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The Polarization Trap

By Charles Eisenstein /
May 7, 2019
The Polarization Trap
Image by Uriel Soberanes

Over the past decade I’ve watched with alarm the widening polarization of the body politic across Western societies (and to some extent globally). As commonly recognized, the public is split into irreconcilable political factions who disagree not only on the interpretation of events, but on what events even took place. They have seemingly separated into two disjoint realities, each with its own facts, authorities, histories, and narratives.

In this polarized environment, each side attributes the problem of polarization to the other side’s descent into unreason, having fallen victim to an evil, manipulating power. However, the trend toward polarization extends far beyond the left-right, red-blue, or conservative-progressive political divide. Within each of these blocks, new polarized debates erupt with the same intractable breakdowns in communication.

A polarized society, unable to communicate with itself, cannot do very much but ride its inertia. It cannot set its sights on a goal, imagine, or create as a collective. Every problem is too big; nothing can be solved; thus, the helplessness and malaise of society today in the face of ecological and social breakdown.

Let’s look at a few examples to illustrate the paralyzing effects of polarization. In cities across North America, residents are pitted against each other in a debate about homelessness. On one side are people who, even if they identify as compassionate liberals, say they are fed up with the homeless encampments, syringes, and human excrement in their neighborhoods. They oppose new shelters that would draw even more homeless to their area and advocate tougher policies. On the other side are those who call for compassion: more lenient policies and new shelters.

As with most polarized issues, the debate diverts attention and energy from the root causes of the problem. Homelessness is a symptom, and this debate is over how to address that symptom. It is like asking whether you should use a cortisone cream or herbal salve for your rash. If the rash is a symptom of a deeper, chronic condition, then the topical remedy may, in providing temporary relief, reduce your motivation to address the chronic condition. It is a way to maintain the status quo. That’s fine if the condition is incurable. But is homelessness – surely a chronic condition – incurable?

The homeless debates that have received so much attention in San Francisco, LA, an Seattle come down to, “Should we let the homeless remain in our area, or should we make them go somewhere else?” Obviously, moving them somewhere else isn’t going to alter the root conditions that breed homelessness.

The sound and fury around this, and any, polarizing issue diverts attention from assumptions that both sides tacitly share, and from questions that neither side thinks to explore. The debate distracts us from questions like, “Why are there 600,000 homeless in America alongside (according to the Federal Reserve) 16.8 million housing units?” What is behind the tide of addiction, family breakdown, community breakdown, and economic poverty that breeds homelessness? These are uncomfortable questions that elude easy answers. They beg us to question the foundations of the American Way.

Restricting the conversation to the two poles of homeless shelter or crackdown on vagrancy incites a clash of irreconcilable values. The public is put into a classic double bind, racked between two unacceptable choices. Because each choice is unacceptable, the other side seems unacceptable. The ensuing hostility distracts still further from the underlying conditions, which, because they bear no easy solution, have the potential to unite rather than divide – to unite along the lines of “We don’t know what to do.”

This is just one tiny example of a general condition in political discourse today: the framing of the issue aggravates the issue, divides the people, and distracts attention from deeper levels of cause. In my Climate book I make the case that the carbon narrative of climate change, with its strongly polarized views between the alarmists and the skeptics, distracts from a deeper understanding of Earth as a living being, whose organs such as forests, soil, wetlands, whales, etc. must be healthy for the biosphere to be healthy – whether or not we cut carbon emissions. We are, I wrote, engaged in the wrong debate. But it is a debate that sits comfortably within a policy apparatus and worldview that prioritizes quantitative solution strategies that require a single measurable cause or culprit to attack.

Some narratives seem deliberately constructed to polarize and distract. Russiagate would be a prime example. Most of the debate is about whether Trump did, or did not, collude with Russia to “hack our election.” More important, though, may be what the furor drowns out, and what the debate, by its very framing, implicitly takes for granted (for example, that America would never interfere in someone else’s election, and, more insidious still, that the world is to be understood in terms of “America and its adversaries”). Through its silent assumptions, the controversy preserves the underpinnings of the status quo – the things that will not change whether Trump or any other mainstream candidate occupies the White House.

Ironically, the Russiagate issue, sustained by hatred for Donald Trump, has produced the opposite of its ostensible goal. It is as if the Left has decided to attack Trump where he is least vulnerable. It closely parallels the Obama birth certificate controversy. By creating a furor over a non-issue, they distract attention from the issues. Obama could have been assailed for his pandering to corporate and financial interests. Trump could be assailed for his (or his staff’s) militant warmongering and gutting of environmental protections, among other things. Yet these draw a tiny fraction of the political energy that Russiagate has; in fact, the Establishment cheers his regime change schemes in Venezuela, his military provocations of China and Iran, and his sanctions on Russia.

Good -- now I’ve alienated both the Right and the Left by calling both Birthergate and Russiagate non-issues, I will offer, just in case someone is still reading, a general principle: In a polarized environment such as a war, the pacifist is more unpopular than the enemy. The enemy is necessary to prop up one’s own identity as being on Team Good. The pacifist calls that identity into question.

Appearances aside, I don’t think the two abovementioned narratives are deliberately intended to polarize and distract, but whether or not they are, they fall on fertile ground. In the United States and increasingly around the world, people are predisposed to engage in polarizing narratives. This tendency makes us easy targets for manipulation and forestalls any possibility of a people’s movement broad enough to instigate meaningful systemic change. How can we cohere enough to transform the massive edifice of established power when we are fighting amongst ourselves over superficial, symptomatic, or manufactured “issues”? A society at war with itself cannot move forward, just as a man at war with himself can do little to change his circumstances. The inner conflict incinerates his creative energy. Quite possibly, political polarization is the biggest impediment to social and environmental progress facing humanity today.

Over the course of this year I will be putting out some essays and other offerings around the topic of polarization. I have already launched an online course that takes a first step into practically deprogramming from the habits of polarization, called Unlearning: For Change Agents. The tendency toward polarization runs deep; it has been intensifying over my lifetime, and its healing is deep work. It is a work of unlearning the psychological habits of polarization, and of hearing and sharing the stories that disrupt polarizing narratives. It is about making space for complexity and relativistic thinking. It is about noticing the hidden motivations within ourselves that polarized identification serves.

OK, but what do I think about the homeless issue? What is my opinion on Russiagate? And do I believe in greenhouse-gas induced global warming? I have my opinions on these things, but it is not my role to add my weight to one side or the other and thereby bring even more attention to the wrong debate. Nor do I think that these issues are unimportant. That is not what I am saying. I care deeply about the plight of the homeless, not to mention the planet. It is that in neither case will the real problem be solved by winning the fight as presently constituted.


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