The Polarization Series: The Search for an Integral Politics

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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.

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[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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Navigating Polarization: A Roadmap

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One of the things that the COVID-19 crisis has shown us is the interconnectedness of the humanity. Technology has enabled us to develop global networks making the world much smaller. 

This has made it clear that many of the problems we now face are global in nature ranging from climate change to international finance.

Yet, our politics and dialogue have become more divisive. We retreat into our social media echo chambers failing to entertain opposing views.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I think philosophy can play a role here in mending polarization in society through carefully examining our beliefs and using reason and logic to come to sensible conclusions. Crafting the space for dialogue and accepting the degree of vulnerability necessary to have authentic conversations can enable us to be more tolerant of opposing views.

In order to do this however we have to adopt an earnest commitment to seeking truth. Yes, we can ultimately come to different conclusions after our own analysis. However, we don’t need hold resentment or contempt to those who oppose us.

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that

Martin Luther King

Of course, there is no silver bullet response to this issue of polarization but here are some approaches which can help restore more authentic and genuine dialogue.

Socratic Questioning

If you have ever taken an intro to philosophy class you probably have come across the peculiar and intriguing figure known as Socrates. A man of ancient Greece, Socrates would openly challenge conventional wisdom and societal norms through rigorous questioning and dialogue.  

The Socratic method is meant to unpack our beliefs to assess whether they are backed by evidence and logically coherent. Through this we can identify potential inconsistencies and counter arguments for our convictions. 

This approach teaches us to assess our opinions with curiosity and inquiry like a scientist testing out various different hypothesis. Furthermore, it requires us to approach problems with a degree of humility and cultivate the willingness to change our minds if we are confronted with evidence that requires us to do so.  We can peel away the layers to expose the core values underpinning our beliefs, and perhaps start to see those whose opinions differ from ours with a sense of empathy and understanding.

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Socrates
Source : Max Böhme

Mindfulness and Non-Judgemental Awareness

As humans, we are fraught with bias continually jumping to conclusions without a thorough examination of evidence. Mindfulness and self-awareness can play a role here as an antidote to self-deception.  This practice allows us objectively be conscious of our passing emotions and sensations. Under stress, pressure and intense dialogue we often act on instinct rather rational thought.

If we were to take a brief pause to observe our bodily sensations, we can be aware of our racing heart rate, sweaty palms and maybe the fiery burning sensation in our chest. Rather than acting out on this, we can become mindful and accept these feelings and allowing them to pass.

Through awareness and acceptance, we can be in the driver’s seat to have greater control over our emotions during a heated conversation.  We can distance ourselves from these uncomfortable feelings and respond more rationally.  

Rule Omega

The notion of Rule Omega is an idea put forth by Jordan Hall, Daniel Schmachtenberger and Jamie Wheel on the Rebel Wisdom channel. It holds every statement, even if it is contrary to our core values, contains some ‘signal’(truth) and ‘noise’(non-sense). Rather than focusing on the areas where we disagree, we can shift our attention to the aspects of our opponents’ statement that we can understand and sympathize with.

Andrew Sweeny summarizes this idea nicely below,

We desperately need to pay attention to people who are outside of our information bubble or ideological group. A good practice Schmachtenberger suggests we expose ourselves to multiple sources of media on the right and on the left. For example, a liberal could watch Fox News occasionally and a conservative could read The Guardian…………

The point is to venture into the places that make us uncomfortable, and try to see what part of the truth those ‘enemies’ hold. Sometimes a holy grail of truth is buried under a mountain of lies.

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One of the traits I want to cultivate through this blog as well as through my mindfulness practice is to try and look at issues from an unbiased and objective standpoint – to distance myself from my internal biases and judgements. Of course, this is not easy and will take practice and time as I strive towards the virtues of empathy, compassion and understanding.

I encourage all who are reading this, try stepping out of your information echo systems and make a genuine effort to try and understand different opinions and beliefs. You never know, you may see things in different light.