The Polarization Series: The Search for an Integral Politics

More often than not, we are lured into the temptation of conformity and group think. As social animals we care deeply about the opinions of others. We concern ourselves with our relative position and status within society. At our core, we all want to fit in and gain approval of our peers and respective groups that we are associated with.

Group evolutionary adaptation, which enabled us to temporarily forego selfish self-interest in pursuit of the greater good of our communities is both a blessing and a curse. While this drive motivates us towards mutual co-operation within groups it can pull us towards antagonism and tribal politics between groups.

Of course, this has become evidently more apparent in our society with rising polarization in our politics and the general decline in the quality of public discourse. On issues that are of high importance to us, we tend to be unwilling or unable to understand potential criticisms of our view. We remain deeply rooted in our positions, dumbfounded by the counter arguments of our adversaries.

Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

Breaking the Deadlock

So how can we go beyond these rigid political and ideological narratives that we find ourselves entrenched in?

How can we find a way to find a truce between these different ideological tribes?

In order to do so, the first thing that we must acknowledge is that each worldview has both positives and negatives. There is always a trade-off. For instance, policies which promote greater economic liberty and reliance on the free market (i.e. free trade) may collectively increase GDP while leaving certain groups of low-skilled workers worse off.

Additionally, each set of paradigms or beliefs has at least some degree of truth. That is not to say that each of these worldviews is equal or that one can not be categorically better than another. Rather, it is to argue that there is always some signal within the noise. While we may disagree with others on certain issues, if we remain objective and modest we can see that beyond someone’s beliefs they may have good and honest intentions. Perhaps they hold their view simply because they think it is what is the best for themselves or their loved ones.

An Integral Approach

Everybody — including me — has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace.

Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything

The basic premise of integral theory is that we ought to seek to integrate different perspectives by incorporating the positives and discrediting the negatives of each paradigm.[1] Rather than rigidly maintaining our fixed ideologies, the integral approach advises that we approach new ideas with a sense of humility and curiosity.

In disagreements with those with opposing views, we can ask ourselves, what are the areas of convergence?

A useful way to conceptualize this approach is by thinking of how venn diagrams work, that is they highlight the areas of intersection and differences between various sets of concepts or ideas.    

Venn Diagram.

As an example of how we these can work in the real world, let’s look at a model developed by the integral philosopher Steve McIntosh in his article Towards a Post-Progressive Political Perspective.

 McIntosh claims that three major worldviews characterize our world’s different values and belief systems, and each consist of both both positives and negatives. These paradigms (ways of seeing the world), along with there pros and cons can be seen in the chart below.


WorldviewCharacteristicsPositivesNegatives
TraditionalismAssociated with social conservatism. Seeks to preserve traditional values such as one’s duty to family and country.Acts as a social ‘glue’ which binds individuals together through a common set of beliefs.Can disregard the rights and values of vulnerable minorities, and lead to the oppression of these groups (i.e., racism, sexism, homophobia).
Modernity  Promotes individual liberty and political and economic freedom.  Has led to unprecedented economic growth within the past few centuries.  

Resulted in a shift towards government which respects the rights of individuals, and led to the emergence of democratic institutions.
Prioritizes economic growth over environmental concerns leading to biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and climate change.
Progressivism  Connected with advocacy and social reform. Concern for the protection of the environment. Focus on the rights of vulnerable groups within society.  

Inclusive world-centric morality which aims to address inequalities within society.
Divisive identity politics which disregard any benefits that traditional values may bring.  

Can lead to relativism which claims that no one system is better than others, making it difficult to promote consensus or social cohesion.
Based on Steve McIntosh’s article: Towards a Post-Progressive Political System

McIntosh argues for a system called post-progressivism which seeks to provide a synthesis of these three paradigms by integrating the benefits and disregarding the negatives. For instance, this can include policies which promote the use of business and the free market to develop innovative technologies to curb climate change. Moreover, it can recognize the past injustices of Western colonization while appreciating the economic liberty and scientific progress modern society has brought us.  Moreover, these individual freedoms and innovations can be leveraged as a mechanism to promote greater equality for historically disadvantaged communities.

Integral Consensus

The key to moving forward is to cultivate a sense of intellectual humility and resist the temptation towards group or tribal thinking. Of course, there is nothing wrong with affiliating yourself to a particular political party, group or ideology. However, it becomes a problem when we stubbornly hold onto rigid beliefs without questioning their validity or assumptions.

We must both celebrate our differences as well as recognize our common humanity with others. Disagreements are inevitable, but we can always settle them in a respectful and cordial way. As society is pulled towards the extremes, we must always search for areas of consensus and convergence.

In an increasingly inter-connected world, our collective wellbeing depends on our ability to work together.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

[1] This is an oversimplification of integral theory which contains various stages and models of growth and development. For a primer on this work see Ken Wilber’s A Theory of Everything


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