Perspective for a Time of Deep Discord: Why We See Things So Differently (and Why Just Trying To Talk About It Is So Often Not Helpful)

In these times of extreme social/political polarization it can be unsettling—indeed frightening—just how differently people with conflicting views can see things. We can legitimately wonder if the discord we encounter today will in time put the whole democratic experiment in peril.

If we are to move forward, we need to better understand why we tend to think in polarized terms in the first place. We also need to better grasp why in our time polarization can be so extreme and communication so difficult. And if possible, we need an answer to how we might move beyond today’s often intractable-seeming differences.

Why do we see things so differently?

A simple but radical recognition helps get us started. We tend to assume that conflicting beliefs reflect simple differences of opinion. But the evidence suggests something deeper. At the least we confront differences in values. And I would suggest that differences have even deeper origins. What we see reflects differences not just in what we think, but how we think.

We get a hint of more fundamental influences with the simple observation that elections tend to be closer than we would predict if people voted only on the basis of the quality of candidates or the particulars of policy. With high frequency a few percentage points determine outcomes. More than we would expect, the voting public segregates into groups of roughly equal size.

Looking at the level of metaphor brings further insight. In his 1996 book Moral Politics, linguist George Lakoff proposes that conservative voters tend to be attracted to “strict father” images and values while liberals are more drawn to language that suggests a “nurturant parent.” MSNBC commentator Chris Mathews is credited with being the first to use the terms “daddy party” and “mommy party” to describe modern Republicans and Democrats.

This interpretation is obviously simplistic in that it lumps together all manner of differing views. But it gets at something important. Psychology speaks of sensibilities that are more “archetypally masculine” and more “archetypally feminine.” Alternatively we could speak metaphorically of harder and softer tendencies. On the Right we find greater identification with competition, with unfettered individual rights, with hard-and-fast moral codes, with clear national boundaries, with gun rights, and with military might—each leanings of a “harder” sort. On the Left we find greater identification with cooperation, with concern for the less advantaged, with acceptance of differences in moral assumptions, with more open borders, with gun control, and with diplomacy as the preferred first response in the face of conflict—each reflective of “softer” leanings.

This recognition of an underlying polar architecture is significant theoretically in that it suggests that there is something basic in how understanding works that has us divide things in two and do so in a very particular way. More practically it helps us begin to understand political alliances that otherwise make little sense—politics do indeed make strange bedfellows. It also makes the fact that people often support policies that would seem not to be to their self interest (at least their economic interest) less puzzling.

Strange Bedfellows

A closer look at some of the very different groups that commonly identify with being conservative or liberal helps fill out these more practical implications. “Harder” and “softer” inclinations can take a lot of different forms and can be held by people who in more obvious ways could not be more different.

Groups that commonly identify with the political right (along with the particular “harder” inclinations they tend to ascribe to):

  1. Big business and the wealthy [identification with competition and material values]
  2. The religious right [identification with absolute moral distinctions (as with opposition to abortion and gay rights)]
  3. White rural and working class populations [Identification with hard work (and pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps), the nation state (in a my-country-right-or-wrong sense), and racial and ethnic differences]
  4. The military [identification with national boundaries and with military action as a response to threat]
  5. Regan-style Republicans [Identification with local control and a mistrust of government as a vehicle for social good]
  6. Libertarians [Identification with individual autonomy and freedom from collective influence]

Groups that commonly identify with the political Left (along with the particular “softer” inclinations they tend to ascribe to):

  1. Social justice advocates [Identification with the disadvantaged—the poor, racial minorities, women, and those of differing sexuality]
  2. Advocates of liberal/socialist economic policy [Identification with the sharing of resources and bottom-up approaches to decision-making]
  3. Environmentalists [Identification with the well-being of “mother” nature]
  4. Philosophical globalists (as contrasted with purely economic globalists) [Identification at least in part as global citizens—and within ones own country, with diversity as a good and with liberal immigration policies]
  5. Academics and intellectuals [Identification with diplomatic rather than military responses to conflict, moral pluralism, and government as a compassionate parent who protects and cares for all]
  6. Media and Hollywood types [Identification with creative freedoms and diversity of expression]

Given the dramatically different ways these basic polar identifications can manifest, strange-bedfellow alliances and policies that might seem not in a group’s immediate self-interest should not surprise us.

How Creative Systems Theory helps fill out what we see

CST helps us answer three key questions implied in what I have described. First, why do we find polar identification in the first place? Second, why does polarity predictably express this curious kind of symmetry—setting archetypally masculine versus archetypally feminine, harder-versus-softer. And third, how do we best understand the multiple, often dramatically different kinds of identification within each side of this polar picture.

We can miss that the first question should be a question at all. Polarity seems to be just how things are—as the saying goes, “there are two sides to every question.” But very few questions, in fact, have only two sides. More often multiple factors interplay and those factors affect different groups in a variety of different ways. There is no obvious reason why polarity is what we should see.

CST proposes that the reason we think in polar terms is that doing so is inherent to how human intelligence works. Polar thinking is not limited to social/political differences. We find it with understanding of every sort—matter juxtaposes with energy, subjective with objective, humankind with nature. Robert Frost observed that, “It almost scares a man the way things come in pairs.”

CST offers an explanation for why this might be so, although full understanding requires some familiarity with the theory (see The Evolution of Polarity). CST describes how human intelligence is structured to support our toolmaking, meaning-making—we could say simply “creative”—natures. It also describes how polarity plays an essential role with human developmental processes—of all sorts. Such creative/formative processes begin in an unbroken whole, bud off new form, then progress as an evolving sequence of polar relationships.

CST also directly addresses the second question. It describes how the right-versus-left polar architecture I’ve described is predicted by polarity’s role in formative process. That evolving sequence of polar relationships juxtaposes what remains of formative process’s original whole with increasingly manifest forms. We experience the time-specific “original whole” aspects as having archetypally feminine qualities. And we experience the time-specific “manifest form” aspects as having more archetypally masculine qualities.

A more basic way of thinking about political alliances helps make the connection to this underlying mechanism. CST delineates how, beneath the surface of more obvious opposites, polarity at its most basic juxtaposes unity/connectedness on one hand with difference/distinction on the other. The wealthy, those most concerned with individual freedom, farmers and coal miners, those who are most strongly religious, each, though in relationship to very different concerns, identify with difference (at least difference with others—they can feel particularly strong bonds with their own kinds). Those who advocate for the disadvantaged, people who identify with leveling the economic playing field, nature lovers, postmodern academics, those who think of themselves as “global citizens,” and individuals of more creative inclination each in their own ways identify with dissolving differences (whether the boundaries that establish differences are those that separate people from one another, people from nature, or traditional ideas about right and wrong).

Note an important implication of CST’s explanation for why polarity manifests as it does. It suggests that polarity itself it not a problem. Polar opposites work together to support and drive our audaciously innovative natures. CST proposes that the basic relationship between polar opposites is “procreative.” We find evidence for this creative conclusion in the political domain. Historian Arthur Schlesinger described American history progressing through alternating periods in which more private-interest-oriented and more public-purpose-oriented sentiments most prevailed. Over the history of modern democratic government, we’ve seen a back and forth between more right-hand and more left-hand advocacies.

With regard to the third question—how we best understand the multiple, often dramatically different kinds of identification within each side of this polar picture— CST also offers beginning insight. The details of the Creative Systems Personality Typology, CST’s framework for making sense of temperament differences, are again beyond the scope of this podcast, but the general picture it offers provides important perspective (see CSPTHome.org).

The Typology describes how we can understand beliefs and values that come with each of the more conservative and liberal postures noted earlier as predicted expressions of particular personality constellations. It goes on to delineate how we can understand the sixteen basic constellations it describes in terms of specific balances of archetypally-masculine and archetypally-feminine tendencies. The fact of “strange bedfellow” alliances follows. We find personality styles that manifest biases toward the harder or softer side of things scattered all over the temperament map. (Some examples for those familiar with the CSPT. We most commonly find archetypally masculine bias of a business/wealth-focused sort with Late/Upper/Outers and Middle/Upper/Outers, of a more fundamentalist or blue collar sort with Middle/Lower/Outers, and of a more individualist/libertarian sort with Early/Uppers, particular Early/Upper/Outers. Beyond the general archetypally masculine bias, these people could not be more different. Similarly, we most commonly find archetypally feminine biases of a post-modern/academic/intellectual sort with Late/Upper/Inners, identification with the less advantaged with Lower/Inners of any sort, and strongest environmentalist identification with Earlies. Beyond the general archetypally feminine bias, again these people could not be more different.)

These temperament-related observations suggest a recognition key to larger understanding. They offer that there may be method in the madness of the depth of our human differences. I’ve observed that polarity has an important creative purpose. If personality style differences are products of the parts of who we are as systems that as individuals we most live in, then there may also be a good creative reason for the very different ways we see our worlds.

This recognition in turn hints at something further that I will elaborate on shortly. It suggests that getting beyond today’s seemingly intractable polarization might be an option. Right now, such differences can seem beyond us to bridge. But if they ultimately serve us, there is no reason to assume they cannot do so again. CST goes further to propose that Cultural Maturity’s changes, by making it possible to more consciously engage and make use of the diverse aspects of our complex natures, should result in these differences serving us in even more powerful ways in the future. It also argues that this result will be essential to our future well-being as a species.

A Collision of Different Worlds

For these claims to fully make sense—and before that, for what we encounter today to fully make sense—we need to appreciate just how deep the differences in how we see things go (this even in times when differences are not the same kind of obstacle they can be today). Given the multiple dynamics involved, it should not at all be surprising that just trying to talk about differences of opinion is rarely as helpful as we might hope.

In fact we often interpret things in radically different ways even when no real difference exists. Conclusions can become distorted as a simple consequence of being on opposite sides of a debate. When the fans of two rival football teams argue a controversial call, to a remarkable degree what they “see” is not the same (even with video replay).

In the football example, at least we at least agree on the basic rules of the game. If we add actual differences in belief, difficulty is compounded. And if, in addition, conflicting positions have to do with underlying differences in how we organize experience—as with right-versus-left alliances and personality style differences—in an even more real and basic sense we can live in different worlds.

In teaching about temperament, I will often break up a group I’m working with according to basic personality style, then send these temperament-specific groups off to different rooms with a list of questions: What kinds of work are you most attracted to? What do you most like to do for fun? What is your concept of God/spirituality? How do you know if someone loves you? Eventually, I bring everyone back together and have each group share their answers to these questions. The answers can be so different that people in contrasting groups can at first doubt that the other groups are being serious. I particularly like how dramatically different answers can be to the question “how do you know if someone loves you.” People are left amazed that individuals with different personality styles could ever make relationships work.

A further, easily startling dynamic that accompanies this deeper kind of difference complicates things even more. We can encounter conclusions that are in effect just made up—self serving “fake news.” This is not intentional deception. Rather, again, it is a product of how our cognitive mechanisms work.

I’m reminded of classic “split brain” research done over fifty years ago (research done with people who had the fibers that connect the two sides of the brain—the corpus collossum—cut as a treatment for severe epileptic seizures). Researchers found a most provocative result when they gave instructions to only one hemisphere—say to move in a particular way. When the other hemisphere was asked why the person had moved, rather than saying it didn’t know, it would make up an explanation, often an elaborate one.

We now know that popular beliefs about “right brain” and “left brain” differences are highly simplistic. And the “wiring” gaps with differences in personality style are not so absolute. But to a remarkable degree, not only do people with different cognitive styles live in different worlds, they are all too happy to fill in the blanks where holes exist in the worldview that comes with their particular kind of cognitive organization.

The psychotherapeutic approach called “Parts Work” that I introduce in my most recent book, Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, provides further support for this near “separate realities” picture and how it can result in distorted conclusions. I’ve observed that Parts Work provides the most effective methodology I know for catalyzing and supporting culturally mature understanding. With Parts Work a person addresses the multiple aspects of his or her psyche as if they are characters in a play. Often a person’s parts reflect not just different opinions, but wholly different and nearly opposite realities. And like what we see with differences in personality style, individual parts will commonly fill in gaps in the “completeness” of their story. We might think that we would see this degree of separate functioning only in someone with “multiple personalities.” But in fact this is how things work in all of us. Sometimes parts most reflect personal tendencies—an angry part, a sensitive part, an intellectual part. But parts also commonly reflect more general/societal tendencies. Then you may get a more conservative part or a more liberal part, a more religious part or a more scientific part.

A central “rule” in Parts Work sheds further light on the roots of intractable conflict. It also highlights the necessary role culturally mature perspective plays in moving forward. That rule: Parts don’t get to talk to the world or to each other, only to the person doing the work. When a person gets caught up in polarized debate, a part within that person is locking horns with an opposite part in the other person. Inevitably the argument goes nowhere—for the simple reason that it was never about policy. Rather it was about which of two mutually exclusive patterns of cognitive organization, each a legitimate aspect of a larger reality, will prevail.

The Current Situation

I’ve described how human systems grow and evolve through a back and forth between more right-hand and more left-hand creative tendencies. If this is the case, how do we make sense of the modern social/political condition? With the extreme partisan gridlock we find today, back and forth is no longer generating creative results. There are multiple possible explanations. What we see could be a momentary blip—something we will soon get beyond. It is also possible that the reason is more dire, that we are witnessing governmental and societal collapse. But there are also big-picture explanations that are more ultimately consistent with hope. Each is in keeping with the broader concept of Cultural Maturity.

One explanation turns to the weakening of bonds that before have served as the basis for cooperation and compromise. In his book Democracy: A Case Study, David Moss observed that “In the end, it’s what we have in common that makes productive conflict possible.” In previous podcasts I’ve described how traditional cultural absolutes are today losing their past influence. In times past, such once-and-for-all beliefs gave us our shared rules to live by and a common sense of social identity. I’ve also described how we are beginning to step beyond our past need to divide humanity into “chosen people” and “evil others.” Shared animosities have before served to cement national bonds (as the saying goes “the enemy of my enemy is my friend’). Both of these changes are ultimately positive, predicted aspects of Cultural Maturity’s needed cultural “growing up.” But each also makes it more difficult to appreciate how differences may serve us.

Other Cultural Maturity–related factors again require reference to previous posts. I’ve introduced a couple CST concepts—the Dilemma of Trajectory and Transitional Absurdity—that have particular pertinence to today’s realities. CST views the time we live in as an in-between period linking modern age sensibilities and the possibility of Cultural Maturity’s more encompassing ways of understanding. I’ve described how this often-awkward time of transition can leave us feeling estranged from essential aspects of who we are (see the Dilemma of Trajectory). One of these aspects we might call our “connection to connectedness.” Its weakening is most readily felt in how disconnected we can be today from both nature and from our own bodies. But we also predictably see it in a loss of felt connection to our shared humanness and with this to our sense of common good. I think of this dynamic as playing a key role in what I have previously called humanity’s modern “crisis of purpose” (see Our Modern Crisis of Purpose). The concept of Transitional Absurdity adds the fact that attempting to apply modern age realities when they no longer serve us can result in some quite crazy-seeming dynamics—including extreme polarization (see Transitional Absurdity). What we see with these additional mechanisms is appropriately unsettling. But it is also the case that each is predicted by the concept of Cultural Maturity. Because of this, it is not inconsistent with an ultimately positive future.

One additional explanation for why the old polar back and forth has stopped serving us has particular pertinence to future possibilities. It may no longer be working for a more specifically creative reason. CST proposes that modern democratic government is not the ideal and end-point that we tend to assume it to be, that more mature stages in how we think about governance predictably lie ahead. It also describes how a next chapter in government depends on the ability to think in the more encompassing and complete ways that come with Cultural Maturity. If this picture is accurate, then what we see today would be expected as part of a time of transition. If accurate, it also provides further evidence as far as where the needed antidote to gridlock and intractable animosities necessarily lie.

What are we to do?

What is the appropriate response to today’s extreme social/political polarization? Especially if one’s particular “side” is not doing well, it might seem that the task is to figure out how to make its argument more convincing. But if culturally mature mature policy is our goal, sides are not what our task is about. While blocking efforts by the other side might provide short-term benefit, as a long-term strategy it only hastens non-functionality.

Efforts toward compromise might seem a more mature response, but even they ultimately fall short. In the end, splitting the difference fails us just as fundamentally as siding with one pole or the other. In my book Necessary Wisdom: Meeting the Challenge of a New Cultural Maturity, I ended each issue-specific chapter with a list of what CST calls Separation Fallacies (more right-hand fallacies), Unity Fallacies (more left-hand fallacies), and Compromise Fallacies. With today’s challenges, falling off the right- or left-hand side of the road or walking down the white line in the middle each leave us equally short of where we need to go.

CST proposes that in the end, not only is the task not compromise, it isn’t even mutual understanding—though that can be a start. Rather it is the cognitive reordering that produces culturally mature thought—what CST calls Integrative Meta-perspective. Integrative Meta-perspective allows us to at once step back from and more deeply engage the rich complexities that make us who we are (see Integrative Meta-perspective). We find what our times ask of us in the more encompassing and systemic kind of understanding that results.

I’ve proposed that the depths of our differences ultimately serve us. And I’ve gone further to claim that in the future they may do so in even more powerful ways. With Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes, for the first time we are able to step back and recognize how polarity reflects underlying complementary—the juxtaposition of mutually important creative aspects. With the multiplicity of viewpoints that I’ve described with personality differences and with Parts Work, we see something similar. Culturally mature perspective lets us hold a larger systemic picture—with regard to particular issues, and ultimately with regard to reality as a whole. In the future, this ability will be more and more critical. Once over Cultural Maturity’s threshold, increasingly it becomes common sense (see A New Common Sense).

The reflections in this post shed important further light on what I have proposed is the best argument for the concept of Cultural Maturity. I’ve written extensively about how the most critical challenges of our time require mature systemic perspective if we are just to understand the questions, much less find useful answers. Many of these challenges—for example, nuclear proliferation, climate change, the growing gap between the world’s haves and have-nots, and the need to define progress in more sustainable ways—could be our undoing if we fail to bring the necessary greater maturity of perspective to bear. Our inability to get beyond today’s seemingly intractable difference in the end presents no less a threat. It could put the possibility of effective governance increasingly out of reach. And it would be doing so at a time when wise decision-making could not be more critical.

We face that not just our future well-being, but perhaps our survival depends on a deeper and more creative understanding of our human differences. The concept of Cultural Maturity suggests that while such understanding might seem beyond us, there is legitimate reason for hope. Importantly, the new, more conscious relationship to differences culturally mature perspective provides is not something we need to invent. The potential for the needed cognitive reordering is developmentally built into who we are. Hope for the future thus requires only the courage to take needed next steps. Arguably, our only hope lies in this willingness to expand who we are and how we see our worlds.

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