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This article can be found in Issue 5 of Vhcle Magazine.
2011: The Polarization of Our Political Dialog
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The fact that George Bush the younger can stand in front of the whole world and announce, "You are either with us or you are against us," and have that statement make sense to such a large part of our population is an indicator of the depth of our polarized hierarchical world view. To suggest that you are either with us or against us, as though those are the only two options of existence in this world, is as nonsensical as saying, "If a color is not red, it must be green". Most people with a modicum of insight understand that there may be other colors in the world.
The world does not exist in opposites, but in an infinite gradient spectrum of every possibility. The tones and colors of the world cannot be organized into linear opposition. How much more dimensionally complex and varied are human beings and their interactions.
So, we must dismiss the concept that our political spectrum is simply a scale of conservative to liberal. That is a reductionist viewpoint, flattened and inconsistent with reality. And yet we are required to express our democratic choices within a polarized field, whose basic tenet of "majority rules" is founded upon polarized hierarchy. This has the effect of silencing minority voices, and at the same time forcing conformity in majority voices just to have their vote counted. It also has the effect of intensifying the pull to opposite sides just to offset the strength of the other pole. The minority stands no chance in this field of engagement, and its impotence compels it to step outside of the social agreement to seek redress.
We can see the motivations that have led to unprecedented filibusters, which in the body politic are about as healthy as an intestinal impaction. But be assured that the long run of history shows a slow erosion of hierarchy. Bloodline kings are now seen as a laughable basis for government. Land ownership and racial preference as criteria for voting are similarly reviled now. The inclusion of women in voting in not only beyond question, but the choice of women leaders is commonplace.
Advancement is an unstoppable force.
In the current atmosphere of polarization, some of us push to accelerate that advancement, some try to slow it down. Both are necessary if balance is to be found and if all are to be included.
Naturally, there are those who feel that advancement will come at their own expense — those whose former status and privilege are perceived to be threatened. But what cannot be forgotten is that their status and privilege have been built at the expense of those that they would subjugate.
Smoldering resentments can last for generations on both sides of the polarity. That is why it is essential to maintain an open dialogue in not just our political world, but also our larger society. The open flow of ideas and communication dissipates the build-up of polarized animosity which threatens to fracture our shared community, and leads directly to threats of "second amendment remedies", placing riflescope targets over political opponents on posters, and using terms like "reload".
Make no mistake, these are explicitly overt threats to use guns to murder political opponents fueled by a sense of powerlessness and exclusion. Anger and hysteria must be calmed by a genuine concern for the common good and a willingness to be empathetic. That does not mean extending infinite patience for those who stomp their feet and hold their breath for their own self-serving agenda. But they may need a kind of parental guidance that will assure them that they will be safe and that they will not be abandoned by a future they fear to face. In the same way, we may be offered guidance just as valuable. Proper humility demands that we are prepared to be receptive to all constructive input. Look for common ground. Our shared experience is likely to be greater than we expect.
Yes, advancement is an unstoppable force, but it is the dignity with which we adapt to change that will define this seemingly tenuous time.
Tim Sunderman is a Graphic Designer in the San Francisco Bay Area whose first love is drawing and painting, tries to avoid computers until there is no other recourse, and because there is no other recourse, yearns for the open spaces. Tim is a graduate from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and majored in Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a college art and design instructor and freelance artist.
Illustration by Tim Sunderman
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The Polarization of Our Political Dialog,
March 2011 Vhcle Magazine Issue 5, Life/Politics
The polarization of our political dialog has received much attention recently, and justifiably so. The stronger the opposition of forces, the greater the instability of the social agreement. And the recourse to violence as a substitute for reasoned discussion is predictable in this atmosphere. This polarization is so difficult to counteract because it is so deeply rooted in both our cultural precepts and our biological hardwiring.
Biologically, we naturally increase the contrast of many of our perceptions. We subconsciously heighten the contrast of the light and dark sides of the objects that we see so that we may more quickly discern and identify those objects. It is the opposition of the light side and dark side of objects that most clearly reveals the form and recognition of visual images.
Objects that are evenly lit are more difficult to identify. Likewise, creatures that use camouflage rely on a patterning of light and dark that is more contrasting than the light and shadow sides of their larger form to conceal themselves. So we have adapted our vision to polarize and magnify the differences of things to more quickly judge friend or enemy, predator or prey. The speed of these assessments is critical to survival, and a measure of the acuity of thought.
A similar perceptual function applies to hearing as well. The "loudness" button that so commonly used to appear on sound systems simply has the function of heightening the treble and bass frequencies while lowering the mid-range. The reason for the name "loudness" is because that is what our brains naturally do to loud sounds. We increase the ends of the scale to more clearly identify the sound.
In a similar fashion, the way we compartmentalize information also becomes more efficient when we magnify the subtle differences between similar things. But the unfortunate aspect of that cognitive disposition is that it carries over into our broader perceptions. We start to automatically polarize our impressions into oppositions.
Perception works best when our understanding of what we see is most consistent with the world as it exists, free from our filters and templates. The problem with that is that the nature of perception is built upon a foundation of filters and templates that prioritize impressions guided by what we value. So not only is it impossible to discard the tendency to polarize opposites, it would also blunt our ability to operate in the world by the mere fact that it would slow our cognition.
Moderately heightening the polarization of our impressions, in itself, is not the problem that we face in our larger social interactions, but the inculcated habit of setting those poles in hierarchical arrangements. In other words, when we start to make value judgments of one side of the pole as being better than the other side, we quickly drop into the disastrous social constructs of dominance and subjugation. It is embedded into our very language. It is as though we cannot even think of opposites without arranging them hierarchically. We literally use terms like light and dark as synonyms for good and bad.
This is most evident in our gender polarizations and our racial divisions. It leeches into all our social interactions because hierarchy forms the basis for the way in which we arrange our understanding of the world. Women continue to be held in economic disadvantage and must exert much greater effort to rise above subservient roles. The abhorrent disparities in the judicial system in conviction rates and length of sentencing for convictions between whites and racial minorities is contemptible in a country that boasts of its blind justice.
These facts are not to be lamented as much as they are to be counteracted.
So, to be effectual, it helps to identify the roots of certain thought patterns and extract them, then replace them with alternate patterns that organize our perceptions and behaviors into directions that are more aligned to a truer nature.
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