Political Iridescence: Courage and Complexity in a Tribal World

Let me begin with a preface: this article is about the experience of political activity, not about a political stance. Though I am a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), I expect my story will resonate elsewhere in the political spectrum—including with many who feel politically homeless these days.

Political homelessness, I think, must be common among those incessantly analyzing people this magazine refers to as the intellectually overexcitable. This is not to say that people who do feel at home in any given political tribe can’t have intellectual overexcitability; it’s only that they are the lucky ones. They managed to ask all the questions spilling from their overactive minds and still find homes.

And even once you find one, you may need some courage to hold on to it.

No One Likes a Devil’s Advocate

The awareness of not being like others can create an unpleasant state of mind, a suspicion that one’s mind skipped to a wrong track. When no one seems to understand, one is all alone with the problem. One may come to think that being a conformist is sanity and being a nonconformist is insanity.

—Piechowski, “Mellow Out,” They Say. If I Only Could (p. 74)

I’ve always been a good questioner. Too good for my own good, frankly. By high school, I already joked that I could bring people together politically because I tended to make everyone angry. I tried to be aware of the drawbacks to my preferred policies, and I wanted to discuss them. There are always drawbacks, and it seems to me that the best way to propose good policy is to be aware of and address them. We certainly shouldn’t deny any costs. Whether they are worth the benefit, of course, often comes down to a value judgment. That means that when you point out a cost for the sake of discussion, people may perceive it as an attack on their values.

Even the word “question” has a negative connotation. It implies somehow that they are wrong. We lack a good word that says, neutrally, “I’m just interested in why you think the way you do. I’m sure I can learn something from you.”

Eventually, because I disliked making people uncomfortable, I decided that this was generally best avoided. Frustratingly, even that word “question” has a negative connotation. It implies somehow that I think they are wrong. We lack a good neutral word that says, “I’m just interested in why you think the way you do. I’m sure I can learn something from you.” This is a sentiment that must be spelled out with a full sentence or two, ideally delivered with tone and gesture that signal gentleness, friendliness, and open-mindedness.  And even if you master this delivery, the act of asking questions still suggests that you aren’t a reliable ally. Well, it’s true: I am never a completely reliable ally with respect to intellectual issues. New evidence may well compel me to change my stance.

In the language of Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD), the theory that informs this magazine, this experience is known as intellectual overexcitability (OE). Consider the portrait painted in Michael Piechowski’s “Mellow Out,” They Say. If I Only Could, a book about the overexcitable experience that we reviewed in our last issue. As Piechowski writes, the intellectually overexcitable “have a good nose for ideas that challenge established views,” (67) and “[w]ith their growing ability to analyze ideas, they try to come to their own view on many fundamental questions.” (71) Furthermore, “[b]ecause they can see many points of view, they are not ready to commit themselves to a belief.” (72)

In this vein, I certainly cannot commit to a belief in the superiority of the capitalist economic system. It has too many downsides. Most people agree that if we can come up with something better, we should. So far, of course, no one has pulled together expansive evidence of some humane and workable alternative; there are, however, intriguing seeds that give me hope of evolution. If your curiosity demands more about my stance, I recommend Eric Olin Wright, especially his idea of eroding capitalism.

But that’s a digression for now. Our topic here is the intellectual and emotional experience of being a political questioner.  And that is precisely what landed me, in 2013, at the Socialist Salon, a discussion group hosted by my local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.  Back then, the crowd was mainly grey-haired Sixties radicals and over 75% male, so as a young woman, I drew a lot of genuine welcomes. They always expressly invited me to speak if I had been quiet. Now, I tend to listen rather than speak, and doubly so when I’m new; it’s a bad habit I developed in part from knowing that people don’t always like my questions. But when I did ask questions—even the occasional devil’s advocacy!—they pretty much always responded positively. As self-declared socialists, they knew that they held a suspect opinion, and were therefore prepared to defend it. Indeed, they jumped at the chance.

Now this was a group that I liked!

It makes sense if you think about it. Before the Bernie Sanders campaign (and after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the alleged end of history), virtually no one in the United States called herself a socialist, even with the “democratic” qualifier. If you did willingly embrace this label, you’d likely done some significant divergent thinking. You had to be comfortable with nuance and complexity, in order to separate what still had the potential for good from what had gone so badly wrong. You had to believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, because by willingly affiliating yourself with an ideology that most people linked to cruel oppression and economic failure, you were always hoping others would give it to you. And when I was with the sort of people who worked best for me as friends—those critical thinkers who loved discussion—people would assume good faith, even as they wanted to know why on Earth I was calling myself a socialist. They trusted that I was neither stupid nor evil, so they figured that I must have some kind of reason, even if that reason was ill-informed.

If the world were teeming with intellectual overexcitability—with curiosity, with good faith, with critical thinking—this might even be a good way to fire up a political movement.

Intellectual Tetrachromacy

Please bear with me as I go off on a tangent.

Have you ever heard of tetrachromacy? It’s an X chromosome-linked genetic condition in which a woman has four cones in her retina instead of the usual three. This enables her to see a variety of shades where we trichromatic humans perceive a single solid color. The effect, according to tetrachromatic artist Concetta Antico, is dramatic. It can be overwhelming. “The grocery store and the mall are a color assault. There’s too much of everything and too much that is not naturally beautiful,” this article quotes Antico as saying.

Intellectual overexcitability is tetrachromacy of the mind. At its worst, it can be overwhelming. But even when it’s a joy, you remain aware that other people aren’t seeing the world the same way you are.

I am not a tetrachromat. And yet, somehow, this resonated with me. I remember once, in an online forum full of people I saw as kindred spirits, someone asked whether the rest of us tended to see things in black and white or shades of grey. Enthusiastic responses quickly piled up, all in favor of a very broad greyscale.

If you ask me, the flatness of the phrase “shades of grey” doesn’t capture the full experience. A better metaphor would involve multiple colors. Intellectual overexcitability, you might say, is tetrachromacy of the mind. At its worst, it can be overwhelming. (“Paralysis by analysis,” for instance, is a real risk.) But even when it’s a joy, you nevertheless remain aware that other people aren’t seeing the world the same way you are. This causes confusion. It leads you to misunderstand each other. And it can make people mad.

Organizational Growing Pains

The ability to understand a question from all sides meant one was totally unfit for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of the real man.

—Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War

Returning to the story, let’s fast forward a few years, to the night Donald Trump was elected.  That was also the night DSA’s membership began to surge.

With brand new members suddenly making up the majority of the organization, our culture changed.  These new members were of a different breed. They had tremendous stores of energy. They had a lot of time to dedicate to the organization. They had the courage of their convictions—and hadn’t spent years being on the defensive about them. And to be sure: in the two years since then, they have done some admirable work.

But with all this came another change, too: the organizational culture suddenly was much less friendly to good faith questioning and nuance. The new members seemed less interested in convincing potentially sympathetic but skeptical people that socialism actually referred to something positive and more interested in mobilizing those who agreed, now. Nuance and critical viewpoints help more with the former than the latter. I won’t get too far into the details, because, again, the politics aren’t the point. So here is only one well-publicized example: DSA is very concerned about police violence. So far, so good; I’m very concerned about that, too. Many new members, however, held the view that the police are always bad. So bad, in fact, that we must never engage with them in any way.

That’s why, when a longtime DSA member who had worked to organize police unions (among other unions) got elected to our National Political Committee, all hell broke loose. If you want details, I recommend this piece in the Austin Chronicle. (I love the graphic they made for it. The juxtaposition of two monochromatic halves is just right.)

Courtesy Austin Chronicle

In the battle, I—like many of the pre-surge members—sided with Danny, the union organizer. I saw him as a good person who had done a lot for progressive movements over the years. And personally, I liked that he straddled communities. His experience was one more tool in our toolkit that we might use to erode the threat that police pose to communities of color.

In addition to this intellectual disagreement, I was horrified by the wall of anger that was descending upon him, mainly through social media. Since I had joined DSA precisely because of the welcoming climate of political and intellectual exploration, I was also unprepared for it. But for a long time, I didn’t say anything. This, after all, was a supercharged version of the perilous space I had long ago learned to recognize: no one wants your nuance here. People are angry, and they’ll come for you.

It was a cowardly stance. As the ad hominem attacks mounted, I increasingly felt shame over my fear and paralysis—until, one day, it reached a critical level. As I read yet another thread of pilers-on discussing how awful Danny obviously was without consideration of any possible redeeming factor, my eyes began brimming with tears. I was fed up both with what was being done to this dedicated activist, and at my own evident willingness to stand by and watch it happen. Now—finally—in addition to my intellectual OE, my emotional OE was engaged, no longer throttled under a learned numbness. And that, as would be no surprise to Dr. Dabrowski, meant I couldn’t live with my fearful inaction anymore.

So I did what writers tend to do: I wrote a blog post in defense of Danny and in defense of a DSA that welcomed people like him. I didn’t expect many people in DSA ever read my blog (which was more about Dabrowski’s theory and rarely about politics), so it was striking when WordPress alerted me that I was getting more hits than usual.

A lot more hits.

The amount of hits that you get when you made people angry.

Many who responded positively to my blog post felt isolated and disoriented.  That made it hard for them to envision any positive impact that would be worth the cost of speaking out.

Nevertheless, the piece garnered several behind-the-scenes thank yous. Many other DSA members—those same quirky questioners who were the dominant type among previous generations of American socialists—felt the same way, but everyone felt so uncertain in this brave new organization that they too had struggled to find the courage to speak up. Importantly, because they felt isolated and disoriented, many could not envision having any positive impact that would be worth the potential cost.

The piece did not, of course, immediately restore DSA to its old friendliness to divergent thinkers. After its publication, my local chapter had a dreadfully tense meeting, full of people who saw me as a dangerous enemy. Someone felt deeply hurt because I included her tweet as context for what I called bullying. Eleven people signed a letter declaring that I was “uncomradely” and asserting that my defense of Danny made the space unsafe for people of color. (Only those who already agreed with me noted that there were people of color who shared my opinion.) Suffice it to say, my cortisol levels were elevated for a long time after that.

Was it worth it?  Or had I just alienated myself to no effect?

The Positive Disintegration of an Overexcitable Activist

The first educational precept derivable from the theory of positive disintegration is that one should foster authenticity. The road towards an independent authentic hierarchy of values is certainly very difficult, but it must be made clear that there is no other safe method open to man, because even the best system of moral norms does not work in practice, if its assimilation is not authentic and does not involve genuine inner psychic transformation. The idea of indiscriminate social adjustment, adaptation to what is, conformity to prevailing social standards, has to be replaced by qualified adjustment and, where necessary, positive maladjustment.

—Dabrowski, 1970, p. 120

Allow me to step briefly into my internal space before I reemerge with some suggestions for the external world.

As this whole mess was unfolding, that internal space was soaking in the dynamisms of TPD’s level III, also known as spontaneous multilevel disintegration. Take the dynamism Dabrowski called dissatisfaction with oneself, “a very powerful dynamism of discontent with one’s own behavior in relation to oneself and in relation to others”—for instance, realizing you are at present too chicken to stand up for someone or to advance an alternative perspective. Complementary to this dissatisfaction is inferiority toward oneself, which is

a powerful dynamism which consists of the experience and awareness of the disparity between one’s actual level and a higher one toward which one strives. It is the shock of realization of one’s unfaithfulness to an ideal of personality even if only vaguely perceived, and to a hierarchy of values which begins to take shape but as yet is lacking in stability. Feeling of inferiority is followed by a desire and actions to bring about developmental change in oneself. (1996, p. 35)

I wanted to see myself as someone who does point out when the emperor appears not to be wearing clothes. But somewhere along the line, I had become adjusted to the reality that people don’t like this. And this, in turn, was preventing me from living up to an ideal that was even more important: I wanted to think I was someone who would stand up for someone who was being treated unjustly. Now, when it mattered, I was failing to live up to both of these ideals. This is precisely what in TPD is known as negative adjustment.

In the face of failing to live up to my personality ideal, embracing the third factor was the only way I knew to overcome the somatic tension that I was experiencing. I had to turn negative adjustment into positive maladjustment.

Importantly, though the kindling of my disintegration was the tetrachromacy of intellectual OE, it was emotional OE that set it ablaze. This wouldn’t have surprised Dabrowski, who said that “[t]he power of the dynamisms of spontaneous multilevel disintegration is mainly a function of the power of emotional overexcitability.” (1996, p. 35)

Enter the third factor, this magazine’s namesake dynamism. Dabrowski defines it as

a dynamism of conscious choice by which one sets apart both in oneself and in one’s environment those elements which are positive, and therefore considered higher, from those which are negative, and therefore considered lower. By this process a person denies and rejects inferior demands of the internal as well as of the external milieu, and accepts, affirms and selects positive elements in either milieu. (p. 39)

The third factor is that spirit that moves us to actively choose what is good within us and within our environment and to reject what is not. When the social pressures of the second factor lead somewhere unhealthy, the third factor is the antidote.  (Social pressures do not always point somewhere negative, to be sure, but how do you know if you aren’t thinking carefully?) These pressures, of course, are what the intellectual tetrachromat learns to fear. They’re why I became reluctant to raise my hand and ask questions, even in friendly discussion forums.

In the face of failing to live up to my personality ideal, embracing the third factor was the only way to overcome the somatic tension that I was experiencing. I had to turn negative adjustment into positive maladjustment.  I would be lying if I said that the tension immediately abated after I spoke up: after all, lots of people actively loathed me now. But as I write this article, about a year later, I can attest to the fact that it absolutely was better to say something, however imperfect my delivery. I cannot say it would be easy to do something like that again, but it would at least be easier. I was able to live with myself, even if DSA meetings became decidedly uncomfortable. Positive maladjustment—also described in TPD as adjustment to what ought to be—is not an easy experience to navigate. But if you can manage to hang on, it is probably preferable to remaining negatively adjusted to what is.

Whither Now, Tetrachromat?

We live in a time of conflict. I wish it need not have happened in my time, but so do all who live to see such times, as a wise philosopher once said. And that is not for them to decide. Now we must decide what we, as intellectual tetrachromats, will do with the time that is given to us.

This conflict is not limited to intra-organizational fights of the far left. Sadly, in any organization, tendency, or movement, the people who express the least nuance and the most hostility are often the ones who get quoted and who come to represent the group to outsiders. In our modern media ecosystem, the most egregious stances go viral. Your social media provider does its best to filter out the shimmers of purply indigo within the red, or the violety magenta in the blue.

There are intellectual tetrachromats everywhere on the political spectrum. Though we do hold opinions, we simultaneously find it valuable to engage with people whose views are different from ours. Unfortunately, the starker our tribal divisions, the harder this type of engagement becomes. Those who do try to discuss an issue with someone who sees things differently—those who even acknowledge that “the other side” may at times have a point we should address—are frequently treated as threats rather than bridge builders. Some of the people treating them this way may once have been tetrachromats themselves; but because the experience is overwhelming, they have managed to shut down a couple retinal cones through sheer force of will in the hope of finding membership. Because the one thing an intellectual tetrachromat can’t count on is belonging.

But I have some good news on that front: in DSA, the divergent thinkers are regrouping. The issue of affiliation with the police came up again recently in my local chapter, when a candidate we endorsed subsequently also accepted the endorsement of a police union. Some of our members wanted to rescind our endorsement.  When that effort failed, they sought to amend our bylaws to automatically void our endorsement if such a situation ever arose again.

Now, however, people were now prepared to speak to the concerns that many of us disoriented old DSAers were once afraid to voice. Outside the meeting at which we would vote on this question, I was handed a flyer, from which I quote:

[W]e are not uniform about our approaches to addressing these issues. We must constantly negotiate our path forward with one another. [The amendments in question] seek to eliminate that discussion and negotiation process when it comes to police reform and the Israel/Palestine conflict, replacing it with an idiosyncratic “hard line” that undermines our electoral effectiveness, our relationships with other members of our chapter, and our relationships and ability to build power with other members of our communities.

This hard-line stance neither represents our communities nor protects them. […]

We trust and respect our comrades, even when we are not in full agreement. We hope that the same trust and respect will be given to us: that we are committed to advancing democratic socialism, and that we will do so in the ways that best represent and support our local community.

Those of us who agreed with this powerful statement, as it turned out, were in the majority. The proposed amendment failed, 32 to 95. By a margin of almost three to one against, our chapter declined to build a hardline stance into our bylaws, leaving it instead to members to sort out the complexities of each situation. To the pleasant surprise of those who had felt discouraged over the past year or so (and perhaps to those of you whose image of democratic socialists comes exclusively through social media), our organization is still home to people who see all those different shades and hues.

Importantly, it is also home to a core group that dared to do the work to organize them. Of course, if someone is going to put in the effort to do this type of organizing, they need to have faith that there are sympathetic people out there to organize. For them to have that faith, someone has to have found a way to speak up. Someone always has to have the courage to go first.

An intellectual tetrachromat is not an easy thing to be. We all want somewhere to belong, and it is tempting to find a tribe and hunker down within it. But as our world becomes increasingly tribal, those who can see the blues, greens, and pinks—and the turquoises, chartreuses, and heliotropes—are actually a source of hope. New frames that incorporate those other colors can and have built bridges between people of different ideologies.

That’s why I’m so encouraged to have discovered that there are far more tetrachromats out there than I originally came to expect. It turned out that years of negative adjustment after high school, and a single year of positive maladjustment as an activist, had left me with a blind spot of my own. If your experience of iridescence comes with the same blind spot, I hope this story will give you courage. I can’t promise you will have success in any given battle, but I can at least promise that you are not alone.  And I’m willing to bet that someone else is waiting for you to speak.


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Editor in Chief at Third Factor jessie@thirdfactor.org + posts

A divergent thinker who can't abide an echo chamber, Jessie has served as assistant to the Consul General of Japan, Google Policy Fellow, and CIA leadership analyst. She is now an independent writer and analyst.