Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A Different Take on Ideological Polarization

Nilson Ariel Espino

One of the most common explanations for our divided world is that we are all very different from each other, and that getting along is thus correspondingly difficult.  The world is a very diverse place, we tell ourselves, so agreements are difficult to come by.  The best we can do is to keep the communication channels open, to try to include everyone in the discussion, and to try to respect other people’s opinions.  This position is emblematic of classical liberalism, the political ideology that undergirds our democratic systems.  Liberal democracy is invested in a series of mechanisms of public participation (elections, referendums, “townhall” meetings, surveys) that seek to bridge the chasms that our differences entail.  The ideology of free market capitalism starts from a similar position.  Since everyone is different, we can’t know beforehand what people want.  The solution is to let people buy and sell freely; this way, the “market” will automatically express people’s choices.  In both cases, everything starts from the smallest unit -the individual or, at most, the group- and builds from there.  Societies and markets are seen as essentially an agglomeration of individuals and groups with different opinions and tastes.

Anthropologists tend to see things differently.  Humans are born in the context of an existing society that shares a common culture.  Humans are cultural creatures.  We become individuals in social interaction, and our level of “individualism” is always dependent on what our society allows.  In general, we desire what our culture values, and we fashion our choices by copying, or purposely opposing, what other people like.  This means that when we confront others with different opinions, we are rarely ignorant of where they’re coming from.  In any integrated and interacting society, all individuals and groups follow or oppose others.  We are not independent universes that collide every now and then, but socially active agents regularly vying for influence, power, and notoriety within a field of competing interests.

This outlook can be helpful when addressing the issue of ideological polarization.  Again, we tend to see ideological clashes as the logical result of contrasting worldviews.  But what if both parties want basically the same things, and are just trying to get them through different ideological strategies?  If this were the case, more “dialogue” between the opponents would be useless, because the disagreements would not really be about ideas, but about who gets what. 

The reader may find it difficult to believe there’s not much disagreement between opposing groups that are so obviously different in so many ways -principles, beliefs, even aesthetics.  But, here, depth psychology can give us a hand.  Most of us are conscious that there is usually a distance between what people say and what they actually do.  We tend to see this distance as explained by hypocrisy or deceit.  But sometimes people are not aware of the dissonance.  In depth psychology, the unconscious gap between words and deeds is filled with defense mechanisms.  On the one hand, we want to say what society expects from us in order not be socially rejected or ostracized.  On the other hand, we really disagree with what we’re saying, but are too afraid or anxious to admit it to ourselves.  The differences between ideological opponents can indeed sometimes be explained through the detour of defense mechanisms.  To admit that I want the same thing as my enemy can be a terrible thing.  It undermines my sense of superiority, and suggests that we are rather equivalent.  If I’m not willing to go down this path, and rather insist on my exclusive right to what is being fought over, the easiest thing to do (albeit unconsciously) is to emphasize our differences.  This quick fix can be related to the defense mechanism known as “reaction formation.”  It is the one we use when we want something and cannot get it, and react by declaring our hate for it.  It’s classically illustrated by Aesop’s “sour grapes” fable, where the fox disparages the grapes it cannot reach. Consciously, what I want becomes what I hate, while unconsciously I’m even more in the grip of the desire for the inaccessible object.  By declaring my enemy a barbarian, I foreclose the possibility of realizing that I want what it has; that I’m being driven by envy.  In the opposite direction, I also foreclose the possibility of realizing that my enemy just wants what I have, and to which I claim exclusive rights to.  By emphasizing our supposedly irreconcilable differences and incompatible worldviews, we hide the true source of our antagonism, in the way retaining the high moral ground and ruling out any chance of sharing.

The efforts to mend the ideological polarizations that wreck today’s world are hindered by our fantasies of diversity.  We need a new framework.  My new book Conversations with the Turtles is dedicated to that effort.

Conversations with the Turtles

About The Author

Nilson Ariel Espino

Nilson Ariel Espino is an adjunct professor at McGill University's School of Urban Planning, Co-Chair of the UNESCO Chair 'Dialogues on Sustainability,' and an associate researcher...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!