THE DANCE OF POLARIZATION
And The Next Step Beyond
by Andrew Bard Schmookler
For those of us who
feel ourselves to be participants in America's present culture war, it
is difficult to understand the conflict other than as a battle between
an "Us" who are right and a "Them" who are wrong. Whether the issue is
law and order, the expressions of human sexuality, the balance between
rights and responsibilities, or any of today's other charged and divisive
issues, we see ourselves as embodying wisdom and virtue and our opponents
as misguided and possibly even evil.
This view of our
cultural polarization leads naturally to a view of how the conflict should
be resolved: by the victory of our side in the arenas of persuasion and
political power. On the right, for example, Pat Buchanan has used military
images of fighting house by house, street by street, to "take our culture
back." Progressives on the left are calling for mobilization to block
the advancing forces of the Christian Coalition.
For the combatants,
the culture war is about division. But let's look at the polarized sides
as components of a cultural whole and inquire how polarization occurs
in human systems and what a better alternative might be.
Polarization is something
we can see happening constantly in human relationships, on scales large
and small. I have observed some relatively benign examples in my own life.
When I drive with
my mother -- who can envision accidents occurring at every turn -- she
voices the need for caution to a degree I regard as extreme. In response,
an impulse arises in me to drive less carefully than I usually do. In
the presence of what I see as my mother's over-cautiousness, I have to
work to maintain my more typical prudence. This dynamic leads to a division
of labor concerning the polarity of caution and daring.
happens between me and my 18-year-old son. To my mind, he procrastinates
too much; I lean on him to take care of business more promptly and reliably.
His tendency toward procrastination may have developed in reaction to
my tighter relationship with my inner Taskmaster. But whatever its origin,
when I am in his presence, I tend to become even more like myself than
usual: my taking-care-of-business muscles get tighter than even I am comfortable
You have probably
noticed how married couples can polarize in various ways -- between the
slob and the compulsive straightener, the spendthrift and the miser, the
one who does all the feeling and the one who is always rational and controlled,
When people divide
on an issue, unless they find a resolution, they tend to push each other
further out toward the opposite ends of the spectrum. Each end represents
a value that is legitimate, but that also must be balanced against another
value. Polarization is one way the system preserves balance, but it is
an unstable and conflictual balance. Far better if the actors in the system,
instead of dividing into mirror-image opposites of one another, could
achieve the healthier balance of integration.
But such integration
is difficult. It represents that high human achievement: wisdom. In the
absence of wisdom, people are compelled to struggle in their folly. Each
side, wedded to its half-truth, sees the other as the problem. But the
problem is a property of the system: the polarization and conflict are
symptoms of the failure to find a way to bring together those values that
are in tension.
of our culture around a variety of "hot-button" issues --such as whether
or not to prohibit the burning of the American flag, to stigmatize the
birth of children to unmarried women, to teach the canon of the Western
tradition, to execute criminals, to accept homosexuality, to allow religion
into our public institutions-- represents a failure to integrate a deeper
polarity that has always been at the heart of the American experiment.
On the one hand, we cherish the value of the free flowering of the human
spirit; on the other hand, we also honor the value of a coherent social
The present battle
between the defenders of the traditional social order and the advocates
of more countercultural values is a message to us of a challenge yet unmet
by our present civilization: to find an integration at a higher level
of human wisdom than either side of that war has yet attained.
The idea that "the
truth lies between the extremes" would be the cliché it appears to be
if it meant only the need for a mechanical compromise, a splitting of
the difference. But the real truth lies not between but above the extremes.
The great spiritual leaders of humankind -- a Buddha or a Jesus or a Gandhi
or a St. Francis or a Dalai Lama -- are people who have integrated values
that seem to be in tension into a form that is not just a compromise on
a lowest common denominator. At their level of integration, one might
be at once freer than the libertines and more disciplined than the straightlaced.
One might be both a better warrior than the hawks and a better peacemaker
than the doves.
The best resolution
of our culture war is not to be found through our present mode of conflict.
Neither is it to be found in mere centrist political compromise. The real
challenge is for both sides to work together toward an integration at
that higher level where opposites no longer seem so irrevocably opposed,
where the expressions of our liberty and the requirements of our civilized
order achieve a fuller harmony.
No easy task. But
the more quickly we can move out of our stance as partisan combatants
into a position from which we can see how we are in this dance of polarization
together, the sooner we can get to the real work.
Bard Schmookler's books include Beyond Dispute: Working Through
America's Moral Polarization and Fool's Gold: The Fate of Values
in a World of Goods. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org