The Dance of Polarization (and the Next Step Beyond)

This piece was published as an op/ed in the Baltimore Sun on April 30, 1996.


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 expression 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. Pat Buchanan, for example, 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.

Something analogous 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 with.

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, etc.

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.

The polarization 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, we also honor the value of a coherent social order.

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 was has yet attained.

The idea that “the truth lies between the extremes” would be the cliche 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 — took values that seem to be in tension and integrated them into a form that is not just a compromise or a lowest common denominator. At their level of integration, one might be at once freer than the libertines and more disciplined than the strait-laced. One might be both a better warrior than the hawks and a better peacemaker than the doves.

The best resolution of our culture 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.

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