How Understanding Why We See Such Extreme Polarization Today Is Key To Getting Beyond It

I gave my most recent book Perspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord the subtitle: “Why We See Such Extreme Social and Political Polarization and What We Can Do About it.”  Today conflict between ideological factions has become so pronounced that real conversation about a great many topics has become largely impossible. Such growing polarization is not at all just a U.S problem. We find it around the world. And more and more we find a particularly troubling kind of double polarization, not just extreme polarization between left and right political ideologies, but with populist, anti-authoritarian thinking on both the left and the right, at once a polarization between above and below.

Interestingly, I have an easier time with identifying solutions than I do confidently providing explanation for what we see. It is clear that if we can’t get beyond today’s extreme polarization, we are going to be in trouble. But it is also clear that we aren’t making the kind of progress we might hope for. In the book I describe how we have seen significant backsliding over the last twenty or thirty years. It is not clear just why.

But the question of why we see what we do is critically important. The consequences could be very different depending on the answer. And depending on our answer, what is being asked of us could also be very different. With several explanations, major changes—at least in the short term—may not be needed. But there are also reasons to think we may be dealing with dynamics of a more fundamental sort.

It is possible that the extreme polarization we witness today is a product simply of how change in social systems has always worked. Polarization does not at all require disagreement. Creative Systems Theory—the body of conceptual work that I most draw on in my efforts—describes how thinking in polar terms follows from how human intelligence works. There is also the two-steps-forward-one-step-back nature of change. But the degree of backsliding we witness would suggest that more than just this is at work.

It is also possible that what we witness could follow from dynamics more particular to our time but which still have familiar antidotes. Today’s extreme views might reflect momentary regression in face of today’s many highly demanding challenges. It is in the nature of human systems that they will often polarize in response to demands that threaten to overwhelm them. If the challenges are temporary and the overwhelm is not that great, patience and perspective—at least if we can avoid making destructive choices in response to being overwhelmed—should be all that is needed to take care of things.

Of greater concern, what we see could also be a consequence of more ultimately overwhelming challenges and, with them, regression of a more pronounced—and less easily addressed—sort. Many of today’s critical concerns—for example, globalization, climate change, job loss through automation, the dramatic changes of the information revolution, the growing gap between the world’s haves and have-nots, and the loss of familiar cultural guideposts in so many areas of our lives (from generally agreed upon moral codes to clearly defined national and religious allegiances)—are more specifically new and could result in overwhelm of a particularly severe sort. It is important to appreciate how regressive dynamics over recent decades have spanned the globe. We see them in the growing prevalence of authoritarian rule in fledgling democracies. We also find them with the rising tide of fundamentalism in the Islamic East. If what we witness is primarily a product of such more deeply challenging and often global dynamics, successfully moving forward could be considerably more difficult. Indeed, what effectively moving forward asks may be more than we are capable of.

Importantly, there is an observation with particular pertinence to whether we can legitimately be optimistic about the future hidden in these descriptions. If this observation is accurate, while it doesn’t make things easier, it does alter the possible implications. Aspects of this easily overwhelming picture—for example, the loss of familiar guideposts in many areas of our lives—may be products of the kind of changes that Creative Systems Theory describes with concept of Cultural Maturity. The demands that come with Cultural Maturity’s “growing up” as a species—including taking greater responsibility and in our choices, better tolerating life’s real uncertainties and complexities, and acknowledging the fact of real limits—require that we face realities that before now we could not have tolerated.

If such demands are playing a major role in what we see, this would further increases what our times require of us—considerably. But it would also increase the likelihood that we can get through these difficult times. It would mean that what we are feeling overwhelmed by may be at least in part be what in the end will be required to save us. We might best think of today’s backsliding as part of as an awkward-in-between time in a predicted developmental process.

Whether Cultural Maturity’s changes contribute significantly to what we see today is impossible to know from where we sit. The concept itself can be debated. And because it is a big-picture concept, most obviously pertinent to thinking of changes over the long-term, effects with regard to any particular time can really only to analyzed by looking back. But if Cultural Maturity’s demands do play a significant role, that makes what we see today more understandable and also supports that hope may be warranted.

In Perspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord, I note kinds of evidence beyond just the nature of the challenges we face that support the idea that Cultural Maturity’s changes may play a role in what we see. I describe, for example, how the degree of ludicrousness that we so often find today can be thought of as evidence. Creative Systems Theory includes a concept it calls Transitional Absurdity. I also describe how the fact that today we find polarization not just between historically common competing forces such as management and labor, but between alternative extreme populist ideologies is consistent with what the concept of Cultural Maturity would predict.

Two recognitions are ultimately key. First, whatever their origins, today’s extreme social and political divisions directly put us at risk. The critical nature of so many of the challenges that we now confront means that such deep differences present real dangers. Second, whatever the cause, what is being called for is ultimately the same—the ability to understand our worlds in more mature and encompassing ways. This is the case even if the challenge is only to weather the effects of more particular stressors. But it is certainly true if Cultural Maturity’s demands are playing a significant role in what we see.

More specific policy approaches could have an impact. For example, anything that begins to address today’s growing economic disparities could lessen populist tensions. And, in the short term, we may get away with simply finding ways to better get along. But if what I have described is accurate, with time, the need for the kind of more integrative change that comes with Cultural Maturity’s “growing up” should become inescapable.