john a. powell, head of OBI and UC Berkeley law professor, explains how fear of change is fuel to the engine of division and polarization. In his keynote address to the April 2021 summit, Professor powell explains how changes in climate and technology produce fear, but for authoritarian leaders, the narrative of demographic change is an opportunity to amp up anxiety and division across populations.

Listen to the rest of the conversation, "Our Progression to a Future of Belonging: Identity, Targeted Universalism, and Building the Bridges to Tomorrow," and others from the April 2021 OBI summit here.


john a. powell: So we're in a world where there's extreme polarization. The question is why? 

Part of it is being driven by the repetitive change that we're experiencing along many different axes: climate change, tech change, globalization, the pandemic. Of course, one of the most important ones is demographic change.

What change does when it happens really fast, it puts stress on us. But how we understand that stress, how we understand that change depends on stories, narratives, structures, and organizing. 

And so our leaders tell us, this change that you're feeling, this anxiety, it’s somebody’s fault. That there are people who are not like us, they don’t behave like us, they have a different religion, it’s their fault. It directs this anxiety into anger and this anger morphs into a sense of deep othering.

That’s called breaking: when you think of people who are quote-unquote different as a threat. So the fear and threat is central to understanding breaking and polarization. So when we think about othering, when we think even about polarization, we think about why are we othering these people and whose interest is being served?  

At the extreme then, the container itself starts to break — the background assumptions that held us together. When that happens, everyone starts feeling othered. If we don't fix the container, it will affect every aspect of our life. 

Now that's scary, but it's also an opportunity. We actually are called to actually create a new container, a container where all of us belong. 
So we have a chance to move beyond polarization and to move toward co‑creation. So at the institute, we talk about the circle of human concern where no one is outside the circle.

That’s not easy, but that’s our charge.