In The Polarized Mind (University Professors Press, 2013), Kirk J. Schneider, PhD, states that an individual, stricken with one absolute belief to the exclusion or even demonization of others, leads to bigotry, tyranny, and vengefulness. Dr. Schneider draws on his work in the field of humanistic depth psychology to posit that polarization is caused by a sense of cosmic insignificance, heightened in the trials of personal trauma. In this selection from "The Bases of Polarization," the nature of the human condition plays a fundamental role in the formation of polarization in the human mind.
The Bases of Polarization
Throughout human history, people have repeatedly swung between extremes. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1986) noted these swings in his classic book The Cycles of American History. In this book, Schlesinger articulated the continuous political swings in U.S. history, particularly those between conservatism and liberalism, rigidity and permissiveness. However, there are many other forms of such swings in many other times and places.
The usual explanations for the swings of history, as well as individuals, are cultural, political, and biological. The founders of the United States swung away from the British motherland because of political and religious oppression. Certain nineteenth century abolitionists resorted to armed struggle because of unrelenting federal support of slavery. Post World War I Germany amassed a titanic arsenal, in part to avenge the humiliation it perceived at the Treaty of Versailles. McCarthyite anti-communists swelled in number following the advent of Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe. And so on. Schlesinger provides a cogent summation of these various dynamics:
"The roots of…cyclical self-sufficiency doubtless lie deep in the natural life of humanity. There is a cyclical pattern in organic nature — in the tides, in the seasons, in the night and day, in the systole and diastole of the human heart….People can never be fulfilled for long either in the public or in the private sector. We try one, then the other, and frustration compels a change in course. Moreover, however effective a particular course may be in meeting one set of troubles, it generally falters and fails when new troubles arise."
At the individual level, too, the conventional wisdom embraces both cultural and biological explanations. Depression is now frequently considered a biologically based disorder, rooted in an imbalance of Serotonin in the brain. Anorexia, too, is often considered a biologically and culturally based condition, stemming from an overemphasis on thinness in Western fashions. Obsessive-compulsiveness, mania, criminality, and many other forms of suffering are also considered combinations of biologically or genetically based chemical imbalances and familial or cultural influences.
However, thanks to the expanding insights of psychological depth research, we now have a clearer picture that what we once took to be biologically or culturally based appears to be rooted in a much thornier problem — the condition of being human. What I mean by this is that polarization in all forms appears to be based not just on a reaction against a particular family, or society, or physiology but on the shocking nature of the human condition itself, which, at its extremes, is the most daunting condition of all.
And what is this human condition (or “condition humane,” as Andre Malreaux put it)? It is the relationship of the human being to the groundlessness of space and time, to death, and to the most radical mystery of all, existence itself.
Just consider, for example, what happens in a classic pattern of polarization. A person or persons become injured, and the injury leads to a reaction. This reaction might take the form of a religious decree to rid the world of infidels (e.g., those who had formerly attempted to undermine established religious precepts). It might take the form of a political mobilization (e.g., fanatical nationalism) in the wake of a threatened state (e.g., post World War I Germany). Or it might take the form of a humiliated individual vowing to avenge his abusers. In each of these cases there is a time-tested dynamic at play. Initially there is a sense of helplessness (despair), then there is a reaction against that helplessness (polarization, fanaticism), followed by a destructive outbreak as a result of that reaction.
Hence, if we peel back the layers of this scenario, what do we find? We certainly find physiological (e.g., fight and flight) reactions (as Schlesinger and others have noted), classical psychodynamic issues stemming from childhood (as Freud and others have contended), and behavioral dimensions, such as conditioned reactions to aversive stimuli (as Skinner and others have pointed out). But are these really the essential building blocks of polarized experiences, of stuck and life-encompassing fixations, or the extremes and fanaticisms of theocracies, military-industrial complexes, and hate-driven assassins? The emerging consensus is quite probably “no.”
Although the traditional explanations work to a point, depth research unveils that they are but harbingers or glimpses of a much more encompassing problem. For example, the latest research on the roots of extremism centers on what is aptly termed “terror management theory”. In this theory, built on a growing base of cross-cultural research, the deeper we probe the layers of psychosocial extremes, the closer we come to anxieties about existence itself — coinciding with and extending beyond the physiological, familial, and cultural. In short, according to Terror Management Theory, polarization arises from culturally diversified experiences of death anxiety, and death anxiety is aroused by an extraordinary range of secondary fears. Among these fears is humiliation, or the terror of feeling insignificant. Witness the following conclusion by Arie Kruglanski, one of the leading investigators of global terrorism. Drawing in part on Terror Management research, and in part on the data that he and his colleagues at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism have amassed, he asserts:
"Personal significance is a motivation that has been recognized by psychological theorists as a major driving force of human behavior. Terrorists feel that through suicide, their lives will achieve tremendous significance. They will become heroes, martyrs. In many cases, their decision is a response to great loss of significance, which can occur through humiliation, discrimination or personal problems…Interesting[ly], research shows that poverty is not the root cause of terrorism. Many terrorists come out of the middle class, and some [like Osama Bin Laden] are quite well-to-do."
As Kruglanski intimates, therefore, terrorism in particular and polarization in general are rooted in a very profound problem of the human situation. It is not a problem that can simply be eliminated through material comforts, physical well-being, or even in some cases loving and well-adjusted families. It is a problem that each individual must confront in varying degrees during their lifetimes, because it is not a problem that will go away. Although physical and psychological vulnerability and ultimately annihilation appear to be at the crux of this problem, I suggest that there is something even more subtle at play, something even more harrowing. This “something” is what I and others call “existential anxiety.” Existential anxiety is not just the fear of physical death but the fear of the implications of physical death. Existing in a universe that has no calculable end and no calculable beginning — that is a radical mystery. It is our terror of our bewildering fragility, our nothingness before the vastness of space and time, and our steady transformation from matter to inexplicable dust.
Trauma, shock, and disruption all signal us to this incomprehensible state of affairs. They jar us out of our comfort zones and peel back the profundities lying just beneath our routines. Virtually everyone who is polarized, I contend, has been a victim of existential panic; and virtually all of us, in varying degrees, have experienced this polarization. The question is: How do we prevent, or at least manage, the most destructive polarizations — the polarizations that wage egregious wars, that initiate relentless hatred, that concentrate obscene accumulation of wealth, and that deplete, everyday, the imperative resources of nations?
Before we can address this question, we need to look more thoroughly at the psychological bases of polarization throughout history, the damage that polarization has wreaked, and the fates that have awaited those who fought valiantly to oppose it.
Reprinted with permission from The Polarized Mind: Why It's Killing Us and What We Can Do About It by Kirk J. Schneider, PhD and published by University Professor's Press, 2013.