I really like trying to understand why people see the world the way they do. Well, okay, “like” isn’t really the right word. It’s more accurate to say I feel driven to do so. And after observing that other people don’t seem to share this drive, I figure this might be a manifestation of intellectual and emotional excitability.
Intellectually, the drive to understand the world compels me to try understand why some others see it differently, and to be open to revising my views based on what I learn from them. Of course I could be the one who’s got the more accurate bit of knowledge, but I won’t be able to make that call until I do the work of trying to understand.
As for the emotional element, well, like pretty much everyone, I feel an emotionally negative pulse when I discover someone sees the world in a way that I think is not just inaccurate but somehow harmfully so, as often happens in politics. But I’ve found that, at least for me, the best way to overcome this negative feeling is, again, to understand why they hold the views they do. I still may disagree powerfully, but by understanding, I come to feel that I can disagree constructively, whatever form that may take. And that dampens the negative emotional charge sufficiently. I figure it counts as a form of subject-object in oneself, a dynamism from Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration that involves glimpsing someone else’s subjectivity while looking at yourself as objectively as possible.
Sadly, I’ve found asking these sorts of questions has gotten both more difficult in today’s political climate. As I write this, the 2020 presidential election here in the United States is days away, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one here who can’t wait for it to be over. The major rift in US politics at present is between supporters and opponents of Donald Trump, which is roughly but not quite the same thing as Republicans vs. Democrats. But there are rifts inside these groups, too. The social shifts that brought us the Trump presidency are also causing both the Left and the Right fight over what it means to be of the Left or the Right. In fact, those intra-faction divides are where I’ve experienced the most acrimonious feuds.
The Forces Driving Us Apart
As this sort of subject-object approach to politics becomes more difficult, I also believe it is more necessary than ever. Because even if We the People of the United States throw out Donald Trump next week, we’re not suddenly going to be healed as a nation. The conditions from which he rose will remain.
I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about this lately. I’ve always loved that the motto of the United States is E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one. But there are a lot of social forces conspiring to work against this ideal these days. When we move for jobs (because of our dreams or because of economic conditions), we tend to land in places where people are likely to think more like us, which in turn makes it harder to understand the views held by our opponents, let alone the forces that drove them to hold them. Social media platforms entice us to stay on their sites by feeding us content that affirms our worldview—or, better yet, that angers us, since outrage at the Other Side keeps us scrolling better than anything. Lonely and alienated people understandably seek to join groups of people who think like they do; perhaps they even start off thinking they’re independent thinkers because they left another group, only to go on to replicate the dynamic of groupthink that alienated them from their old group. With all these trends and more, it takes more and more work to see the world in the technicolor that really animates it, rather than the black and white of one’s righteous group.
Under these conditions, Unum cannot emerge E Pluribus.
Toward a Positive Political Disintegration
Even though this rift runs through our entire society, I figure it’s in communities—and in person-to-person relationships—that we’ve got a hope of bridging it. And so I thought I’d try to apply my compulsion to understand people of different perspectives to a series of articles here in Third Factor, in the hopes that it might be valuable to others who want to engage their intellect and their emotions with pressing issues of the day. So I’m going to look for thoughtful people—liberals, conservatives, libertarians, socialists; #MAGA hats, #Resist bumper stickers, or calling for a #PoxOnBothYourHouses—and invite them to open up about why they think what they do.
I know I’m far from the only person on the Internet doing this these days. The way I’m going to try to do it for Third Factor, though, is something I haven’t yet found: I want to look at people’s inner worlds. I don’t want just their intellectual arguments; I want to glimpse the human being behind it. I want to know what they feel and what they value.
Dabrowski said that hierarchization is central to growth through positive disintegration. As he described it, hierarchization is the process of moving away from our lower emotions and toward our higher ones; it takes us away from the base instincts and social pressures that previously drove us and toward our ideal of who we want to be. It seems to me that the sort of conflicts we’re facing now, especially in the intra-party rifts that both Democrats and Republicans are facing, could fuel this sort of hierarchization.
Given that this magazine focuses on the growth process of people who are highly intellectually engaged and emotionally sensitive—that is, the sort of people Dabrowski said were most likely to experience positive disintegration—I figured that stories about this process might be a useful addition to what we offer here.
Starting from the Center
As this issue is going to press in the week before the 2020 US presidential election, I’ve decided to kick this project off with a complementary pair of articles by thoughtful individuals who both feel alienated by the parties they’ve been aligned with their whole lives.
Both Dan Greco and Frank Robinson are over fifty years old, giving their reflections a depth that I see as great starting point for this project. I found both of them through Twitter. I’ve followed Dan for a long time and find him to be one of the only people on that platform who manages to be consistently principled, resisting the way Twitter can bring out the worst in people. Frank, on the other hand, is not on social media, but his daughter is, so when I put out a call for a Republican who is feeling disillusioned with the party, she sent me her dad’s way. I really enjoyed working with both of them to share what it was like to see their home parties shift in a way that clarified their highest values.
I am not sharing their stories—or any future stories in this series—because I necessarily agree with them. I agree with some of what they say and disagree with other parts. In this case, my view happens to be close to Dan’s, but in Frank’s perspective, I see a lot of important ideas that I ought to consider. I hope that whatever your views are, you will also find something worth considering in this pair of articles.
Countering the Echo Chamber
I’d also like to invite you to discuss these and future political perspectives in our discussion group. At the moment, we’re still on Facebook, though I intend to change this in the coming months. (See this issue’s Letter from the Editor for more details.) I hope you will use it as an opportunity to understand why other people think what they think, and if the discussion stirs up any negative emotions, that you will try to use that as an opportunity to practice either dampening or effectively channeling those emotions.
To conclude, I’ll note that though Third Factor readers tend to share the drive to make the world a better place, we don’t all agree on how to do that. I see that as a feature rather than a bug. If we end up with an echo chamber (which is always a risk, given the dynamics of the Internet), I’ll try to bring in someone who can shake it up. Some of you dislike politics entirely, or don’t care about US politics. I respect that, and I don’t intend to let political content become more than one segment among many at this magazine. I’ll also note that though both of this issue’s contributors are anti-Trump, I have some interviewees lined up who supported our current president. Though I don’t agree with them on that point, I’ve picked them out because they do stand for something that even those of us who are hoping Trump is on his way out might be able to relate to or respect.
Given our potent blend of restless intellect and charged emotion, I’m betting that others here will get something out of these articles and interviews. In my own effort to understand, I’m going to talk to them all. I hope that you’ll find the results worthwhile.