Thursday, November 1, 2012

Why Are We So Polarized?

Once upon a time the world was a perfect union between two gods named Nut and Geb who were locked in eternal embrace but Shu, the god of emptiness, got between them and pushed them apart, creating an opening for the world to exist.

The story of the separation of heaven and earth is how an ancient people explained how the world came to be.  A division had to occur before people could exist.  Why is that?  What does that say about human nature and what light does it shed on what is happening right now in American politics where public opinion has divided and gone to the extremes?

Our tendency as humans to view things in terms of opposites seems natural enough.  In fact, discovery of the opposites – good and bad, odd and even, light and dark – was a major development in Western philosophy and is a necessary step in the creation of consciousness in a person.  When a child is born it makes no distinction between itself and its mother.  As it grows, it begins to realize that the mother is something separate.  The notion of an other is formed.  The encounter with the other “confronting one in enmity or attracting one in love” is the first and what psychologist C.G. Jung would arguably claim the ultimate experience of the soul.

In a surprisingly accessible book entitled The Mystery of The Coniunctio: Alchemical Image of Individuation, Jungian analyst Edward Edinger calls the opposites the “dynamo” of the human psyche or soul:
“The flow of libido, or psychic energy, is generated by the polarization of opposites in the same way as electricity flows between the positive and negative poles of an electrical circuit.  So, whenever we are attracted toward a desired object, or react against a hated object, we’re caught up in the drama of the opposites.”
In short, the constellation of opposites is what animates us.

Edinger observes that what occurs within an individual’s psyche is a process also going on between two people as well as a process taking place within the whole community.  If that is true, then Edinger’s description of how a person’s ego forms and asserts itself may shed some light on why politics in America has become so polarized:
“The young ego is obliged to establish itself as something definite and therefore it must say, ‘I am this and I am not that.’ No-saying is a crucial feature of initial ego development.  But the result of this early operation is that a shadow is created.  All that I announce I am not then goes into the shadow.”
In Jungian psychology, the “ego” is the conscious part of the mind, the one that says, “I am” and “I am not.”  The “shadow” is the unconscious part, which the ego does not recognize in itself.  It consists of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings and instincts.  The “psyche” is the totality of the mind, the conscious and unconscious parts.

When the emerging ego identifies itself with one of a pair of opposites – whether conceived as good and bad, black and white, rich and poor, left and right, male and female, gay and straight – it necessarily rejects the other of the pair as a possibility for itself.  The reason for this is that the immature ego is not yet strong enough to carry the weight of both possibilities within itself at the same time, the negative aspect being much harder to bear than the positive one.  (However, positive aspects may also be hidden in one’s shadow, especially in people with low self-esteem.) 

The same situation can be observed in our communities.  Groups have identified themselves with one of a pair of opposites and cannot bear the weight of insight into their shadows.  As a result, within the community there is very little perceived common ground – that open space in the middle where the virtues of tolerance, mutuality, sympathy and support thrive.  Consequently, these virtues are quickly disappearing from our cultural and political landscape.  

To make matters worse, those who seek to hoard the public good, dominating by power and wealth, exploit our weaknesses and blind spots using the oldest trick in the book: divide and conquer.

As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, convincing people that they have nothing in common with each other and should just take care of themselves is a good way to keep folks isolated, afraid and in the dark.

So how do we change as a nation and grow?   

Jung believed that the purpose of human existence is “to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”

Sooner or later, if we are to grow, that split off shadow must be encountered again as an inner reality.  Nevertheless, how can we embrace something we are truly unconscious of?
Edinger suggests we look at the opposites:
“You find them scrutinizing whatever you love and hate.  That’s easy to say but exceedingly difficult to do.  The reason it’s so difficult is that whenever feelings of love and hate come upon us, they are not accompanied by inclinations to scrutiny.”
Ask yourself:

“Who do I hate?”

“What do I fight against?”

Whatever your answer is, know that it is a part of you. 


Cynthia Wylie said...

I am so glad to see another one of your insightful and enlightening blogs. And how timely! I don't hate anyone. Concerning the political landscape, I heard that according to a broad poll, Americans agree on over 70% of all issues including the thorny ones. That's pretty amazing! Whenever I get an email from a friend or family member from the "other party" I write that back to them. It always softens their stance.

M H Ward said...

The idea that the "99%" have no common interest is central to Marxx and he gives best expression to it in the Communist Manifesto. No doubt Chomsky read his Marxx!