graphic here, on political typology, which lists all of the groups. Tell students that they do not need to share their own personal results. Then ask them to reflect quietly on the following:
- Were you surprised by your results? Why/Why not?
- Where do you think your immediate family members would fall on this spectrum? What about your church community? Your neighborhood? Your town?
- How is this spectrum different from the one with which you started?
- How might it help or hinder to have more categories? (Could it help us to lump others together less? Could it create too much complexity to serve our understanding?)
Phase 2: Looking at polarization (15 minutes)
Introduce the idea of increasing polarization. It has been widely observed that although a spectrum of political views is not a new thing, there has in recent decades been a tendency for people to have less favorable views of those at the other end of the spectrum. Show graphics and/or quotations illustrating this, such as:
- The second graphic in this report on how partisans view each other. Ask students to describe what it shows. Draw students’ attention to the fact that what matters most on the chart is not just the absolute numbers, but the change over time, with increases across the board. Help students to focus on how it suggests not only an increase in contrast between different political viewpoints, but an increase in the tendency to view those holding another viewpoint as being not merely mistaken but morally deficient.
- This quotation from one article about partisanship in recent American politics: “America’s political divisions are driven by hatred of an out-group rather than love of the in-group.” (From Republicans Don’t Understand Democrats—And Democrats Don’t Understand Republicans by Yascha Mounk, in The Atlantic.) This article reports on research that found that when Democrats and Republicans are asked about what the other side believe, and their answers are compared with surveys of the other side themselves, it turns out that both sides have a very inaccurate understanding of what the other side actually believes and values, and that the inaccuracy actually increases the more they are politically engaged. (You may wish to explore or test this finding with students at a later point as a way of following up and building classroom community.)
- The graphic in this article on marriages between Democrats and Republicans shows a decrease in politically mixed marriages from 30% to 21% since 2016.
Briefly review with students the hit/hug/handshake/heal framework from the last lesson. Discuss with students:
- Which of these responses becomes more tempting in this civic environment?
- Which of these responses becomes more challenging to adopt in the current civic environment?
- If the differences between people politically are not just differences about issues but differences in how we feel about others and how we view them, what problems should we expect? What might help?
Introduce the idea that our political postures are often rooted not just in our explicit thinking about political questions and strategies, but in more instinctive parts of our formation.
Phase 3: Political stories (20 minutes)
Ask students where our political beliefs come from. Do we inherit them from our parents or our faith communities? What experiences might play a role? As we begin to think about where we stand on certain issues and how we relate to others, it is important to recognize that our perspectives are often influenced (positively or negatively) by our life stories and circumstances.
Before asking students to discuss in pairs or small groups, make explicit that you are not asking them to share their own current political stances if they do not wish to do so, and that you understand that some students will not have clear political stances. It might be helpful to share some of your own political autobiography with the students without focusing on your party allegiances to model for them the type of reflections that are relevant. If you can model transparency and trust, it is more likely that these will become part of the how the class responds. Return students’ attention to the handout What’s Your Political Story and ask students to choose at least three of the questions to discuss with a partner or in a group of three. Before the conversation begins, ask students to be aware of their own responses to the stories of others—what qualities might mark them as a good listener? The slide includes the following questions:
- What are your earliest memories related to politics or a public decision? What emotions do you associate with those memories?
- In what ways do you think your family has influenced your views and postures in relation to politics and civic engagement?
- In what ways do you think your church or faith community has influenced your views and postures in relation to politics and civic engagement?
- Is there a political decision or issue that you have come to change your mind about? What helped you change your mind?
- Is there a particular experience or relationship that has impacted your political views or postures?
- Can you think of occasions when your own reaction to political differences has leaned toward hit, hug, handshake, or heal? What has influenced that response?
After students have had a chance to discuss these questions, ask the pairs/groups to spend a couple of minutes identifying one insight that came out of their discussion that they are willing to share with the rest of the class. Take a few minutes for each pair/group to share their chosen insight. With a larger class you may find it easier to have members of each pair/group share with another pair/group rather than with the whole class.
Assign the journaling task at the end of the handout for homework and make time at the start of the next class for students to share their reflections on how they would like to grow.
In this lesson, students explore the implications of various postures (hit, hug, handshake, and heal) toward political differences and examine media stories for signs of these stances.