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Polarization and Polarities

How can we move from division to transformation?

July is the month when we celebrate America—its birthday, its Declaration of Independence, and its unique spirit. Nova High made one of its first public appearances when we joined the Fourth of July parade here in Sandpoint, Idaho—donning t-shirts with our school logo and carrying a big beautiful banner designed by Michele. We found ourselves behind a bright yellow antique car—a cheerful match for our school colors of purple and yellow—and right in front of the Bonner County Republicans.

It was a cheerful day, with everyone celebrating everyone else and wishing each other a Happy Independence Day. In Sandpoint, I appreciate so much the civility and respect people show one another in daily life considering the wide range of perspectives, worldviews, and ideologies held by North Idahoans.

But even as we celebrate the spirit of America, we know there are tensions. Americans are more polarized now than they have been at any time in my half-century of memory. Some say we are more polarized now than any time since just before the Civil War. Most of us know it, we all feel it, many of us even recognize it is a problem, and yet we all contribute to it, feed it and exacerbate it.

What is the cause of polarization? Underlying all polarizations are polarities, which can also be thought of as generative tensions. Polarities are not negative, they are natural. But when the polarities of any particular situation aren’t recognized, or aren’t navigated thoughtfully for the good of all, polarization—characterized by one-sided, partial perspectives—can (and usually does) happen. On the flip side, when we do recognize and engage the polarities intentionally, they can be generative—meaning: they generate creative energy and innovative, transformational paths through their apparent dilemmas.

We are all familiar with polarities, even if we have not named them as such, since we oscillate through them constantly: rest and activity, breathing in and breathing out, sleeping and waking, night and day, hunger and fullness, dusk and dawn. We move between these poles throughout the day—some more consciously than others. We move through other poles throughout the year: the season heats and then cools, the moon waxes and then wanes, the weather is rainy and then dry, the days lengthen and then they shorten.

Polarities are not limited to physical experiences beyond our influence. They exist emotionally, spiritually, and socially as well. We experience times of grieving and times of rejoicing, times of expansion and times of contraction, times of solitude and times of companionship. The cosmic polarities that exist in our spiritual life include mercy and justice, freedom and responsibility, truth and reconciliation, will and grace.

In most polarities, every individual tends to have a preference (sometimes strong, sometimes slight) for one side of the polarity. One person is a “morning person”, another is a “night owl.” One person prefers sunny weather, another prefers foggy weather. One person is more solitary, another more social. One person tends towards being a free spirit, another towards being a responsible citizen.

Thus polarities can be cosmic and they can be very specific. Within any organization or society, there are an endless number of polarities at different levels: centralization and decentralization, quality and affordability, efficiency and participation, autonomy and accountability, structure and flexibility, to name just a few.

Polarization happens when people start to take sides and to over-focus on one pole in a polarity. This one-sidedness can happen in a marriage: one partner is “the responsible one” while the other is over-focused on freedom, and they can no longer hold (as a couple) the importance of both freedom and responsibility. It can happen when one parent is “the nurturing one” while the other one is overfocused on setting boundaries, and they cannot appreciate what the other is holding. Tensions rise… and arguments and power struggles ensue.

Polarization also happens in any social group when the importance of both sides of the polarity is not held by the group—when a subgroup holds one side and another subgroup holds the other side. Often, polarizations become entrenched when there are a number of reinforcing polarities at work—a complex tangle of issues gets interwoven and oversimplified and camps get established. A social pressure arises so that in order to feel accepted in either camp you feel pushed to take on a whole slate of one-sided preferences rather than think and feel through each issue and nuance independently.

For the past decade or so, I have been fascinated by the dynamics of social polarities and how they play out in groups. When I see one-sidedness, I anticipate polarization. When COVID hit, I was immediately aware that complex issues were being focused on one-sidedly by the mainstream media. They were talking about how closing schools would prevent the spread of COVID, but not about how this would affect learning or socialization in children. They were talking about how social distancing could prevent the spread of a virus, but not about how the sense of isolation and despair would impact us.

Then, when the alternative media lit up with exploring the other sides of these polarities, big Tech (in collusion with big Pharma) began to shut down (“deplatform”) these dissident voices. And then a whole new set of issues arose to polarize us, having to do with freedom of speech “vs” the spreading of “disinformation”…

So what is our way out of this quagmire? The first step is to recognize the actual polarities that underlie our polarization—make them conscious, think about them, acknowledge them, and discuss them respectfully. We need to recognize that any kind of one-sidedness will ultimately create its opposite. Think of the well-known yin/yang symbol, where each polar side contains the seed of the other pole. There is a word for the way in which any extreme ultimately generates its opposite. It is attributed to Heraclitus and was brought to the modern West by Carl Jung: enantiodromia.

For his part, Rudolf Steiner—the founder of Waldorf Education—repeatedly warned against “one sided abstractions'':

Steiner spoke often of the fact that what we perceive as “evil” actually has two forms, which he identified as Lucifer and Ahriman, which pull us in two opposing directions. Steiner showed that following the Christ impulse is about finding and following the “transformational third way” through these opposing pulls, or poles. To adhere strongly to one side of any polarity is to fall prey to the temptation of either Lucifer or Ahriman.

We see the pattern play out often in education. As an example, if American history is taught in an idealistic way that overemphasizes American greatness and accomplishments, a well-intentioned group comes along to change the way it is taught. In their reactivity, they overfocus on the failures of America, teaching only the oppression and sins of our national history. Then another group comes along trying to reinstate a sense of the greatness of America… And the pendulum keeps swinging. Children become pawns in this power struggle, and miss the opportunity to understand the complexity of American history–a story that includes great idealism and accomplishments as well as suffering and struggle. A history that can be looked at from endless vantage points—stories within stories within stories.

At Nova High, one of our most cherished goals is to find this transformational third way through those places that have become dangerously polarized in today’s America. This—we believe—is following the Christ impulse that Steiner pointed to over and over again. Steiner’s education is intended to foster social renewal in humanity, and we hold that vision dear. America, too, at its best, finds a way through extremes to a “both/and” response: diversity AND unity, individual rights AND the common good, preservation AND progress. That path of transformation is deeply embedded in the Constitution, and that is the American spirit I celebrate on the 4th of July.

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