It’s difficult to accurately assess whether or not the political atmosphere in the USA (and other places in the world) is becoming more polarized. I’ve heard some people claim that politics has always been this way, while to me and others, it seems that the schism between the right and the left grows year by year. It certainly seems to me like our culture is more divided now than any point I can remember.
The 2016 presidential election and its subsequent fallout seems to be an infinitely-faceted subject, and nearly all angles have probably already been discussed somewhere on the internet. I can’t make any judgment as to which aspects are most important or which aspects would benefit most from our attention. I can only share my own personal experience in navigating the stormy waters of our recent political and cultural ocean and share some resources that have helped me find some grounding in these choppy waters.
If I could sum up my experience in a simplified statement, I would simply say, it hurt. It hurt for many reasons, but what stands out to me the most is this great divide that seems to be the result of the Culture War that, if one looked in the right places, seems to be tearing our society apart. That might be an oversimplification, but I see the 2016 election as one great battle in this war.
Nearly all of my peers, mostly leaning in the liberal direction, expressed true shock when they were met with the reality that enough people support “the other candidate” to get him elected to the presidency. Regardless of popular vote numbers, it was significant enough to result in an outcome that I don’t think anyone (in my limited social sphere) actually thought was a possibility.
So the question arose, “Where did this come from? How did this happen? And why didn’t we see it?”
These questions are being discussed from many different perspectives. I tend to resonate more with the self-flagellating liberal pieces that propose a lack of awareness and empathy from the left as the root cause of not only the shock, but the actual situation we find ourselves in. I am sure, though, that as with any topic of such cultural significance, it is just not that simple. I don’t believe any single person or opinion-piece can capture even a fraction cultural dynamic that got us to where we are.
But we can try. At least, that was my reaction to the pain I felt. I wanted to figure out what was energizing these opposing forces.
When I look at the soldiers in both armies of the Culture War, I see people. Just simple humans, each born and raised within infinitely unique circumstances and mostly just doing the best with what they’re given. Of course there are some ideals and values that I feel are objectively harmful for society as a whole, but when I consider the effect that one’s upbringing and innate nature has on those ideals and values, it becomes difficult for me to really pass judgment.
I truly believe this—that most people are just trying to do the best they can given their circumstances, and maybe we all could do a bit better . But there is such a strong and overbearing animosity towards “the other side” coming from each side. This animosity is manifested as this schism between the two sides of the Culture War that seems to increase every passing day. What I see and experience is that as the schism gets broader, each side has more difficulty in empathizing and relating to the other.
This is where my pain comes from, and this is where I start my journey for answers. I certainly haven’t found “the answer.” I won’t say that I even think there is an answer. However, there are two books that made their way to me which truly helped me feel some sense of direction in this seeking. Reading these books didn’t give me the tools to bridge the great cultural divide, but I did at least find some context for the proliferation of the conflict and realize my own place in the political and cultural maelstrom.
The Righteous Mind
The first, and probably most relatable for most people, is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt possesses a BA in philosophy and a PhD in psychology. His academic career has been focused primarily on the study of moral psychology.
As the title of the book suggests, it focuses on the origins of morality in humans (in a sense, righteousness) and specifically how these origins have manifested in a cultural divide in our political spectrum. While religion is mentioned in the title, it seemed to me that Haidt related moral psychology much more to the political spectrum and the culture around it, what we typically call right and left, conservative and liberal. Haidt acknowledges that this spectrum is inadequate when discussing the vast array of political beliefs, but it is what we have been given with our two-party system.
The Righteous Mind makes series of distinct arguments, each building upon the other. Haidt relies heavily on the latest studies in the social sciences as well as age-old philosophical arguments to make his point. While I don’t agree with every point of his logic or his conclusions drawn from research, I do feel that he sheds a lot of light on the current state of polarized politics and culture. There are some truly fascinating studies described as he builds his vision of human morality.
I must say that the book seems much more palatable to liberals (particularly secular liberals) than to conservatives (particularly religious conservatives). Most of his arguments and conclusions rely heavily on scientific research, especially on the nature of human evolution. An atheist himself, Haidt leaves little room for spiritual or religious arguments to be made. I understand that he, as a secular liberal, cannot apologize for his reliance on science and evolutionary theories. Yet there is an element of irony to his attempt to “reach across the aisle” and bring in both sides of the political and moral spectrum while relying primarily on a belief system (no matter how objective) that tends to alienate a large portion of one side of that spectrum. Perhaps he could have included more universal appeals and arguments (I know they exist) alongside the well-presented science-based arguments. But it didn’t alienate me. My opinions about science (especially social sciences) and the scientific community are complicated, but I don’t dismiss science out of hand.
I won’t go into great detail about the disagreements I had with his arguments except to highlight the largest and most basic disagreement I have with his conclusions—that is, he fails to acknowledge the human ability to be aware of our own biases and make the choice to change ourselves. He barely even touches on the very concept of this, and even then only to brush it away with his key argument that human intuition largely overpowers our rational faculties. He makes the analogy of the rider and the elephant, where our rational faculties are simply riders atop a massive lumbering elephant. We can have some guidance over the direction and behavior of the elephant, but for the most part, the elephant does what it wants without input from the rider.
Haidt spends a large portion of the book arguing this claim, and his evidence is strong and convincing. But he fails to acknowledge at all the effect that being aware of this dynamic will innately have an effect on the dynamic itself, thus altering a person’s ability to be even more self-aware. He seems to posit that self-reflection itself is inherently flawed because it relies on our ability to rationally analyze our thoughts and behaviors. In his opinion, any self-reflection is more like self-confirmation, a performance of rational acrobatics to justify our behaviors and opinions so that they match with our unconscious and intuitive drives.
I wouldn’t say that this argument is completely false. We can’t escape the effects of our unconscious biases even in examining those biases. But in my experience, when one is aware of how these unconscious drives affect even our rational ability to unpack our unconscious drives, there is an element of deconstruction available that is effective. We may not be able to view ourselves (or anything) with complete objectivity, but the ability to self-reflect grows significantly when we question our initial self-reflections as themselves being colored by unconscious motivations.
In fact, this is probably the greatest gift that this book gave to me: a deeper understanding of my own unconscious drives and the drives of others, and the effects this can have on our behaviors and rationalizations. It’s a gift that I can take into my own self-reflection, making this examination richer and more powerful thanks to understanding the dynamics at play.
And it’s not just a boon for self-reflection but for empathy as well. Haidt masterfully pinpoints the common ground upon which we all stand using evolutionary psychology and an examination of the primal origins of morals. It was fascinating to learn how we all share a same basic blueprint of moral psychology, and seeing how this blueprint can be built upon and expressed in a vast spectrum of moral opinions. Sometimes the same moral root can grow into two opposing moral ideals based upon how that moral root is nourished in culture, upbringing, and even biology. This understanding allows for deeper insight into the opinions and behaviors of those we disagree with and helps us to find empathy despite opposition.
This was the highlight of the book for me. When asking myself what was behind the increasingly polarized political atmosphere, I found a lot of insight into what energizes the forces within the Culture War, especially the forces I have more trouble identifying with. I believe this was the objective of the book, and if so, it was very successful for me despite any disagreements I had. I admire Haidt’s attempt to build these bridges and create empathy, even though I think it was more effective at communicating to the liberal left.
The other book that deeply affected me post 2016 election season communicates to a much, much smaller demographic than that, though.
The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible
Based on the title of the book alone, I probably never would have considered reading it. Not that it’s a particularly bad title—in fact, after reading the book, it seem like the best and only title – but I have grown somewhat cynical and wary of fluffy New Age pieces (despite being well-ingrained in the New Age community myself). But a couple of things convinced me to dig into it, and I am ever-grateful that I did.
The first was an essay written by the same author, Charles Eisenstein, titled “The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story.” Of all the various articles and essays written around the election, this one brought it home for me. It displayed with clarity the notes I appreciated in so many other pieces, from the call for empathy, to the hypocrisy of the corporate/industrial left (without dismissing the reality of the impending Trump administration), to the perspective of this election representing a significant shift in the structures of powers in society.
But still lost in a post-election haze, I didn’t pursue anything else by Eisenstein until a good friend, who also appreciated the article, discovered The More Beautiful World and felt compelled to share it. Any hesitation I had from the title of the book was dispelled within the first couple of paragraphs of the first chapter. I immediately felt as though Eisenstein was speaking directly to me. I felt in his words an acknowledgment of myself that I have become more aware of in recent years, yet has never been fully articulated. And there, on the pages of this book, was this part of myself put in writing. It was as though I gazed at a mirror clearer than any I had seen before, and the vague image I previously held of myself was now sharp and distinct. There was a massive sense of relief in finally seeing the finer details of these ideas and feelings that had been growing inside of me.
It will be hard to give this book the same treatment and review as I did with The Righteous Mind since it is much more personal for me. Though it was written years prior, The More Beautiful World dealt directly with the sense of discomfort and unease I felt about the election and the behavior of the soldiers in the Culture War. Having peers and an identity on the left-leaning end of the spectrum, I felt out of place. I didn’t want to partake in this war, but everything and everybody around me was calling me to arms. Despite my bewilderment at the reality of Donald Trump being our next POTUS, the call to outrage and anger hurt in ways I could not explain. A part of me knew that empathy and love were keys to overcoming this great divide, but I felt as though this simply didn’t have a place among those who saw wrongness in our system and wished for change. I too saw wrongness, but my reaction was different.
I’d like to take a moment to highlight that this is how I felt. I’m not claiming an objective observation of the circumstances. Perhaps this call for love and empathy is not so rare. Perhaps there was much I was blind to in the noise of the Culture War battle. Perhaps I’m building up a narrative around my own experiences to create some contrast and uniqueness to my story (probably, it’s not intentional though). But there is truth in my witnessing, secondhand, a berating of my viewpoints among my liberal peers.
What Charles Eiesenstein articulates in this book made me feel as though my thoughts, opinions, and feelings had a place in these choppy waters; perhaps, even, the naivety of believing in love was a necessary ingredient to real, lasting, deep change in our society.
This probably sounds self-indulgent and sappy (Eisenstein identified it as “triggering your New Age bullshit detector”). What made The More Beautiful World such an outstanding book for me was that he acknowledges the existence and validity of these sorts of opinions. The part of me that rolled my eyes at the title of the book left completely satisfied and happy by the end.
Beyond all of this, though, was a profound shift in orientation that this book offered me. The term “paradigm” seems often to be overused and misapplied, but what I saw in this book was an incredible description of what it means for there to be a paradigm shift. This shift, described in the book using the analogy of stories, begins within the consciousness of the individual. This shift in orientation was a mere glimpse at a new paradigm of consciousness—one that I have felt alive inside of me for some time, but has never found a foothold in this world.
I am not being flippant in my description. I understand fully that most people in this world will probably not get the same thing from this book that I did. But I say with complete sincerity that the way I perceive the world at the most basic level, my “paradigm of consciousness,” was softened and molded by Eisenstein’s ability to articulate a proper role of naivety, love, and unity in our current social climate.
It goes against the heart of the book to say that Eisenstein sees our situation from an elevated perspective. To say that his view of social activism is more enlightened would probably make him groan, but I can’t deny the part of me that feels this to be true. To put it in words he might find more appropriate, I think he sees clearly a calling and desire in our society that most people only have a vague sense of. It’s not necessarily a more elevated view, but one that acknowledges the lack of structural integrity in our current system (for which the election of Donald Trump is evidence) and sees the fundamental nature of human experience as it might relate to a new system.
I could get more specific about how he frames these concepts as stories—the Story of Separation and the Story of Interbeing, and how these things go to the deepest level of the foundation of society. But to do so would be a misrepresentation of the depth of the analogy. I can only say that if any of this rings somewhat true for you, that if you feel the time for fundamental change beyond the Culture War is here now, check out the book. You might find our own voice articulated in a new and crystallized way.
Despite the effect these books have had on me, I still don’t have answers. I still don’t think anyone has a real answer. But I have found a sense of purpose in how I choose to interact in the political and cultural maelstrom. I feel comfortable resting in the truth that I know in my heart to be true: that love, empathy, compassion, and honesty have a real and important part to play in the shifting of our culture. I no longer feel helpless and useless because the call to outrage failed to move me. As a person who feels it imperative to build bridges and shed the light of understanding, I now at least see a blueprint for creating a new world based upon these values, a blueprint which is brought closer to reality through acts of love both grand and simple.
Is it self-indulgent, even dangerous, to feel a sense of peace and comfort as the world seemingly crumbles around us? I can see why most people would say yes, and I won’t argue. But I cannot account or apologize for this new and (for me) profound perspective except to say that this sense of peace and comfort is not one which settles for inaction or complacency, but rather recognizes a new way to orient myself to the very real and present suffering and disharmony. This orientation, I hope and believe, is a real and effective way to bring an important missing ingredient current social activism.