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Finding Common Ground Amid Increasing Political Polarization

Dispute resolution techniques can be helpful in healing political divides, MU legal expert says

June 08, 2017

Story Contact(s):
Liz McCune, mccunee@missouri.edu, 573-882-6212

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Recent national elections have shown how divided the nation has become, with political fault lines separating communities and even families. Scholars have observed a deepening of this divide as individuals turn to news outlets that tend to confirm already held beliefs. But a University of Missouri legal expert argues that a way forward exists, and it starts with the application of principles used in dispute resolution.

“Recent events have made it seem as if robust, respectful discourse is impossible due to the absence of any type of common ground,” said S.I. Strong, an MU professor of law and member of the university’s Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution. “However, there are a variety of ways to bring together parties that are in conflict. In fact, many of the techniques developed by dispute resolution specialists can be applied to today’s political divisions.”

For example, one way to overcome pervasive political misperceptions is to identify “superordinate goals,” or determining objectives common to all parties. Once people realize that they must come out of their individual silos to achieve their goals, cooperation is much easier.

Another technique involves the use of “surprising validators,” meaning people who are trusted enough by a certain group to provide information that might otherwise be unwelcome. Using a trusted “insider” to convey difficult information is sometimes the only way to overcome distrust.

However, Strong said research suggests some individuals may be incapable of absorbing information contrary to their own beliefs, even in situations where the authority of the speaker is beyond reproach. Other problems arise as a result of the way in which communication takes place.

“Interdisciplinary research suggests that part of the problem comes from the way that legal and political debate is structured,” Strong said. “Traditionally, journalists, politicians and lawyers have debated political issues with a point/counterpoint model. This type of approach can make it very difficult for some people to engage with different viewpoints since they can always find a way to justify their own position. As we look for ways to address the current climate of social and political polarization, it may be necessary to rethink this somewhat adversarial paradigm.”

Strong makes these arguments in a recent essay, “Alternative Facts and the Post-truth Society: Meeting the Challenge,” published by the University of Pennsylvania Law Review Online. Strong is the Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law. She also has taught law at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.

More information about the MU Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution can be found here: http://law.missouri.edu/csdr/

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