The Polarization Series: A Path Towards Restoring Good Faith Dialogues

Our current age is one riddled with several apparent contradictions and paradoxes.

Despite access to an almost unlimited flow of information, we are less certain of what is true. Further, we have a more difficult time in discerning fact from fiction, and rarely look to sources outside of our narrow ‘information ecosystems’.

The Enlightenment and the rise of objective scientific inquiry was supposed to rid us of superstition and group think. It promised to place reason at the bedrock of society and ensure that rationality and logic would be the basis for decision making.

So where did we go wrong, and why are we currently faced with so much polarization and division unable to come to a consensus on the most basic of facts?

Rather than exercising our freedom to think independently, we are moving closer and closer towards conformity and dogmatic thinking. As more issues become politicized, society sorts into its respective teams or ideologies insisting that those who don’t agree with us on certain issues are either blindly naïve or ignorant. It is the mentality that you are either with us or against us.

Yet, we are all exhausted by all the outrage and constant bickering of who is right or wrong on contentious issues.

Can’t we all just get along, be kind and give each other a hug (well maybe after the pandemic)?

To look at these issues I want to draw from the work of Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided over Politics and Religion and other research to look at why we have such a hard time discussing political issues.

This series of articles will focus on the following themes, exploring how:

  1. We aren’t as ‘rational’ as we think, and we rarely can get someone to change their view with a more logical or coherent argument. Emotion has the upper hand in our thinking and  Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is a good example the fight between reason vs emotion.
  2.  We all share the same moral foundations, but differ in which morals and values we prioritize (Moral Foundations Theory).
  3. Evolution can explain our tendency to sort into groups or teams. As Haidt puts it, morality binds and blinds.
  4.  We can restore good faith dialogue and compromise. The key is transcending the strict dichotomy of black\white or good\evil type thinking and being able understand the wisdom and truth found in many different positions or perspectives.

Hopefully this series will convince you to look critically at your own opinions, and look to others who share different views with a bit more kindness and understanding.

Real dialogue is when two or more people become willing to suspend their certainty in each other’s presence.

David Bohm

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The Age of the Spectacle

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Is this the real world or is it fantasy?

Glowing billboards. ‘Reality’ television. Instagram influencers. Golden yellow arches crowding large city centers. Fake bodies, fake personalities, fake plastic trees.

Flooded with information, memes and seductive advertisements.

McDonalds – I Am Lovin’ it.  Nike- Just Do It. Coca-Cola – Taste the Difference. Apple – Think Different.

Manufactured desires. Manufactured appearances.

Passive spectators. Passive consumers.

Welcome to the age of the spectacle. A world of carefully crafted images and illusions. Fiction becomes reality and the ‘real world’ becomes undesirable.

In modern societies do we think of ourselves as ‘humans’ or mere ‘consumers’? We see an endless stream of advertisements persuading us to buy more and more stuff Source

Even prior to the advent of the internet and social media, French theorist Guy Debord recognized modern societies obsession with appearances and images. In his seminal book The Society of the Spectacle, Debord critiques consumerism and the advent of mass media and marketing which came to dominate our day to day lives beginning in the latter half of the 20st century.

He tracks the evolution of social relations from being into having and subsequently from having into appearing.

  1. Being into Having: This transformation represents a shift in human relations where the focus is not one’s character or temperament (ie. who one is), but rather what they own. Their social status and stuff that they have.  
  2. Having into Appearing: A second shift occurs in modern societies when prestige and recognition becomes dominated by the world of images and appearance. That is, the representation of a thing or event take’s precedence over one’s own direct experience in the moment. Images and appearances are now of paramount importance. The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach summarizes this concept nicely,

…the present age… prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence… truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred.

Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity

Amongst the numerous examples of this phenomenon, the most obvious of course is the addictive social media apps we all know and love. Every minute of our lives comes to be meticulously recorded, carefully crafted, edited and posted online.

Satisfaction in one’s life does not come from our direct experience with the world, but rather from the likes, comments and shares we get from our pictures and videos. Think of those who go to concerts only to watch the whole show though the screen on their smartphones.  

A copy of a copy – Image Source

The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

The spectacle shapes and influences our desires, goals and aspirations. It tells us who we are and who we ought to become. If only I could look like the athlete from the latest edition of Sports Illustrated with his toned body, big smile and perfect lifestyle. We think to ourselves, “perhaps if I purchase a BMW I will become as attractive, sleek and confident as that man in the commercials.”

Further, the spectacle affects how we think of personal, romantic and professional relationships. We desire for our dating experience to be as dreamy as those couples from The Bachelor or our marriages to exemplify our favourite romantic film.

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Happiness can be bought, one purchase at a time. Image Source

Ultimately, all these endless spectacles and advertisements we see on a daily basis distort reality, and hinder our ability to think critically about issues. We become alienated from ourselves and to others as everything becomes a commodity. It becomes increasingly difficult to live in the world authentically when corporations and their marketing departments shape our interests, beliefs and consumption habits.

The spectacle permeates not just through seductive marketing campaigns, but also has become the norm in our ‘news’ media and politics. Entertainment, viewership and attention becomes more important than genuine policy discussions or analysis.

Recall in the movie Gladiator, how the Emperor Commodus used the gladiator games to distract the public of the various crises across the Roman Empire. This strategy of entertainment and diversion has not changed much from the past, we just have more sophisticated means of distracting the population.

The spectacle prevails.

Are you not entertained?

The political theater that we’ve all become exhausted from isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon per say, but it is just far more apparent with our current crop of politicians. Further, it becomes amplified with the range of digital technologies now available to everyone.

Humanities fascination with the world of images, illusions and representations has been well documented throughout history by philosophers, most notably in Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. Just like the prisoners fixated on the shadows, we ourselves have become detached from the ‘real world’ ,and our direct observable experiences with our endless digital distractions.

As technology advances, will we continue to become mere spectators in this world of images or can we cultivate the wisdom and self-awareness to break free from our chains?

To pull the plug and leave The Matrix , turn away from the spectacle and embrace the ordinary.

To love and cherish the one world we have.  

Plato’s cave in the 21st century, Image Source

When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings – dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for hypnotic behavior.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

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