Respecting and understanding the other side: how politics can become less divisive starting in the classroom

The quality of political debate has, in the eyes of many, worsened significantly in recent years.

The historic 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum saw the beginning of the dominance of a new set of issues in British campaigning. To an extent not seen before, issues of truth, lies, honesty and credibility took centre stage.

To some extent these themes have always been part of politics. However, what became new in 2016 was a widespread belief amongst the ‘losing’ side that the election campaign was won based upon purposeful deceit and lies. Such a political environment breeds with cynicism, mistrust and apathy.

For young people, where such negative feelings about politics are already widespread, it has never been more important to engage with politics, think critically and participate in democracy.

Current research shows that in the post-Brexit British politics there has been a rise in a process known as ‘affective polarisation’, originating in North American political science. When affective polarisation increases in an electorate, individuals begin to feel stronger about their political identity, be that partisan or Brexit-related, begin feeling more animosity towards the other side and begin to engage in more bias, stereotyping and prejudice.

Award-winning research from academics at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics published in 2018 showed that since the 2016 vote, there has been a high level of such negative feelings between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ in the UK. Respondents from both sides thought that voters that voted the same as them were more intelligent, open-minded and tolerant, while those that voted for the other side were ignorant, selfish and close-minded. Moreover, only half of those surveyed said they would be willing to discuss politics with the ‘other side’, while only a third of respondents would be happy if their child married someone from the opposing political camp.

This research show the harm that divisive political campaigning can have to the social fabric of society.

Research from the University of Kent and the London School of Economics backs up this finding with data that shows whether an individual voted Leave or Remain in 2016 has a long-lasting effect on how they evaluate Britain’s post-2016 economic performance. Not only are we prejudiced about the ‘other side’ but our very perception of political reality is becoming increasingly biased. We must encourage ourselves and young people to engage in an impartial, rational evaluation of available facts to form an opinion on key political issues.

These processes see politics become more about tribalism and disrespect rather than reaching collective decisions about how to solve our common problems. Division and polarisation is harmful for democracy, encouraging distrust, apathy and cynicism. Instead of thoughtfully weighing up opposing evidence, it is tempting for all of us to simply believe what we think we should believe or what those around us seem to believe. This can be all the more appealing when we are fed a constant stream of political opinion through social media news feeds.

This is why it is so vital that politics is taught to students in a way that encourages deliberation, empathy and avoids stereotypes and prejudice.

Icon of British liberal democracy John Stuart Mill in 1859 argued that the health of our democracy depends on a mutual respect between opposing political sides. Students must be taught to understand and empathise with those who hold opposing views, especially when much of political debate that they are exposed to does to opposite.

A major cause for optimism is that young people often do not hold the same levels of biases as older generations. It is commonplace, especially amongst young people, for prejudice and stereotyping to be condemned across religious, sexual and ethnic lines. There is no reason why we should not give the same level of tolerance, compassion and understanding to those who vote differently to us, too.

George Bolton