Why We’re Stuck with Polarization

Posted on 2019 March 3


why we're stuck with polarization Animals-Alphabet-America

I will now perform a magic trick using only words. They will appear on your screen as a complete, grammatically correct sentence with proper syntax and a clear meaning. AND YET … You will be unable to remember it!

First, some background:

Deep in the ancient past, humans lived in small tribal groups, hunting and gathering for their sustenance, working together to provide for each other. They shared a language and beliefs, wore similar clothing, sang common songs, ate the same food, had similar skin and hair. Outsiders looked and spoke and behaved differently — inexplicably oddly, to members of the tribe — and therefore could not be trusted, much less respected. After all, the tribe knew how to live properly, and these strangers were simply weird.

When outsiders attacked, tribe members would defend their community with great vigor, even to the death. Any member who doubted the worth of the tribe would likely hesitate in battle; these people tended to die off. Only the truly loyal — believers in the tribe’s value, virtue, and superiority — survived. They bequeathed the same attitude to their children and grandchildren.

We descend from these true believers. Yet in the last hundred years most of us have moved into giant cities, where we live cheek-by-jowl with strangers whose accents, odd skin color, weird food preferences, and unappealing music make them seem like outsiders, people our ancestors would have killed on sight or at least robbed and enslaved. Urban life thus feels awkward and lonely for many of us.

In modern Western societies, especially America, urban crowding — and the rise of huge governments to manage all that humanity — aggravates tensions and disagreements among the citizens. The more restricted we feel from the rules we must obey and the people who hem us in, the more we yearn for a tribe where we can truly belong.

In the big city, though, tribes don’t coalesce well; their members are scattered among the enemy population. Tribes encourage us, as always, to distrust or hate outsiders, but today those outsiders aren’t active threats and might instead become worthwhile co-workers, friends, or even spouses. Tribes simply don’t work properly in urban environments, yet they persist, asking us to look down on our neighbors.

Today two giant diffused tribes, the Left and the Right, holding diametrically opposed fundamental beliefs and practices, dwell together in the same urban regions, where they compete to dominate each other for control of the entire society. When one side gets command of the rules, it issues regulations that stymie the other side, which seethes with resentment and plots to wrest away that control.

The tribes cannot, and will not, back down, and the increasing stakes force them into ever more dire confrontations. Battles, at first verbal and democratic, begin to edge toward violence. With each passing year the powder keg of polarization gets packed ever more tightly with explosive tension.

… And now for the magic trick. I will present a complete sentence in English that you will read and immediately forget. Here is the sentence:

In the modern urban world, your tribe can no longer benefit you; instead, its activities aggravate the problems you face.

You may notice your gorge rising, a feeling of being disrespected. Why? It’s simple: I just criticized your tribe. I doesn’t matter that I have critiqued all tribes, since you already know for certain that the other tribes are stupid. It’s the effrontery with which I’ve thrown you in with the bad people that irritates. After all, “Our group is reasonable! It’s the other group that’s stupid and led by evil people. The problems we’re facing are their fault!”

Never mind that the other side feels exactly the same way about you.

Already the meaning of my magic sentence is fading from memory. All you can remember is that Jim somehow put your people down. You will be unable to recall the sentence, much less its meaning, by the time you reach the bottom of this essay (if you’re willing to read that far).

We know that humans bond strongly to their tribes, and that any outside threat — including criticism — is grounds to reject the outsider. This also goes for people who believe they are above the political fray, since we all bond to something — a belief system, a religion, a nationalism, a racial supremacy — that we regard as our tribe. None of these groups can step outside their own tribalisms; they, too, will reject and forget my magic sentence.

Since all of us are tribal by nature, any critique of tribal loyalties cannot be heard by anyone.

If the core problem of polarization is tribalism, and if tribes cannot listen to any outside criticism — even a warning about tribes in general — then polarization simply will not be resolved. (There’s a chance in America to revive the power of states to determine their own cultures, whereupon the Left and Right can migrate to the states they prefer, but that’s unlikely.) The sides are doomed to fight endlessly, or until one completely vanquishes the other. It will never occur to the combatants that the problem started with tribal rivalries unsuited to the urban age.

We each think our tribe is exceptional and not to be questioned. And that is how the magic trick works: any critique of tribalism is dismissed by everyone as intolerable, or pinned onto the other tribe, and quickly forgotten.

Thus … thus … wait a minute, what were we talking about? I can’t remember.