Imagine a world where every idea, every argument, every point of discussion is reduced to a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, a world where everyone is feverishly promoting ‘their side of the story’, with little room left for the nuanced shades of gray that paint our complex realities. In a society where everyone has a platform to voice their views, it beckons us to question – are we becoming more informed or simply more polarized? This troubling shift towards polarization, a side effect of our quest to navigate our intricate world, demands a closer examination.
As information propagates at breakneck speed, the truth often takes a backseat to sensationalism and extremism. This is no accident; rather, it’s a carefully crafted strategy, a game for garnering clicks and ratings. It seems that everywhere we turn, we find ourselves plunged into a pitched battle between two opposing forces, capitalizing on our innate fight or flight reflex. This relentless exposure to such forced and often false dichotomies, purposefully crafted for our consumption, stifles our capacity for critical thinking, empathy for contrasting perspectives, and our pursuit of mutual understanding. This alarming trend has now infiltrated all aspects of our social, political, and cultural discourse.
The heart of the matter lies in the widespread adoption of binary thinking, an approach that oversimplifies complex issues into two diametrically opposed sides. With this mindset, there’s little room for understanding, compromise, or the discovery of a shared truth. It fuels a culture of extremism, wherein lies are perpetuated, misunderstandings are solidified, and divisions are widened.
One notable manifestation of this polarized society is the distortion and misuse of language. Phrases are crafted and manipulated to serve a particular narrative, often overshadowing the actual issue at hand. The words we choose to use carry with them a world of connotations, and these undertones can be easily manipulated to push a particular viewpoint. This distortion of language doesn’t just obfuscate the truth, it also hinders the possibility of finding common ground.
Let’s visit some examples of the very visible extremes we see today
Political Tribalism: Republicans vs. Democrats, Left vs. Right, Democracy vs Dictatorship, etc.
If you’ve been unfortunate enough to participate in a casual political debate, then you know you came out of that debate knowing that your opponent was totally wrong, and you also know that your opponent came out convinced that you were totally wrong too! Not only that, but it is also likely that you think your opponent’s arguments are the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard, and of course, vice-versa.
It’s so difficult to get a person who identifies with a political party to see the flaws, mistakes, and corruption within their party constituents. But while they’re totally blind to their party’s shortcomings, they can somehow see, clear as daylight, with total authority, and with absolute confidence, all the bad stuff going on in the opposing side.
For all our human intelligence and capabilities, it’s pathetic how we can be so easily and so often manipulated to pick a side and defend it at all costs, even when our values no longer align with the side picked.
Political debate typically degrades to a highschool style fight of who shouts louder and who can find more wrongdoing on the other side faster than the other one can. When it gets more intense, it escalates to demonizing each other and attacking each other’s character rather than constructively putting together the comfortable and not so comfortable facts and arguments that reality is made of.
The Corona Pandemic: Government cabal manipulation vs. real world crisis, vaccine vs. no vaccine, etc.
You haven’t had the covid debate? Shame on you… For one, it helps clear out your circle of friends. You’ll also feel really smart because you will come to the table with irrefutable proof of your position. Your extensive four hours of research on youtube have made you an expert on the topic, and your opponent doesn’t stand a chance. Be ready though, you must have a plan! If they say something you don’t know about, just dismiss it and act like it doesn’t matter, that way their point will be weaker. You can try laughing at it, it often works.
If everything fails, just say it’s a matter of opinion, not science. Science is a theory anyway right? Science and opinion sit at the same level. If they disagree with you, just say you respect their opinion, but that they should respect your opinion too. This plan is failure-proof. You’re welcome…
The Ukraine War: In favor of the Ukraine war vs. Against the Ukraine war. For the US/Ukraine to win vs. for Russia to win.
Great topic, except for those in the front lines… Which character will you pick in the next debate? The humanitarian “no war is justified” side, the “we shouldn’t care about it, we have problems at home too” position, the pro-Ukrainian view, or the “Russia was justified” stance? Make sure to pick one, because otherwise your identity will be at risk. There is no room for not knowing which side you’re on. No one can find out that the amount you don’t know is larger than the amount you do know in this complex geopolitical situation.
Questions and learning are not allowed, only statements of fact, with confidence, you must show confidence above all. That should detract all your opponents who also don’t have a clue of what’s going on from messing with you. And oh, I was almost forgetting, don’t forget to name drop your favorite military figures and to hint at all the secret knowledge you have, and the masterful deductions you’ve made and others haven’t, it goes a long way. Your expert analysis is second to none!
Religion: Religious vs. Atheist, Religion 1 vs Religion 2.
The good old religion debate. This one is a luck of the draw kind of thing. When positive, both sides are careful to listen and respect each other’s viewpoints. After a good amount of back and forth, they reach a kumbaya agreement of our humanity and how at the end both sides mean the same, but in different ways. A happy ending indeed, I wish more discussions were like this.
When negative though, the most common reaction is to quickly agree to disagree and drop it. Smart choice when you consider our human history, my preferred one as well, as I’d like to live a little longer.
If the topic is not dropped before crossing the red line and both sides go at it, get ready for fireworks. The escalation will lead them to attempt to shame each other into submission; an objective that always fails. It’s so surprising that the outcome is always unexpectedly the same… Or, if the personalities involved in the discussion are powerful enough, they’ll just go to war, or kill each other.
Sports: Messi vs. Ronaldo, my team vs. your team.
Finally a fun one. Here’s the formula: pick your team, stick to it, and trash talk everyone else. That’s it, give it a go, you’ll quickly find a crowd of like minded devotees ready to bully any opposition. What I like about sports tribalism is that there is a common understanding that everyone is just “fucking around.” Everyone knows the trash talking deal and it just becomes a fun competition. Yes, yes, there are violent people here too, but for the most part it’s more about having fun and messing with each other. So you see, not all extremism is necessarily bad!
We could have explored another thousand examples of binary thinking, but we don’t have that much time, we’re busy people, gotta get back to scrolling on our phones, so let’s keep moving. If you want more examples, you have an unlimited bank at your fingertips. Just open your favorite social media platform and read the posts and comments section about any trending topic. Pure binary, useless trash. Finding an educated, multi-sided, intelligent thought is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
It’s one thing to be able to notice these extremes, but what is there to do about it? Why aren’t we taking meaningful steps to reduce their divisiveness as a society? The short answer is, because we don’t really know how to do it properly, it’s not convenient for the elite to address it, and it’s easier to remain indifferent than to care.
The Way Out
To break free from this cycle of extremism, we must actively seek balanced perspectives, question presented narratives, and critically evaluate the language used. We must recognize that truth is often found not in the extremes, but in the nuanced middle ground. This is far from being a novel concept; Aristotle wrote about it over 2,000 years ago in his “Nicomachean Ethics.” Good read, here is a quick extract of one of its insights for context.
When you hear the words cowardice and courage, you probably think of them as polar opposites. So you would argue against cowardice any day of the week, 24 hours a day, with 100% confidence, a feeling of absolute righteousness, and the conviction that while arguing against cowardice, you are arguing in favor of courage.
When arguing against cowardice, one would bring up all the bad qualities of a coward, like fearful of everything, hypocrite, two faced, unreliable, not trust-worthy, traitor, dishonorable, etc. Why would anyone want any part of those cowardly qualities? When the focus is in arguing against something, it’s all about discrediting that something, because if the something is discredited, you win the populist game and don’t really have to prove that you’re right. You just have to make it look like the other side is wrong. This is the norm in mass media, social media, political rhetoric, and debates amongst family, friends, and colleagues without proper rules of engagement, which accounts for the great majority of today’s discussions.
The flaw in arguing against something, is that while you may be thinking you’re indirectly arguing in favor of something else, like courage, you may actually not be arguing for what you intended to defend, but may instead be drawing a dyslexic picture with your words of a conflicted Frankenstein, a happy dystopia, an evil utopia…
In the case of courage, it is not the extreme opposite of cowardice, or the absence of fear, or of hypocrisy, or of trustworthiness. I know what you’re thinking, a courageous person acts in spite of fear and you are right, but a person who takes extreme, unnecessary, and unworthy risk is not courageous, that person is reckless. Recklessness is the absence of fear, it goes beyond courage, and it has no boundaries. Courage has boundaries, courage must be for a worthy cause, otherwise it turns into stupidity, and so, it is not an extreme. So while arguing against cowardice, thinking you’re indirectly arguing for courage, you may actually be arguing for recklessness.
In the right context, courage can actually require being hypocritical, or two-faced, or betraying. Think of being a close aide to an evil person or organization and sabotaging their plans through hypocrisy and betrayal. During the holocaust for example, some courageous heroes saved thousands of people by applying these very behaviors. If they would have been straightforward (reckless), they would have simply been killed and saved no one, so the courageous act was to deceive their masters. Those seemingly negative qualities don’t look so bleak anymore from this perspective, do they?
Courage is a balancing act between cowardice and recklessness. It is not the opposite of cowardice. It is the correct appreciation for risk and worthiness of any situation according to anyone’s unique value system and circumstances. So to bring us back to the issue at hand, now equipped with Aristotle’s wisdom, we can more clearly see why arguing against something can set us on the incorrect path to the truth, because it blinds our senses to the middle of the range between the two extremes. That middle range is where we can draw qualities from both extremes to apply to all unique situations, to manifest virtues like courage, and get as close as possible to the real truth, not the biased truth our favorite echo chambers love to echo.
Any time you hear a tribalistic or polarized argument, chances are the person making the argument is either not knowledgeable enough about the subject, in which case they should be focusing more on learning, inquiring, and collaborating, than on making uneducated statements, or has an agenda to try to push a certain narrative without care for intellectual honesty. Instances where the correct view is an extremity are far and between, and are often as obvious as black and white, like you should not kill an innocent person for committing no crime… Everything else lives in the gray, convoluted middle where virtue is found.
Sounds important doesn’t it, to understand that extreme views are typically wrong? You would think we would’ve learned something so important as to guard against binary thinking as a society by now, but no, joke’s on us. No serious guardrails exist so far to keep it at bay because it presents too good an opportunity for more ambitious people to exploit the emotions of less ambitious people, and since it’s most often the most ambitious people who make the rules, it’s not only an uphill battle to contain this epidemic, but an uphill battle that continuously resets itself back to the bottom. It doesn’t matter how much progress one makes in the pursuit of truth, it only takes one powerful and successful enough bad actor to roll it back.
Ultimately, the journey towards a less extremist society begins with each one of us. By promoting dialogue over debate, understanding over disagreement, and truth over convenience, we can work towards a society that values nuance and embraces complexity. These behaviors are as you might imagine, easier said than executed.
It takes courage to sit down and take a good honest look at oneself, to see where we have been stuck with the wrong narrative for too long and make the decision to change it. It takes patience to listen to others attentively with the intent of working together towards a common goal, rather than to interject every two seconds because we want to show how knowledgeable and important we are. It takes a certain amount of humility to accept in public that we may not know something that seems obvious to others, or to accept that we may have been wrong so that we can then be open to learn from others. It even takes a certain amount of luck to have had your curiosity sparked by someone who set you on the road for continuous prosperity and self-improvement.
So, as we venture forth in our ceaseless quest for truth, let’s endeavor to cultivate an environment that encourages curiosity, champions empathy, and values diversity of thought. Remember, it’s not about being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; it’s about the exploration of ideas and the discovery of common ground. By shifting from the trenches of extremism towards the fertile plains of nuance, we can hope to carve out a society that is richer, kinder, and more understanding. In the end, we must understand that the true pursuit of truth isn’t a sprint to the extremes, but a mindful walk through the complex tapestry of human thought and experience.