Copyright © 2007 Dorian Scott Cole
The earth has two poles, batteries have two, magnets and coils have two, radio waves have two poles? Isn't diametric opposition the rule of nature? Isn't the clash of opposing positions the essence of debate? One person takes one side, another takes the other side. Doesn't society progress through the pendulum swing from one pole to another? Or do we misread nature?
On closer examination, a magnet is not strictly two extremes, and the opposite poles don't repel each other - they actually attract each other. If you take two magnets and place like poles together (north to north), they repel each other. Place unlike poles together and they attract each other. How is it that one piece of metal has an end that is attracted to the other end?
Are the ends of a magnet really opposites? Appearances are deceiving. Internally the atoms of a magnet are aligned so they are all pointing in one direction. This organizes the magnetic material to create poles. Cut a magnet in half, and you now have two magnets with north and south poles. Dividing doesn't destroy the poles. The magnetic strength is not in the ends, it is in the material. A magnet is not two extreme poles, it is a continuum.
We sometimes use magnets as an analogy for what happens in a society, regarding differences of opinion. Opinions, and the people who bear them, become "polarized."
When polarization happens within society, people are not all facing the same direction, with slightly differing opinions, as in a magnet or a continuum. People collect at opposite extremes and face opposite directions, entirely separated. Gathering at the extremes has strong implications.
Typically in society, opinions represent more of a bell curve, with most people being near the middle, and the numbers taper off as you near the extremes. But when polarization occurs, the numbers get high at the extremes, while only a very few people populate the middle.
Normally every individual has a slightly different attitude about a subject, shaped by his unique knowledge and experience. Polarization occurs when one factor is deemed superior to all other factors, leaving the opinion in an extreme and inflexible position. These positions are commonly forged by single issues that are considered to be more important or compelling than all other factors.
Some examples of polarizing ideas are:
Creating polarization on issues can sometimes be a winning strategy for those who want to push their agenda. It can also be a losing and frustrating strategy if that group remains in the minority.
Is polarization a healthy situation? The most common practice for people to use for resolve differing opinions, is to find a middle-ground, or a win-win solution. Everyone walks away with something. But when there is polarization, there is no flexibility and no middle-ground. There is no solution unless one side wins.
Polarization indicates a simplifying of thinking. Politicians running for office sometimes reduce their platforms to slogans, such as "Taxes are bad." Slogans are easy for people to rally around, and people don't have to grapple with issues, or think. The slogan has a "sticky" quality to it that makes people remember, recite, and believe. Sometimes politicians simply paint a bad picture of their opponents, hoping that the evil picture sticks in the minds of voters. Nothing sticks better than grimy mud. It is a very effective campaign tool. Campaigns are often won on such silly factors as slogans and painting another person as bad.
If a politician can polarize people with slogans and mud, then other factors are deemed unimportant. Only the single divisive issue of bad conduct becomes weighty enough to be important and decisive.
The implications of polarization are that opinions lack the weight of human experience and information, but are instead shaped by limited extremist ideas and agendas. While extremism may seem like a good way to make decisions and get action, in reality extremism substitutes a narrow agenda for consensus, and substitutes extremist action in place of human restrain, tolerance, and pluralism.
A consensus means that various views are considered by individuals, and they determine the best path forward that addresses as many issues as possible. That path may respond to a variety of factors, and may even be flexible and have secondary paths for contingencies.
Polarization considers there to be only one path forward, only one possible consideration, and only one possible objective. In the table below are some characteristics that may represent attitudes of those preferring consensus on an issue and those preferring polarization.
We see polarization happening in all parts of society, by groups and individuals who want to win by convincing enough people that their cause is more important than any other issue. We see it in politics, religion, environmental concerns, etc., often led by activists who care only about one issue.
The result of polarization can be that we live in a divided society in which people are poorly represented and various issues are ignored. It can result in radical extremist actions such as the Oklahoma City bombings by Terry Nichols (political motivation); the Atlanta Olympic bombings by Eric Robert Rudolph (over abortion); terrorism (Al Qaida killings); sectarian violence in Iraq; religious, ethnic and political violence in Palestine and many other parts of the world; and distortion of the facts and truth (if not outright lies). When polarization engenders radical extremist violence, the result is often worse than the alternative that it fears.
Even light can be polarized. Natural light is an electromagnetic wave that vibrates in all directions. But when light becomes polarized, it only vibrates in a single direction. But polarizing influences rob the light of strength (intensity).
The following words were coined by me because of the trends that I see in our world. They characterize certain types of behavior and attitudes.
1. incratic: adjective.
2. diasophic: adjective.
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