Strict language policing has cropped up in part because the left has felt under attack for years, says Peter T Coleman, a Columbia professor who studies intractable conflict.

Coleman found research from Michele Gelfand offered a compelling explanation for the increasing hostility within the left. Gelfand’s insight, as Coleman explains it, is that “when groups are under duress and threat, they tend to close ranks and have very clear norms. Violators of those norms are really shunned and shamed.”

Coleman points out that even though Democrats won the 2020 election, the left and its values are still under fire: Fox News attracts the most viewers, abortion rights are being obliterated, and voter suppression tactics are being made law. This context creates a “tight culture” within the left that demands people in the group “fall in line.” While this behavior is motivated by the need to mobilize against an outside threat, ironically, it can result in arrested development.

The other issue suffocating meaningful conversation is the adversarial nature of debate embedded in American culture. “Debate is a game to win,” says Coleman, who published The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization earlier this year. “I’m listening to find flaws in your argument that I can weaponize against you to show you that I’m right.” That’s the opposite of dialogue, which, when facilitated properly, is a process of discovery and learning.

Dialogue is what Coleman and his colleagues try to cultivate at the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University. The lab facilitates conversations between people on opposing sides of divisive issues, like abortion and gun control, and studies the results. Researchers track participants’ emotions – asking them to listen to audio of the discussion, to follow what their emotions were like throughout the conversation.