Getting Beyond Polarization #1: Confronting the Roots of War

This is the first in a series of articles that draw on particular issues I address in my most recent book Perspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord: Why We See Such Extreme Social and Political Polarization and What We Can Do About It. I wrote the book because of deep concern I feel about how with concerns of every sort, people today are dividing almost immediately into polar camps. Often with particular issues it is not at all clear in advance that there is any reason for conflict. All we know is that division will happen eventually and result in absolutist advocacy from both sides.

Conflict between ideological factions today has become so pronounced that real conversation about a great many topics has become largely impossible. Extreme polarization is setting neighbor against neighbor, creating distraction that gets in the way of addressing essential questions, and often very directly putting us at risk. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen such reactive polarization become ever more pronounced and people’s voices becoming ever more shrill. This can’t continue to be the case if we are going to advance in any meaningful way.

A simple lesson provides the architecture for the Perspective and Guidance book: In times past, when we encountered polarized positions and partisan advocacy, our task was obvious and unquestioned. We assumed that there were only two options and that our job was to figure out which one was right and fight for it. As we look to the future, polarization has very different implications. We recognize that what we are seeing is left and right hands of a larger systemic picture. And the fact of polarization alerts us to the fact that we have yet to ask the hard questions that ultimately need to be addressed.

The book starts out with a brief look at the question of why today we see such extreme social and political polarization. It then turns to addressing what the needed greater maturity of understanding looks like when applied to critical concerns where divisiveness too often prevails: war and peace, climate change, healthcare, abortion, immigration, bigotry, the relationship of science and faith, and conflicting views on the nature of progress. My intent with these various topics was not to provide policy solutions, but rather to help illustrate how the Creative Systems Theory concept of Cultural Maturity contributes to understanding. In fact, the ability to get at least a toe in culturally mature territory is needed for what I said to make real sense. But we can also think of each topic as an exercise for building the necessary conceptual muscles.

Hawks and Doves

I begin the book’s more topic-specific reflection with the war and peace polarity—or expressed more politically, “hawks” versus “doves.” Not too long ago it was polar battles between hawks and doves that most clearly divided conservative and liberal thinking. Today such antagonisms are more often replaced by polarization that separates us around social issues. But depending on world circumstances, the way the Right and the Left can polarize with questions of war and peace could easily once again move to the fore and dominate the partisan debate.

In part, I begin where I do because it is where the inability to reconcile differences could most easily lead to our demise. But I also start there because of how well the topic sets the stage for addressing the concerns of later chapters. Of particular importance, it helps us answer the important question of just how the polarized thinking of times past has served us. It also further supports the conclusion that the fact of polarization has more to do with how we think than what we think. And it helps us with understanding how it might be legitimate to feel hopeful as we look to the future.

How Chosen-People/Evil-Other Assumptions Have Served Us

Historically, we’ve tended to divide our world into allies and enemies—“chosen people” and “evil others.” It is important to appreciate that while chosen-people/evil-other thinking can have less-than-pleasant consequences, in the past it has served us. Most immediately, it has protected us from a major portion of life’s easily overwhelming complexities and uncertainties by reducing a multifaceted, multi-hued, often contradictory world to a more manageable black and white. Chosen-people beliefs have also provided a secure, unquestioned sense of collective identity.

But as important as recognizing the benefits of seeing our world in ally-versus-enemy terms is understanding that continuing to do so has ceased to be an option. With weapons of mass destruction more and more available not just to nations but to rogue states and terrorist groups, the possibility of catastrophic outcomes has never been greater. And the fact that addressing so many of the most critical challenges ahead for us as a species will require global cooperation—climate change, divisive economic disparities, and the risks of pandemic, to name just a few—further amplifies the risks of thinking in ways that separate the world’s people into opposing camps. If we are to have a world that works for anyone, it is essential that we learn to relate collectively in more mature ways.

Our historical need for us-versus-them thinking highlights the essential recognition that polarized beliefs have to do not just with what we think, but how we think. It turns out that wars are less the result of major differences than we might assume. Once us-versus-them dynamics are set in motion, they easily take on a life of their own. Our historical need to think in us-versus-them terms also helps us better understand the process that produces what we see. When we divide our worlds into allies and enemies, we identify with an idealized part of our cognitive complexity (think of it as a bright colored crayon in understanding’s whole-box-of-crayons complexity) and project unconscious negative parts onto others. The absolutism we bring to how we view both our own kind and those we denigrate follows predictably from this cognitive mechanism.

The Essential Question

These recognitions give us the book’s initial topic-specific chapter its defining question: Is it possible to have social identity without having enemies? Many people would argue that getting beyond chosen-people/evil-other thinking is really not possible, that we have evolved to be warlike, and that is that. Given today’s realities, if this is the case we can stop our inquiry right here—we are doomed. Creative Systems Theory argues that fortunately this is not the case. It proposes that at least the potential to take needed further steps is built into what makes us human.

The theory proposes that the ability to get beyond thinking of identity in chosen-people/evil-other terms follows directly from how developmental processes work. More specifically, it follows from Cultural Maturity’s notion of a now possible cognitive “growing up.” With Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes, we become newly able to leave behind projective dynamics, and with this, to engage relationships of all sorts from a more Whole-Person/Whole-System place. When we do, we come to see our past need for chosen people and evil others as something that may once have been developmentally important (and whose heroic stories we can still legitimately look back on and value) but that today, along with putting us at risk, also gets in the way of us being fully who we are. Reflexively viewing the world in ally and enemy terms comes to feel like a historical artifact—and a dangerous one.

As far as getting beyond polarized thinking, in stepping back at the least we recognize that there is no absolute line dividing more aggressive and more diplomatic approaches on the world stage, only the line we make in our thinking. And the particular beliefs of the Right and the Left provide further hints as far as what moving forward necessarily involves. Neither the Right nor the Left (nor just a position somewhere in between) is capable of producing the needed more systemic perspective. The Right, certainly in its more simplistic manifestations, has a hard time getting beyond a narrow nationalism. And the Left, in too easily just siding with peace, fails to recognize what real peace requires and too readily becomes in its own way just as polemical and ideological.

A Larger Picture

I remember confronting the importance of grasping a larger picture in my twenties when opposing the Vietnam War. I recognized then that while I was very much against the war, I was not ultimately anti-war. Historically, we have been put at risk both by leaders who have been too quick to go to war and by leaders who have hesitated when strong responses were needed—as with the rise of fascism prior to the Second World War. As we look to the future, the risks associated with each kind of failing become multiplied many times over. It is clear that we live in a time when war of any scale has simply become untenable. But it is just as clear that any kind of peace that can work going forward requires an ability and willingness to defend that peace. What culturally mature leadership provides is the ability to make the necessary, often highly nuanced and systemically complex decisions wisely.

The kind of thinking needed to effectively engage questions of war and peace requires that both the Right and the Left as we have known them surrender familiar assumptions. And at the same time, as we would predict, it also draws on the best of sensibilities from both sides. We can clarify both the limitations and the contributions by thinking of nos and yeses to each side. The no to the Right emphasizes that having enemies can’t continue to work as a means of self-definition. The yes to the Right affirms that local identity is important and can continue to exist only with protection. The no to the Left emphasizes that focusing only on peace ignores the importance of standing for essential values and the role of boundaries in the healthy functioning of systems. The yes to the Left affirms the power of good communication and the importance of a more encompassing picture of identity.

The challenge of getting beyond us-versus-them thinking on the global stage also provides good illustration of the importance of how Cultural Maturity’s changes make possible essential new skills and capacities. InPerspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord, I delineate for each of those I address in the book—a willingness to take on a more ultimate kind of responsibility, greater comfort with complexity and uncertainty, the ability to better tolerate limits, and the understanding that truths of all sorts exist in a context—is pertinent.

The claim that it might be possible to leave the proclivities that have historically led to war behind us is radical—and legitimately controversial. And there is no guarantee that we will get there. But if the concept of Cultural Maturity is correct, doing so reflects a natural next chapter in our human story. It asks only that we engage ourselves and our worlds in new, more systemic, all-the-crayons-in-the-box ways. Understood in this way, the needed new steps become not just possible, but ultimately quite common sense.

You can find related reflections on the “Ask the Cultural Psychiatrist” YouTube channel.