Identity-Based Conflict
final paper

Ideological Identities:
A Barrier to Dialogue?

Josh Nadeau describes why it's important to understand how ideological identities complicate dialogue.

This article originally appeared as a final paper I wrote for the Identity-Based Conflict class I took at Saint Paul University in the early months of 2021. While the original paper can be found here, I also wanted to post something less academic. What follows is a re-written, expanded and hopefully more accessible version.

The central question remains the same: how do the ideological identities stemming from our worldviews or political positions create barriers to dialogue? And what can be done about it?
When individuals or groups find themselves faced with conflict or internal division, one tool that can help is called dialogue. Dialogue is a structured way of communicating where different parties, usually with the help of a facilitator, learn more about the other side as a way to generate an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual understanding. While dialogue is often conducted in these formal, facilitated contexts, the principles involved can be used just as easily when talking with friends, strangers and other members of the community.

If dialogue is something you're interested in learning more about, feel free to check out the material linked in the box below:
Generally speaking, groups bring in a dialogue facilitator when a dispute has led to a stalemate that's hard to resolve. The process, it's hoped, will help clarify the different positions, interests and needs in play so that participants can talk about what's actually at stake for each side rather than what's assumed to be at stake. Along the way, tensions lower as each side feels seen or listened to, because the goal of the process is to humanize the other side instead of winning or dominating. Facilitators help the parties (re)build relationships in times of tension, and there's often a desire that, over the course of the dialogue, the parties open up new ways of moving forward together – if moving forward is indeed the goal. Sometimes it's not, and that can be a legitimate stance.

While dialogue can improve communication between families, teams and legal parties, it's also been used in spaces affected by major and even violent conflicts – think war or other forms of deep-seated, societal division. This kind of dialogue work involves serious preparation ahead of time, and one of the major factors that facilitators pay attention to are the identities of the parties involved.

Facilitation specialist Jay Rothman says identities are important to look at because dialogue involves giving "voice to the essential concerns" felt by the parties, ones connected to individual or collective sense of self. These are often rooted in "people's collective need for dignity, recognition, safety, control, purpose and efficacy." In other words, when people are in a conflict, what's at stake is usually more than just the positions we're arguing over – other factors that get caught up in the process include our community standing, moral status, legitimacy or even our sense of who we are and whether we see ourselves as good people.

This is a finding that's been confirmed by a large number of specialists, leading to a consensus built since the end of the Cold War that says thorny identity dynamics often complicate our ability to engage with and understand others, especially when we're feeling threatened. This is why dialogue facilitators usually look out for the different identities at play in a conflict: are people being dismissed because of their cultural background, gender or class? Is race a factor? Do different groups have long-standing grievances against each other that aren't resolved and haven't been resolved for decades?

These factors can be part of an "unseen" set of conflict roots that make it hard for groups to understand each other, find common ground or move forward in times of tension. This can prompt facilitators (and anyone "stuck" in a stalemate) to try to uncover relevant identity dynamics, if they exist, and make them visible in order to help the parties understand why different groups act and react the way they do. With that knowledge, the parties can try to shift gears (if that's their goal) or even reframe a conflict-conducive identity into one more inclusive of the "others" perceived as threatening – or who themselves feel threatened.

When it comes to deep-seated societal divisions, however, many dialogue processes have limited their focus on identity markers like ethnicity, nationality and religion. This makes a lot of sense, because these factors have played a huge role in mobilizing people towards war and other forms of mass violence – these particular identities were massively influential in conflicts like in Rwanda, Kashmir, Israel-Palestine, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. That said, this obscures another kind of identity marker that, though not nearly as studied as religion or ethnicity, has nevertheless become a growing concern: ideological identities.

What ideological identities look like vary depending on the situation. In some cases, publicly declaring one's identity as liberal or conservative is enough for tensions to rise or fights to break out. In others, identifying as a regionalist, a nationalist, a pluralist or a cosmopolitan can make it difficult to communicate with others, let alone to see their positions or even their experiences as legitimate. Depending on the context, this can lead to political repression, societal ostracization or even violence.

In my paper, and in this article, I wanted to take some space to demonstrate a few ways these kinds of ideological identities create unique barriers to dialogue and can lead not only to misunderstanding but also to a deeper entrenchment of the divides affecting our societies. Ideological identities don't just affect our perceptions and behaviours in similar ways that ethnicity, religion or race can, but in some cases even more so.

While the ways these dynamics manifest themselves can be unpacked in whole books, in my paper I focused on three factors that complicate attempts at dialogue: how ideological identities are "unprotected," how ideologies are slippery and make it hard to know what the "sides" are, and how dialogue can be (or be perceived to be) weaponized by one side and used against the other. As examples of these factors in play, I'll be looking primarily at two ideologically-charged but otherwise very different cases that I've worked with: the North American "culture war" during the Trump era (2015-2021) and the ongoing armed conflict in East Ukraine (2014-present). But while I'll be looking at these two cases, the dynamics involved apply in ideological conflicts in many other countries, particularly with liberal-conservative tensions as well as in societies divided by worldviews that have policy implications (for example, pro- or anti-EU integration).

Before getting into why these ideological identities make it hard to have dialogue with the other side, though, a bit of background is in order. If you're in a rush and looking to get straight to the three main points, feel free to skip the next two sections.

The American Culture War

There's been a prolonged, inter-societal cultural struggle in the US (and North America generally) between two large groups ideologically defined as liberal and conservative, and the political data we have seems to say tensions have intensified since the 1970s. This has been famously labelled a "culture war" over the dominance of liberal or conservative cultural values in society. Plenty of folks have had issues with terms like "culture war," though, are it's often fuzzily-defined, so when I'm using the term academically I usually define it as a large-group ideological and value-driven conflict influenced by political affiliation identity markers (PAIMs) that for the most part excludes instances of systemic or prolonged direct violence.

The conflicts driven by ideological PAIMs like liberal and conservative are thought to have intensified during the Trump presidency, leading to increased social, cultural and political polarization by the end of the 2010s. There's been a lot of attention paid to what the impact of this polarization has looked like – a 2014 Pew Research Center report says that about a third of Democrats and Republicans see the other as a "threat to the nation's well-being," and more recent reports from Pew and the PRRI indicate that partisan-ideological identities are at the root of the country's largest social divide – larger than, say, divides around race, religion or other factors.

Academic researchers have been tracking these trends for well over a decade, and many say that this new divide has led partisans to greater levels of disengagement from the other side as well as a heightened degree of what Liliana Mason, an expert on polarization, says in her book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity amounts to "stereotyping, prejudice and...volatility" in public life. This leads to concerns that partisans will, in the words of Robert Talisse and Scott Aiken, "embrace distorted and skewed views of their political rivals'' or assume "irrationality or depravity of those with whom they disagree." There's a growing amount of research linking this kind of culture war behaviour to PAIMs like liberal and conservative, and it claims that partisans are increasingly viewing opponents as enemies and treating even online interactions as existential threats. These are all factors that further increase polarization and complicate the ability to have dialogue between the respective camps.

The War in East Ukraine

Ideological conflict in Ukraine looks very different than it does in North America, in large part because of its recent Soviet past as well as an ongoing armed conflict in the country's east. There isn't a lot of space here to go over the sheer complexity of the war, and so the main points here come from my own experiences living and working there, as well as from the research of Tatiana Kyselova and her colleague

Since April 2014, the Donbas (alternatively spelled Donbass) region in East Ukraine has experienced armed, separatist violence that's resulted in the emergence of two breakaway regions calling themselves the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (DNR/LNR). They are de facto outside the control of the Ukrainian government and are not recognized as sovereign states by the international community.

The violence had a number of complex causes. The prior November saw a series of mass protests emerge in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, which eventually turned into a full revolution by February. The relatively pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, fled the country and a new, pro-European interim government formed in the leadup to a new election. Responses across the country were dramatic, with the eventual separatists claiming that the new government was illegal, fascist and fomenting hatred not only against ethnic Russians but against "Russian speakers," a term sometimes used to refer to Ukraine's ideologically pro-Russian citizens.

This conflict between pro-Europeans (frequently now being equated with "pro-Ukrainian") and pro-Russians was mostly ideological because divisions in Ukraine are hard to map – most people are bilingual, so it's not a primarily linguistic divide, and these ideological leanings aren't attached to ethnic Russian or Ukrainian identity. These identities intensified as Russian-language media, as well as word of mouth, promoted a narrative that the new government was anti-Russian and that citizens were in danger and had to fight back. The situation escalated fast: unidentified Russian troops took the southern Crimean peninsula in March, blockaded the airport and military bases and presided over an internationally contested referendum that led to the region breaking away from Ukraine to join Russia. In April, Donbas separatists took the town of Sloviansk (also called Slavyansk) and started what amounted to a now-hot-now-cold civil war.
Opinions as to which group is at fault vary. Kyiv calls the separatists "terrorists" and blames Russia for supporting and arming them. Moscow denies this and says the conflict is an inter-ethnic, civil affair – though the Russian government has claimed the right to intervene to protect the rights of "Russian speakers." What's more, the Kremlin has given out passports to many people living in Donbas, meaning that many pro-Russians are now Russian citizens and are a protectable minority. Kyiv, in turn, claims that the Russian media has delegitimized the revolution and the current government, generating an environment of fear and hostility (which, arguably, it has), while Moscow claims that far-right fascist troops and volunteers within the armed forces want to and already have committed mass violence and even war crimes against pro-Russians in Donbas (which, arguably, they have).

There are two ceasefires, known as Minsk I and II, that were reached in 2015 but haven't been totally implemented (both sides blame the other for this). Peace talks continue but haven't been effective – sporadic violence continues on the "border" between government and non-government controlled areas (GCA/NGCA), and the conflict has led to over 13,000 deaths and over two million displaced Ukrainians. 8% of Ukraine's territory, the DNR/LNR plus Crimea, are not currently under government control.

Kyselova says the war is characterized by a high degree of hybridity that makes it hard to talk about the conflict: is it a full war? A limited uprising? An internationalized conflict? This complexity is due to how a number of different components operate at the same time:
The allegedly internationalized dispute between Kyiv and Moscow that's effectively proxied through Donbas separatist forces.
The direct armed conflict between the Ukrainian army and the separatists.
The ideological, cultural split within Ukrainian society along local PAIMs such as pro-Russian or pro-European, which since 2014 is increasingly equated to being "pro-Ukrainian."
There are plenty of other layers to the conflict as well – you could talk about the struggles between the people and the oligarchs, the government and civil society, between activists and international donors or between neo-fascists and whoever their latest target is. Since my paper focuses on ideological conflicts and how they impact dialogue, though, I'll be focusing on the third conflict mentioned above, between pro-Russians and pro-European/Ukrainians.

With all that out of the way, let's take a look at three ways that ideological identities form a barrier to dialogue in these and other divided contexts:


Ideological identities are "unprotected"

The first point I want to make about the impact of ideological identities on dialogue is that they don't typically fall into the category of "protected" identities. Protection here refers to legal protection, which is when laws are set up to prevent discrimination against individuals on the basis of their identity markers – these laws have often emerged as a result of histories of discrimination and are an attempt to protect vulnerable groups.

While whether ideological identities require or deserve protection is a whole other question altogether, what this means is that systemic or prolonged discrimination against groups like liberals and conservatives or pro-Ukrainians and pro-Russians are not addressed by legal mechanisms. Such discrimination often doesn't even reach the level of a social taboo. In fact, the opposite is usually true: partisans in these respective conflicts are often encouraged to disparage the other side and treat such "attacks" as a matter of pride or a way to prove loyalty to ingroup values.

Researchers Shanto Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin identified this dynamic within the American culture war, saying that widespread social encouragement to disparage the ideological "other" tends to delegitimize not only the other side's point of view but also their needs and experiences. This makes it difficult to justify being civil with the other side because this polarization tends to prime each side, even on a cognitive level, to see the other not only as wrong but as bad or even evil. While people may justify these judgements using moral terms (the other side is bad because they believe bad things), sociologists and psychologists have long noted that "tribal" mechanisms in the human brain make it easy to paint any kind of "other," ideological or otherwise, in such terms and only later assembling an acceptable argument to justify why they did so.
[note: this does not mean that the moral judgements people make about the other side (often, in the culture war, framed in terms like "justice," "truth" or "hypocrisy") aren't legitimate, just that the biases generated by "tribal" thinking create additional incentives to frame the other side as bad. This can lead to action tainted by a "moral crusade" or "witch-hunt" against members of an opposing ideological identity group. Since there are fewer social mechanisms preventing this kind of behaviour, these dynamics can go unnoticed or even positively rewarded]
This trend has been complicated further by findings from the field of moral psychology describing how ideological divides can fuel righteous indignation against groups who hold the "wrong" values. These dynamics were described at length by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, where he describes how being faced with different ideological or moral frameworks can easy trigger partisans into entering a kind of "combat mode" and prompt them to "cleanse" their social spaces from what they see as dangerous or contaminating ideas. These mechanisms add additional cognitive rewards to attacking ideological foes, framing partisan action as a way to overcome "evil" or otherwise fulfill moral imperatives. These factors place additional burdens on dialogue initiators who focus on ideological polarization as they incentivize partisans to see the other side as intolerable, framing dialogue as a potentially misguided attempt to compromise, legitimize or even capitulate to a problematic "other."

The lack of "protection" for ideological identities not only means that these tendencies are not resisted but perhaps even encouraged on a societal level. Dialogue proponents and facilitators, in this case, should prepare themselves to a) face social resistance against engaging with ideological "others," b) need to justify, perhaps on a consistent basis, their desire and motivations to include ideological "others" in dialogue and conversation generally and c) potentially themselves be accused of abetting "evil" by humanizing the ideological "other" and presenting their needs, experiences or perspectives as legitimate. In the North American case, ideologically-based dialogue may face these barriers in ways that dialogue on ethnic, religious or racial disputes may not.
[note: it is important to mention that resistance to ideological dialogue is not only motivated by the social and cognitive factors mentioned above. Certain behaviours are seen within certain frameworks as objectively evil, bigoted or dangerous to society – racism or religious bigotry are some examples. In times of major polarization, where the different sides are more likely to see the "other" as an existential threat, the need to stand up to the "enemy" is intensified because the perceived cost to not fighting them becomes increasingly high. This is often what's happening when different sides compare each other to past, repressive regimes like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. In the face of such "evil," the moral and social duty is to resist them – dialogue, in cases like this, is seen as naive at best and treason at worst]
These dynamics are intensified when the ideological conflict takes place within a larger armed conflict, as is the case with Ukraine. Tatiana Kyselova is a local specialist conducting research into issues of dialogue in the Ukrainian context, and together with her colleague Anne Holper (previously Kraus) investigated the absence of pro-Russian Ukrainians in dialogues conducted across the country.

Kyselova and Holper were interested in this absence because dialogue should, by its very nature, include marginalized or threatening "others." Given the high number of ideologically pro-Russian Ukrainian citizens (estimated as up to 30%), their inclusion may be necessary in any attempt to create a cohesive social fabric, and thus rendering their absence problematic.

This exclusion is likely shaped by the strong, anti-Russian social pressure generated in response to the armed conflict in the country's eastern regions. This pressure manifests in various levels of Ukrainian society, from official bodies down to civil society actors like activists and community leaders. Given the high stakes involved, defense against the "other" is prioritized over engagement, inclusion or mutual understanding. Even discourses of peace have been viewed with suspicion, as certain peacemaking efforts are equated with making concessions with a violent and powerful aggressor that "needs to be stopped."

In this kind of environment, wanting to speak to or include the "other," in this case pro-Russian Ukrainians, includes a risk of being labelled a traitor to the nation. Ideological exclusion is deliberately fostered by certain actors, with dialogue advocates accordingly being labelled as dangerously naive at best or collaborators at worst. This trend can be bolstered by foreign donors who, though typically advocating for inclusion as part of a liberal peacebuilding framework, frame anti-discrimination policies to identity markers like gender, ability, sexual orientation or ethnicity while ignoring ideological affiliation. This can entrench a mindset that ideological identities are not worth defending and may actually be legitimate targets for attack. In such contexts, dialogue advocates will need to take into account structural opposition to dialogue that can prove hostile or even violent.

Additional complications can arise in contexts, like Ukraine, where ideological identities are underlied by emotionally-fraught historical narratives orbiting a recent, violent past. The current conflict between pro-Russian and pro-European/Ukrainian identities has been linked to WWII-era armed struggles involving local independence movements. Political scientist Tatiana Zhurzhenko and her colleagues have called these dynamics "memory wars" in which traumatic historical moments are given new life in narratives linking one's political and ideological opponents to past atrocities. These narratives are often selective in nature and fail to acknowledge the harm done by one's own side.

For ideologically pro-Russian citizens, pro-Europeans/Ukrainians are linked to Ukrainian nationalist movements from the mid-20th century who had, at times, collaborated with the Nazis. These narratives have been repeated in Russian-language media outlets, which have framed pro-European Ukrainians as "neo-Nazis" and "fascists," with pro-Russian Ukrainains portrayed as liberators. On the other side, pro-Russians are framed as traitors to the Ukrainain cause, allied with violent forces which had perpetrated famine, genocide and subjugation upon Ukrainians during Soviet times. The current administration in Moscow, and the separatists that are seen as proxies for Russian military interests, are seen as extensions of repressive Soviet totalitarianism.

These attitudes are nothing new – Researcher Anastasiya Salnykova has documented these attitudes among pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian partisans in the far east and west of the country before the 2014 revolution. Members of both groups have long been found to express skepticism of dialogue or deliberation, sometimes even preferring legislative or majoritarian force to resolve these deep-seated tensions. The war, as it were, exacerbated existing patterns and made it more difficult to humanize or even legitimize the other side of the divide. Dialogue advocates need to be aware of how historical trends might fuel narratives that frame ideological "others" in moral terms like good and evil, which affects whether a group will feel safe in the presence of the other.


The "sides" in ideological identity conflicts are hard to pin down

The second point I want to draw attention to is how it can be hard to talk about the different "sides" involved in conflicts driven by ideological identities, and this has a major impact on promoting or facilitating dialogue.

For one, ideology can be entirely invisible when compared to markers like race, ethnicity or, depending on the situation, even religion and culture. Ideological partisans like liberals/conservatives or pro-Russians/Ukrainians may be able to hide their worldview or "pass" among members of other categories. If people feel like it is not "safe" to reveal their ideological status, they may be hesitant to reveal themselves even among researchers or practitioners.

This means that it can be hard for dialogue organizers to find members of different groups to include in a process. In fact, it can be difficult just knowing how many people in a community identify with whichever ideological positions are salient. Without this kind of information, it's hard to figure out how strongly the issues are affecting a community, which means that the stories people tell of ideological discrimination or safety-related concerns are at risk of being dismissed or delegitimized as anecdotal.

There are also more specific factors that make it complicated to talk about "sides" in certain contexts. In the North American culture war, for example, there's been a lot of recent research about how polarization and "social sorting" might complicate efforts to map out who believes what and how those beliefs impact our identities and place in society.

In 2018, political scientist Lilliana Mason released her book Uncivil Agreement, where she describes the phenomenon of "social sorting" and the impact it's had on who fights whom and why. She defines sorting as the way diverse groups start aligning into overarching "teams" that become increasingly socially homogeneous. So, for example, conservatives are increasingly (although not exclusively) white, religious and rural while liberals are increasingly coloured, secular or urban. These "teams" are becoming increasingly monolithic, which leads to increased social polarization and dehumanization of the other side – both of which are barriers to dialogue that practitioners need to be aware of.

But while looking at the culture war through a lens of social sorting seems to clarify the issues and parties involved, it has the unfortunate side effect of minimizing the nuance existing on each side. Certain voices that don't fit the pattern can become even less visible or otherwise marginalized. In other words, as identity groups become more monolithic, key minorities that resist these sorting trends may not be included or even noticed by organizers of dialogue processes.

One controversial example is how, if racialized groups are more associated with liberals or conservatives, members of such groups who belong to the "wrong" side may claim they are not included in public conversation or that their voices are invisible. One such group are black conservatives, which prominent figures like economics Thomas Sowell and activist-lawyer Jamil Javani claim are being "written out of the discourse." Similar claims have been made about religious liberals, centrists or non-partisans who resent being sorted in with right-wing groups, especially during the Trump presidency. While an overwhelming number of white evangelicals seem to lean Republican, they say, ignoring those who don't makes a complex situation seem more black and white than it actually is. For dialogue practitioners and supporters, finding these outliers and finding ways to include them in the discourse may be difficult but crucial.
An example of sorting: social justice and environmental concern
Young FoEE | flickr
In Ukraine, pinning down ideologically-divided participants for dialogue processes has proven difficult for the exact opposite reason. Rather than being affected by a highly visible sorting process, like in the United States, Kyselova writes that societal conflict between pro-Ukrainans and pro-Russians has become largely invisible and hard to pin down. This is because, in her words, ideological partisans are not sorted at all and cannot be identified by "ethnic, linguistic...political differences, or structural economic inequalities between the regions."

In other words, these are identities rooted in ideas that don't match up with typical markers. Whether a person lives in government- or nongovernment-controlled areas won't be necessarily helpful when thinking of recruiting people for dialogue. In this case, it's based on self-identification and, as such, is incredibly fluid – Kyselova writes that these identities "are not stable, but instead are constantly shifting and mixing." Interestingly, this is a situation where normal polarization patterns are reversed – a person's ethnicity, in cases like in Bosnia or Rwanda, greatly impact their ideological leanings, but in Ukraine one's ideology can influence how you choose to ethnically identify. Kyselova notes that "some people who live in Ukraine and pwho] used to identify themselves as ethnic Russians in 2003 and now might identify as ethnic Ukrainians and vice versa." Dialogue facilitators who use ethnic belonging as a marker to try to recruit ideological partisans will find themselves deeply frustrated.

What's more, the ideas underlying these identities can undergo dramatic shifts in an incredibly short amount of time. Somebody might have been pro-European or pro-Russian in the past, for example, but then might change their mind because of current events, media exposure or the efforts of their friends and family. Related loyalties are likely to then go through a dramatic shift – if they participated in a dialogue on one side of the divide, they might very well show up on the other side in the future.

Holper and Kyselova argue that this is a process that might actually be sped up by dialogue. By including partisans in a dialogue, minds may change, ideological identities can shift and the "other" may, in effect, disappear. The writers are referring to pro-Russian Ukrainians who were documented as having changed their minds as a result of a given dialogue, but in theory this process can work the other way around, and in any dialogue process involving ideological partisans.

You could say that, through their "transformation," these identities are being "excluded" by means of their disappearance – this is of concern to researchers like Kraus and Kyselova. That said, there's no way of knowing whether an ideological partisan's views have actually changed or whether they've decided to conceal them or "pass" as a member of the opposing group because of social pressure (if there are more opposing partisans) or for concerns over safety. Facilitators may have to pay close attention when these "transformations" occur, as they may be a product of marginalization rather than true bridge-building.

Facilitators, in fact, can even contribute to this marginalization, especially in high-stakes contexts like in Ukraine where engaging with the other side can be viewed as "betrayal." According to Kyselova, many dialogue processes in Ukraine are about technical issues like government reform or displacement rather than ideological issues like the pro-Russian/Ukrainian divide. What's more, if someone in one of these dialogue sessions starts expressing a pro-Russian view, then sometimes facilitators feel pressure not to engage these opinions for fear of legitimizing a political "other" or facing social reprisals. This can lead to an atmosphere where one partisan group sees dialogue as a "biased" tool privileging one side over the other – which will be discussed more in the next section.

Kyselova writes that all these factors mean that "the conflict has no clearly identifiable sets of conflict parties and therefore the target groups of reconciliation...remain unclear."


Dialogue itself can be "weaponized" by one ideological side against the other

Following up on the last point, the third and possibly most concerning factor that complicates dialogue between ideologically-divided parties is how dialogue principles, or even the dialogue process itself, can be used by one group against the other. This doesn't necessarily have to be intentional or even grounded in fact – sometimes an ideological group perceives that dialogue is being weaponized against them, which is an issue that nevertheless needs addressing.

When it comes to the American culture war, a common example involves conversations about civility. Civility and dialogue are very connected, with the one promoted as part of the foundation of the other. Being civil's been described as having a set of norms or "ground rules" that help people work through high-stakes disagreements, holding to a base standard of respect for the other or making a brave attempt to humanize the other side of a controversial debate. Civility's said to promote not only dialogue but a healthy democracy in general, and without it the social fabric that holds us together might start falling apart – we lose sight of other people's dignity and we become more and more hostile to people we disagree with. Civility's been framed as a virtue that resists cheap shots against one's opponents, promotes genuine conversation in the face of polarization and consolidates the democratic glue that holds complex and diverse societies together.

When Donald Trump was elected, the many observers noted that the country descended further into polarization, mutual hostility and misunderstanding – some, however, promoted civility and dialogue as a way to try to address deep wounds in the US. These voices did not go unchallenged.

Criticisms of both civility and dialogue emerged out of a concern with historically underprivileged groups. The case was made, time and again, that black, queer, trans and other communities have long been marginalized by powerful actors who appropriate the language of civility and dialogue. Minorities and their allies are told to stop being so "loud," and that if they want their needs to be taken seriously they'd "need to calm down." Critics of civility said that this places an undue burden on communities who might not have the luxury of remaining calm in the face of systemic discrimination.

Not only that, but dialogue itself was framed as a weapon used by oppressive actors in bad faith in order to quash resistance to the status quo. This was for a number of different reasons. For one, since dialogue has at times been associated with being "calm," angry protests or mass resistance against injustice was delegitimized for not "engaging enough" with the other side. Also, the rise of neo-Nazis and white supremacists to national stature was another reason to distrust dialogue – why should people speak to them? Promoting dialogue was seen as allowing dangerous ideas to proliferate and find new audiences, which was triggering for groups that felt that their enemies needed to be fought in the name of liberal values instead of compromised with. That, and some of these controversial groups even started using the language of dialogue in order to promote their ideas, leading many left-leaning activists to proclaim that dialogue had become a weapon of white supremacy and the "alt-right."

This caused major confusion as different groups began to perceive dialogue in different ways. For some, it's something to be defended against. For others, it's a way to legitimize your ideas and spread your worldview. For many long-term facilitators, however, it remains a way to uncover the different needs various communities have and attempt to build a common future together – in contexts where people feel triggered or otherwise threatened, however, this sort of approach can be seen as naive or dangerous. Even well-intentioned advocates of dialogue have been seen as unwitting collaborators of "dangerous" groups that had to be stopped. In situations like these, dialogue ceases to be seen as ideologically neutral, and there may need to be extra steps taken by facilitators and dialogue organizers to convince the relevant groups that dialogue is not going to be weaponized against them by partisan opponents.
In Ukraine, discourses of weaponization eventually led to international spats, especially over media events called "telebridges." These are live broadcast events where two groups speak to each other, often framed as a dialogue or debate. In the summer of 2019 there was an attempt on the part of Kremlin-owned Channel 1 to set up a telebridge between Kyiv and Moscow on the topic of the ongoing Donbas conflict. It was called "Let's Have a Talk" and was marketed as a Russian-brokered attempt at civil dialogue, which caused major controversy.

This was in part due to the fact that Russia is seen, within Ukraine, as the aggressor in the conflict. Many Ukrainians feel victimized, even violated by Russia, and to have a perceived aggressor tell you that "it's time to talk" while the conflict hasn't been resolved was received as offensive or even dangerous. A common narrative within Ukraine is that Russia is attempting to destabilize the country as a consequence of its shift towards the EU and the West, and so what it needs to do is defend itself against Russia, not to talk.

Ukraine perceives itself as the weaker figure being pushed into dialogue by a more powerful actor that's perceived as hostile. Dialogue, when it ceases to be among equals or within a safe space, is seen as another tool to marginalize an already weakened group. The telebridge, as it happened, was subsequently denounced as an attempt at informational sabotage and a "provocation" by major political figures.

This fits into a broader narrative within Ukraine that making peace with an aggressor is impossible. In Kyselova's work, her interviewees have asked her, even if rhetorically, "how can you reconcile if we are victims?" In cases like these, dialogue is seen as manipulation or even a weapon against groups already struggling to hold their own.

The consequences of this kind of discourse, though, extends far past the official Ukraine-Russia relationship. Because tensions are so high, and because Russia is accused of using dialogue to weaken the country, local dialogue facilitators with hopes of bringing divided groups together are at risk of being called traitors. Dialogue meetings have been targets for harassment by far-right nationalist groups like the notorious "Right Sector," who have shown up at events to threaten participants. In such cases, the facilitators proved adept enough to de-escalate the situation and include the Right Sector members in the dialogue, but things could have easily turned out otherwise.

Certain civil society actors have recognized that, if they want to eventually stop the violence and create a peaceful future, at some point there will have to be steps to include pro-Russian and even separatist citizens in dialogue. But, given the current political climate, showing signs of inclusion towards pro-Russian ideological partisans leads to suspicion. Initiatives promoting dialogue have even been accused of collaborating with the Russian government as a kind of "hybrid warfare," which generally lowers the likelihood of pro-Russian partisans making their needs known, airing their grievances or even identifying themselves in public.

In situations like these, dialogue facilitators and organizers, should they choose to continue before the situation de-escalates, have the difficult task of convincing threatened partisans that dialogue is indeed well-intentioned and that it can be a safe space where people can try to build a common future. But given the fact that safety is a prerequisite for dialogue to take place, and that dialogue itself can sometimes be seen as a weapon, this is an incredibly hard thing to convince people of or embody within one's own practice.
Ukrainian citizen protesting the telemost
In this paper, I've identified three ways in which ideological identities affect dialogue processes in divided societies. First, ideological identities, as compared to other identity markers, are often unprotected or even overtly discriminated against. Second, the ambiguous status of an "ideological" identity means that it can be hard to understand where the lines are or who belongs to which group, making it difficult to find out who should be talking to whom. And third, if dialogue processes become ideologically associated with one partisan group, they can be seen as "weaponized" against the other side.

Given that this is a paper outlining the issues and obstacles involved, it doesn't paint the most optimistic picture. But if we're serious about promoting dialogue in an increasingly ideologically divided world, identifying the problem is a necessary first step. If these are recognized as legitimate issues and taken seriously by concerned groups, then we can work to develop strategies to mitigate the negative impact these factors have and help different groups understand that their needs are important, that dialogue often feels uncomfortable but that that building a future together may, indeed, be the only way out of the messes we find ourselves in.
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Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied identity-based conflict at St. Paul University in 2021.

Banner photo by Ivan Bandura on wikicommons
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