In many ways, American society seems more contentious and more divided than it has been in a long time. In politics, the long-simmering conflict between Democrats and Republicans that started under President Reagan is coming to an explosive head. For decades, Republicans have moved further and further to the right, and as a reaction, some Democrats, particularly those under Bernie Sanders, have been moving more and more to the left. On another level, since Trump came into office, racist white nationalists and militia men have become more salient and more powerful, while recently, particularly as a result of George Floyd’s death, Black Lives Matter has surged in strength and influence. Actually, George Floyd’s death has brought to the fore the most immediate oppositional group for Black Lives Matter: predatory police. Other head-butting groups include those who want to wear masks for Covid 19, and those who refuse to do so; those who believe in vaccination and the anti-vaxxers, those who believe in income redistribution through a universal base salary paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy and those who want to lower taxes. And then there is a traditional polarization that has been around forever: pro-choice vs. pro-life. There are no points of convergence in all these pairs of opposing philosophies.
Furthermore, it is not as if all these movements and groups have well-thought-out strategies with regard to how to implement their ideas and how to demonstrate endgames that would include their vision. But then again, on one level, it doesn’t really matter. It may not be a full completion of the goals that is really desired. In modern technological society where people live frictionless mediated lives, real success in one’s ideological goals would take away the intense revitalizing friction that comes from an intense struggle. And what could provide a greater struggle than butting heads with one’s ideological opposite.
What would define success for white nationalists: continued white dominance, or maybe even expulsion of racial minorities and Jews? What would define success for Black Lives Matter? For sure, defunding police departments and perhaps abolishing them. But after that, then what? Tearing down statues of everyone with a perceived slave or colonial connection? That’s already happening. What about greater investment in black communities? What about reparations?
When it comes to reparations, the only way to do such a blanket give-away would be to raise taxes on the wealthy, which, of course, goes entirely against the philosophy of people who see taxes as a wrongful intervention into people’s lives.
What is both of interest and concern is not so much that these and other positions may be oppositional, but that there seems to be no will on anyone’s part to try to redefine problems so that there can be some convergence. And anyway, in many cases, the objectives of these different groups are vague. In part, this is because the different groups are broken up into sub-groups who don’t agree among themselves.
In the American Congress, with the exception of a bill for significant tax cuts, the Republicans have spent the last few years by being opposed to what the Democrats propose. But this state of ongoing opposition particularly acts as a spur to pulling the Republicans out of their numbness and keeping them alive. At the same time, it makes it practically impossible for the two parties to come together, compromise, and pass meaningful legislation. Yes, the two parties have come together to pass emergency financial relief bills connected to Covid 19, but that’s about it. In the meantime, the ongoing conflict between the two parties has paralyzed the Congress and prevented it from developing legislative strategies for dealing with long-time situations.
And the non-governmental movements are generating conflicts in different spaces. White nationalists versus Black Lives Matter versus the police. Our country is becoming increasingly polarized in so many ways. More and more people are taking uncompromising postures with little room to come together with the opposition.
And yet undergirding the external philosophical difference that are creating these polarizations, there is the numbness generated by the frictionless mediated technological society. And these uncompromising philosophical differences are a very good way to come out of the experiential vacuum and stay alive, particularly if there’s no hope of resolving the philosophical differences with compromise. Coming to an agreement and compromising would mean having to return to the experiential vacuum and becoming numb. Particularly most modern white Americans, who have been unthinkingly, numbingly indifferent to the problems experienced by black Americans, are suddenly “shocked” by what they see and are experiencing themselves feeling wonderfully alive in feeling “shocked”. Suddenly, they have a mission, a mission that may be very noble indeed, but because it is so vague and expansive and because it stimulates an opposition that will help them to feel very much alive, has the potential for lasting a long, long time without resolving itself with a meaningful endgame.
And all these movements have strong internal divisions which will also help to stimulate people to life. I want to emphasize that I am not trying to reduce all the motivation behind moral positions today to pulling out of numbness and feeling alive. On one hand, people can participate in the moral positions that they espouse and be totally sincere about their beliefs. On the other hand, the uncompromising polarization created by the way these beliefs are expressed show that certain strong psychological needs are also being expressed, will continue to be expressed for the foreseeable future, and will continue to shape the way these beliefs are actualized in the external world. With no regard for whether or not they tear the United States apart.© 2020 Laurence Mesirow