No captives in our classrooms: Reducing polarisation together | Sue Vella

Although I believe polarisation is less evident among our student body, I have come across a few instances which I now wish I had managed better. Here are a few disparate reflections

Dr Sue Vella, Department of Social Policy and Social Work

That many societies have become more polarised is well-documented. Successive Presidents, in Malta and beyond, have called for unity in the face of hardening divides. A polarised system is one where the centre hollows out, as people’s opinions and allegiances cluster more strongly, and further away, from a midpoint. Polarisation is different from party partiality; opposing views are not new and play an important role in liberal democracies. Debate is more effective than suppression, and polarised views can mobilise action for important social change, as in for instance the case of civil rights in mid-20th century America. Difference is not the problem; indeed, some would argue there is too little political differentiation in an age where there seems to be no alternative to neoliberal capitalism.

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More problematic is the rise in ‘sorting’, where we increasingly congregate with others like ourselves, rarely encountering different people in non-politicised spheres of life where bridges are built. While social identity theory suggests that we naturally build our identities and self-esteem through the groups we belong to, the distance between groups appears to have hardened.

This is often attributed to a rise in identity politics, which term is sometimes unfairly weaponised to dismiss the demand of marginalised groups to be afforded equal dignity. Understanding the subjective ‘lived experience’ of specific groups, and how it is affected by legal, cultural and other structural forces, contributes to justice and empathy. Yet when non-partisan identities (such as gender, class and ethnicity) are drawn into partisan conflicts, partisanship becomes what Mason calls a ‘mega-identity’: political differences become personal, and more a threat to our self-esteem than a cause for debate (1). Feeling threatened, we become less open to alternative views and see dissent as culpable, even when we have a limited understanding of others’ beliefs and why they hold them (2). We become less committed to assuming the good faith of others, and social trust declines.

The challenge lies in committing to a more universal sense of identity and purpose. As Fukuyama suggests, both lived experience and shared experience must matter if we are to reach across cultural divides (3). Rediscovering a sense of the collective is hindered by opportunistic ‘us and them’ discourse by hardline partisans, a discourse which can manipulate and inflame, magnifying imaginary conflicts and offering no peaceful remedy for real ones. Social media has amplified the splintering, making it easier to circulate fake information and to smear one’s opponents from a safe distance in ways that social norms would generally restrain us from doing face to face. Thus, we insulate ourselves from people and opinions we don’t like, reinforcing our tendency to only hear what we already believe and allowing our outrage to be stoked.

Although I believe polarisation is less evident among our student body, I have come across a few instances which I now wish I had managed better. Here are a few disparate reflections.

First is accepting that our students, like everyone else, may live in different moral universes with a different logic to our own. We must role-model evaluative pluralism; in Vallier’s words, that “sincere and informed people can non-culpably disagree about many important matters, including what the good life consists in and what justice requires” (2020, p. 21). While we can rarely resolve conflicting views, we can learn to manage polarities to mutual benefit, while supporting the middle to use their voice too. I don’t think we should avoid differences, which often harden in resentful silence. Engaging respectfully with non-mainstream and less popular viewpoints, and offering challenge in a manner that affirms students, helps create a safe environment for them to differ in class and to develop confidence in their voice.

Second, fostering students’ debating skills helps them to be logical and articulate speakers. Debate, however, cannot be the only way we prepare students to communicate. Dialogue matters too, learning to listen rather than persuade; to build bridges without denying differences. Similarly, deliberative skills are needed, where students engage with each other’s views while working together in common purpose. We can help students to be mindful of the impact of their words on others, reminding them, though, that while language certainly matters, it should not eclipse our assumption of others’ goodwill and cause us to take offence too readily.

Third, true critical thinking is widely informed and reasoned, and does not need inflammatory language and stereotyping of any sort. Singular social narratives run the risk of breeding intolerance. For instance, theories of group conflict have been crucial in explaining the dynamics of marginalisation, yet they are not the only narratives worthy of students’ attention. Many people choose to organise their lives around principles other than power and self-interest, a view that I contend is empirical rather than naïve. Besides, it is inconsistent to only valorise those lived experiences that conform to our narratives. Students are better served when exposed to a broad spectrum of perspectives and encouraged to fact-check and to seek evidence, enabling them to be critics and not captives of ideologies.

Lastly, we can encourage our students to read quality fiction. Shafak holds that stories bring us together, helping us connect with our multiple identities and with those of others (4). In her words, we should strive to explore our many belongings. Good fiction can help, by taking us beyond ourselves to understand and empathise with different people, helping us live with complexity and become more tolerant. Harper Lee’s Mockingbird or Gaskell’s North and South, for instance, have the power to instruct the heart in a way (at least my) lectures cannot. Fiction, Shafak suggests, offers one way to “stay sane in an age of division”. Together with our students, we can learn how to be political beings yet refuse to be prisoners of politics.


1. Mason, L. (2018). Uncivil agreement. How politics became our identity. University of Chicago Press.

2. Vallier, K. (2020). Trust in a polarised age. Oxford University Press.

3. Fukuyama, F. (2018). Identity: Contemporary identity politics and the struggle for recognition. Profile Books.

4. Shafak, E. (2020). How to stay sane in an age of division. Wellcome Collection.