Philosophy provides tools to deal with polarization

March 6, 2022 11:00 am

(Illustration by Getty Images)

For more than two years now, the news has focused on vaccines, masks and mandates, often couched in political rhetoric resulting in polarization.

The COVID pandemic has divided friends, families and colleagues at the same time it has amplified the frail condition and nature of being human.

We need to set aside politics, at least for a while, and contemplate philosophical concepts that might put anger and anxieties into perspective.

The “human condition” copes with the mental and physical struggles of life. “Human nature” is our emotional response to those struggles.

Our condition is based on two universal but opposite tenets: consciousness and conscience. The former tells us we come into the world alone and will leave it alone. Conscience says what is in me is in you.

It doesn’t matter how you think about these concepts — scientifically or theologically. You can say we are social animals who only care about each other for evolutionary reasons. Or you can say we are divine creations who should care about each other because of a supreme being’s will.

Our nature fluctuates daily between these two polarities. Sometimes we’re alone in our struggles. Other times, we seem connected to something more profound.

That is how it feels to be human.

The pandemic has exacerbated our perplexing duality, at times affirming the view of consciousness as loved ones died alone on ventilators in hospitals. Other times it has tweaked the conscience with health care workers tending to patients with compassion.

The struggle has poisoned our nature as we search for someone to blame.

Researchers are measuring that impulse in “The Polarization Index,” created by the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California in conjunction with the public relations firm Golin and intelligence company Zignal Labs.

Fred Cook, director of the USC Center for Public Relations at Annenberg, believes polarization dominates American culture, fueled in part by partisan journalists and politicians who benefit from conflict.

The index measures political division regarding immigration, policing policy, racial equity, gun legislation, voting integrity, COVID vaccines, abortion, climate change, health care reform and minimum wage. Republicans are concerned about immigration and policing. Democrats worry about voting, health care and abortion.

Political parties are divided on religious beliefs

Democrats and Republicans feel so strongly about these topics that they accuse opponents of acting immorally.

One study found boldness and meanness traits were higher in Republicans than Democrats. In another study, Republicans found Democrats “immoral,” “lazy” and “dishonest.”

Members of both parties accused opponents of lacking a conscience.

What, exactly, is the conscience? Here are four theories:

  • It’s the voice of God directing us in matters of good and evil.
  • It’s just human intuition presenting itself as a moral voice within us.
  • It’s the internalized values of society.
  • It’s a phenomenon of experience that develops as we age.

What do you believe?

According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of Americans (90%) believe in some kind of higher power. The study identified a gap in belief between Democrats and Republicans:

  • Democrat-leaning individuals tend not to believe in the God of the Bible while their Republican counterparts do (45% vs. 70%).
  • Democrats are more likely than Republicans (39% vs. 23%) to believe in a higher power other than the biblical God.
  • Some 14% of Democrats vs. 5% of Republicans don’t believe in any deity at all.

By contrast, another study found only about half (51%) of scientists believe in God or a higher power.

Philosophy offers different perspectives

In “What God, Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness Have in Common,” Scientific American advises scientists to adopt one viewpoint when it comes to phenomena that cannot be measured: agnosticism, which comes from the Greek agnōstos, or “unknowable.”

Speaking of Greeks, science is based philosophically on the “The Cave” in Plato’s Republic. Prisoners there have been chained all their lives facing a wall across which are cast shadows of passing people. Prisoners believe the shadows are real because they have never experienced “matter” beyond phantom images.

Plato suggests that we free ourselves from the cave (ignorance) and grasp the fact that shadows do not exist. There are mere phenomena of reality.

Plato believed in the natural sciences, mathematics, geometry and logic. Everything else is delusion.

Over time this led to “scientific materialism,” a term coined by Spanish philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952). He believed matter is the source of everything. Science, then, must doubt or dispel belief in the mysterious, paranormal and religion.

Disbelief includes the conscience.

One philosophy originating in Africa embraces the conscience and differs from Western materialism. According to Sophie Oluwole, one of the foremost scholars in the discipline, shadows on Plato’s cave are as real as the folks who cast them. A tree casts a shadow, she says, but you cannot separate it from its shadow. Both exist and equally important.

Asian philosophy as expressed in the Tao Te Ching, a Chinese text second only to the Christian Bible in popularity, affirms the African model and goes a step further. Material objects are real but meaning is derived from shadows.

What do you believe?

Philosophy reminds us there are different ways to interpret the world apart from polarizing politics and news. For instance, your conscience should inform consciousness and vice versa. You can attribute others’ anger and division as part of human nature and our response to universal pressures of life.

Contemplation provides a reality check to help us discern what is material and meaningful.

When we do, we just might understand others’ viewpoints even if we disagree with them.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.