“A man who does not have something for which he is willing to die is not fit to live.”
~ Martin Luther King Jr.
“Politics is the art of the possible”
~ Otto von Bismarck

For several years now, we have heard that Western society (and America, in particular) is becoming more and more polarized. Anecdotally, there seems to be plenty of evidence for this claim. Protests throughout the year 2020 have often become violent. We see our social media feeds filled increasingly with terse, venomous exchanges between people taking increasingly hard-line and uncompromising positions in various “debates.”  Even those of us who follow the news but don’t use social media can’t escape the noise completely, as many traditional media sources now feel it’s their job to tell us what’s happening on Twitter. As “far right” movements grow and gain power worldwide, their “far left” opponents become more vocal and doctrinaire.  Even the COVID-19 pandemic, which one might think would unite people who normally disagree in some semblance of common purpose, has become a political football dividing people along party lines in America.

Lest the reader misunderstand my reasoning as a defense of centrist ideology, let me state unequivocally that this criticism is not limited to the “far right” and the “far left.”  As the efforts of the Democratic Party’s establishment to undermine Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries clearly demonstrated, centrists can be as uncompromising and self-righteous as anybody else.  What we are dealing with here is an insurgent human frailty that knows no ideological or tribal bounds.  It is simply becoming more and more normal to behave in a stubborn and inflexible manner in pursuit of ideological goals. It is no longer fashionable to have a shred of healthy doubt about one’s worldview, whatever that worldview may be.  More and more of us seem to believe that the our preferred set of political dogmas and narratives can be a one-size-fits-all solution to the complex ills of modern society.

Leftists, liberals, conservatives, moderates, centrists–pick whatever “team” you like, and I’ll show you examples of ideological dogmatism.  In fact, I would argue that centrists and moderates are even more prone to this, because their sense of identity is wrapped up in the more subtle and believable dogma that finding the “middle ground” between the left and right brings us to the true and reasonable solution to any given problem.  Comforting and sensible as this notion may seem, it is woefully mistaken.  The middle ground between “left” and “right” is nothing more than a social construct of time, place, and circumstance.  Centrists during the 18th Century supported such things as improving working conditions for slaves.

As a matter of pure fact, the media narrative of an ongoing war for power between pragmatists and radicals is true enough on the surface.  Still, I can’t help asking if there is more to the story.  To what extent are the media’s pronouncements – which benefit their bottom line by feeding a drama that attracts clicks and TV viewers – a self-fulfilling prophecy? To what extent has all of this been goaded by malicious actors, such as the Russian government? To what extent are rewarding conflict and discouraging real dialogue built in to platforms like Facebook (by its algorithms showing us whatever generates the most attention) and Twitter (by its character limit)?  And was this done by design, or simply the latest unintended consequence of new technologies – a pattern of history since time immemorial?  These questions lead to the central question of this article:  what if pragmatists and radicals need each other to accomplish anything worthwhile?

Computer philosopher Jaron Lanier, a founder of the field of virtual reality, discusses social media’s impacts on individuals and societies.

“The truth is to be found in paradox, revealed in irony.”

In trying to understand the moment we are living in as a culture, I find this quote very instructive. Let’s apply it to one of the main media narratives we’ve heard going back a few years now: the notion that “radicals” are at war with “pragmatists.”

In the Democratic presidential primaries of 2016, this was of course embodied in the rift between the “moderate, mainstream Democrat” Hillary Clinton and the “radical outsider” Bernie Sanders.  In the Republican primary, a similar dynamic existed between Donald Trump, who was perceived as outside the mainstream, and the rest of the Republican field, styled as something of an “Old Guard.” The general thinking seems to be that the radicals won control of the Republican party, while the conflict within the Democratic ranks resulted in something of a stalemate, where the mainstream politicians moved to the left in order to prevent the radicals from taking the levers of power.

For many reasons, this story is a gross oversimplification of the reality. To start with, traditional dichotomies such as “left” and “right,” “liberal” and “conservative” have become increasingly vacuous in their usage. They have been used to describe so many different kinds of worldviews that, at this stage, deploying them in everyday conversation serves as little more than a reminder to the participants of which “team” they are supposed to be on. Even terms like “fascist” and “communist,” which used to have pretty specific, agreed upon interpretations, are thrown around so much that they have become nearly impossible to take seriously.  On top of this, time has shown that there is much overlap between the policy goals of both the “radicals” and “pragmatists” of each party, and that, in many cases, the goals of those in power overlap more with one another other than they do with the people who voted for them, regardless of party affiliation.

As meaning-making animals, we humans make sense of our lives through story. We do this at the individual level, constructing a story of our personal lives, and at various collective levels, constructing the stories that guide our culture. In this moment, the narrative of the battle between radicalism and pragmatism has taken hold to the point that most in our culture wouldn’t question its reality.  It is felt to be a true description of the moment, and since it is felt to be so, it is so. Fine, let’s play along.

In any good story, irony and paradox play central roles. In their use as literary devices, they invite the reader to ponder a central idea, or to bring a fresh perspective to a stale subject. First, let’s examine the irony of the claim that “radicals and pragmatists are at war.” Implicit in this idea is the notion that one side or the other is going to “win” the war of ideas, the war for raw power, or both. Ironically, neither side is capable of accomplishing anything meaningful without the assistance of the other. And paradoxically, each side is dependent on the contrast provided by the other to define itself. If one side or the other “wins” so completely as to destroy the opposition, it ceases to exist in any recognizable way.

Let’s take the example of Marxist revolutions.  In almost all cases, the existence of a Marxist/Leninist Communist Party is defined by its opposition to the bourgeoisie, which oppresses the working class through its control of capital and the means of production. The stated purpose of the Party is to overthrow this order through violent class struggle. Next, according to Lenin, the party installs itself as a vanguard to construct a society based on socialist principles and to cleanse the levers of power of “reactionary” capitalist elements.  According to the dialectical materialism upon which Marxist philosophy rests, the interests of the working class and the bourgeoisie are fundamentally in conflict, and can only be resolved through class struggle.  The goal is to establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat (another name for the working class),” which will organize industrial society in way beneficial to the masses, rather than to the interests of capital.  In short, the goal is to reverse the current state of affairs, because only two forms of social organization are possible: the oppressive rule of capital, or the liberating rule of the working class.

Of course, if we look at what has actually happened historically, the story falls apart. While perhaps some of the revolutionaries were sincere in their initial motivations to liberate the working class from the control of the capitalists, once the capitalist opposition was defeated it didn’t take long for the so-called vanguard parties to take on the same oppressive characteristics they fought against.  In fact, they usually wound up behaving even more savagely.  Not only did the promised utopia of the narrative never come, a terrible dystopia became the reality of daily life for millions of people.

If we can’t rely on stories and ideologies to guide us, where do we turn for guidance?  In our hearts, most of us want to create a better world, even if we don’t know exactly how.  How can we connect with this beneficial aspect of our nature and put it in the driver’s seat at last?  The ancient sages of China may have some wisdom worth considering.

The dialectic we call “life”

In the world of philosophy, dialectic is often presented as an alternative method of analysis to formal logic. Where dialectic is focused on the fruitful discourse between various points of view, logic is generally focused on applying formal, quasi-mathematical formulas to the evaluation of arguments. To put it as simply as possible, logic aims to determine systematically if the conclusion of an argument follows from its premises.  In the West, formal logic has been the dominant mode of analysis since the time of the Ancient Greeks, though a minority of thinkers have preferred a dialectic approach, notably Hegel and Marx.  As a result, Hegelians and Marxists have developed their own school of dialectical logic.

Marxist dialectical materialism has its roots in Hegel’s dialectical idealism. Unlike Marx, Hegel’s focus was on how conflicting ideas, rather than conflicting material conditions, find their resolution and influence human history. But what Marx and Hegel have in common is that their conception of dialectic as a “settling of scores” between logical contradictions. On Marx’s view, the interests of the working class and the bourgeoisie are logically opposed to one another. On Hegel’s slightly more nuanced view, one dominant cultural idea (a thesis) attracts an opposing idea (an antithesis). These ideas, through their dialectic relationship, form a new idea which eradicates the logical contradictions of both (synthesis). The new idea then becomes the new “thesis,” and the cycle repeats itself ad infinitum. (To the odd philosopher who may be reading this: yes, I have oversimplified all of this in interest of summary).

All of this would have been quite amusing to ancient Chinese philosophers, who always favored dialectic and were suspicious of formal logic.  This difference is indicative of a fundamental difference in starting points for the philosophical traditions of East and West, as psychologist Richard E. Nisbett explains in his fascinating book The Geography of Thought:

In the Chinese intellectual tradition there is no necessary incompatibility between the belief that A is the case and the belief that not-A is the case. On the contrary, in the spirit of the Tao or yin-yang principle, A can actually imply that not-A is also the case, or at any rate soon will be the case…Events do not occur in isolation from other events, but are always embedded in a meaningful whole in which the elements are constantly changing and rearranging themselves. [In the Chinese approach to reasoning], to think about an object or event in isolation and apply abstract rules to it is to invite extreme and mistaken conclusions. It is the Middle Way that is the goal of reasoning.

Accordingly, the insights of ancient Chinese philosophy can help us not only to understand the failures of one party systems like communism, but also to more broadly recognize the value in finding harmony between seemingly opposing views.  This way of thinking promotes a certain humility, where people who oppose one another outwardly recognize a hidden unity – a lost connection.  Perhaps human life is too complex to be formalized into zero-sum formulas.  Maybe all of us have an important part to play in the whole. To use the language of Taoist philosophy, maybe the pragmatist is the yin to the radical’s yang.  The video below provides an excellent summary.

Ancient Taoist wisdom about the opposing, but complementary, forces of yin and yang is deeper than we may know.

The Value of Radicals

You may have heard some variation of the saying: “every good change in history started out as a radical idea.”  Indeed, this is true.  People and institutions are generally quite resistant to change, and it takes somebody speaking up – usually rather loudly – about something they believe in to get the wheels of change turning.  Often, this can be a painfully slow process, but in other cases, the wheels can turn much more quickly than anybody anticipated.  Change, by its nature, is unpredictable, and not something any of us can control as an individual.  But once the wheels are turning fast enough in a particular direction, that change will indeed come to pass becomes not a matter “if” but “when and how?”

In order to get the ball roiling, it takes true determination on the part of those who are truly inspired to advocate the idea – often at great personal cost, and to the point of death, in some cases.  Sometimes, it takes decades or centuries before an idea is ever taken seriously by the general public and the powers that be.  Plenty of radicals have died in obscurity, penniless.  Most of them would have had plenty of cause for despair and cynicism, but turned out to be carrying the torch of a true and worthy cause to the next generation whether they knew it or not.  Without the willingness to question authority, reject established paradigms, and even flat out break rules in pursuit of some higher ideal, no change would be possible.

Other radicals, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, have become household names.  But their sanitized modern images fail to truly capture how confrontational, and deeply controversial, they were in their own lifetimes.  All went to jail many times–Mandela for nearly three decades.  Gandhi and King were assassinated–King in the prime of his life and at the height of his activism.  Their actions and views were usually viewed as far outside the mainstream, and at times were opposed by strong majorities of the population.  And yet, they persevered.  It’s because of that perseverance that we live in a better world today.

Martin Luther King Jr. was far more radical than most people today realize.  Today, almost everybody admires him.  But during his lifetime, a strong majority of the American people opposed his activism.

The Value of Pragmatists

Not all radical ideas become realities, and pragmatists play a key role in that gate keeping process.  Pragmatists tend to value such things as stability and practicality.  Accordingly, they can find common cause with radicals when the status quo is no longer stable or practical.   This dynamic ensures that good ideas for radical change will get a hearing at times when they are most likely to heard, rather than before their time has come, leading to serious unrest and perhaps even bloodshed.  Likewise, it ensures that bad elements of free and open societies are not set in stone, and can be changed once their negative consequences become clear to enough people.

It goes without saying that not all radical ideas are good ideas.  Even when the status quo is broken and change is necessary, implementing the wrong radical ideas could lead to an even worse future.  We already discussed the communist revolutions of the 20th century.  The impact of Donald Trump’s administration is another perfect example.  He certainly has lots of “radical” ideas, at least in the sense that his views are outside the mainstream.  Take the radical view that climate change is a “Chinese hoax” that need not inform public policy in any way. This view leads to such harmful actions as the U.S. President unilaterally pulling out of the Paris Clime Accord despite widespread public opposition, and a concurrent rollback of regulations leading air pollution to rise for the first time in a decade.  This sort of radicalism could, at the very least, do with some pragmatic opposition.

Even if you are a Trump supporter, you have to admit that he wouldn’t be where he is right now without the help of pragmatic moderates.  People like Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio could have come together to try to sink his campaign.  Instead, they made the choice to begrudgingly get behind him.  Now, their support has been rewarded by a large number of conservative appointments to the federal courts – some of them for lifetime terms.  This will serve their political aims in the long term, even if Trump himself is not their cup of tea.

Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr., despite his personal disdain for the “white moderate,” made damn sure to campaign for President Lyndon Johnson’s re-election in 1964.  As frustrating as Johnson’s centrism was to King, he knew that he could move him on important Civil Rights legislation if he and his movement could push the “center” of public opinion further to the left through activism.  Indeed, this turned out to be a wise calculation, when Johnson signed landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts into law during his second term.  That’s a far better outcome than would have occurred under a President Barry Goldwater, who considered federal intervention to end racial segregation to be “government overreach,” and would have opposed King’s goals at every turn.

How to Give Up Seeing Your Opponent as the “Other”

Dr. Todd Grande, a PhD in Mental Health Counselor Education, explores some of the pathological aspects of “cancel culture.”

In the age of Trumpism and “cancel culture,” self-righteousness is having its moment.  Fewer and fewer of us seem to be willing to admit to our fallibility in public.  Many would consider it an unacceptable show of weakness to say matter-of-factly “I’ve been wrong before, so my present views could be mistaken” or “I have blind spots, and hearing other perspectives can help me to see them.”  The prevalence of this sort of self-righteousness naturally brings our democratic institutions to a halt.  In order to win re-election, politicians need to appeal to increasingly uncompromising constituents and donors, and as a result, reaching across the aisle to come up with good compromises to benefit people has largely become a thing of the past.   Again, this applies just as much, if not more, to many so-called “centrists” as it does to those on the “far left” and “far right.” If there’s one thing that moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans frequently agree on, it is pandering to the many wealthy donors and special interests who fund campaigns in both parties.  As Charles Eisenstein astutely points out in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible:

Organizations and nations routinely pursue policies that only a small fraction of their members support—or sometimes in the case of organizations, that no one supports. How is this possible? Certainly, part of the explanation has to do with the interests of the elites who wield financial and political power, but we must remember that this power comes ultimately from social agreements and not from the superpowers of the rulers. Moreover, such things as global warming or the risk of thermonuclear war are not in the interest of the elites either.

In order to “cancel” the social agreements which have not served us, we might be tempted to adopt an uncompromising “fight the power” stance.  Indeed, my temperament biases me in this direction, and I spent my late teens and most of my twenties viewing things in this simplistic way.  However, I am coming to understand that this, too, is a mistake.  All of us are human beings.  We are in this together whether we like it or not.  Runaway climate change or all-out nuclear war won’t spare any of us based on how “right” we are.  Self-righteousness, in its many disguises, is not serving any of us.  It is only tearing us apart more and more by the way.  We have to find a way to get beyond it if we ever want to create a better world.  Once again, Eisenstein provides some simple, yet profound, advice:

If you do notice the habit of self-righteousness, you know what to do: Give it attention. Give attention to any feelings of embarrassment or frustration, without intending to stop those feelings. Let the attention you give your habits and the underlying feelings be as gentle as you can make it: loving, forgiving, and peaceful. You can even thank the habit for having done its job for so long, knowing that it is in a late stage of its life span and will soon pass on.

What he is referring to here is the simple habit of mindfulness, as applied to our thoughts.  For those who haven’t tried it, especially those who are highly politically inclined, it may seem counter-intuitive.  You mean I should just watch myself act like an ass and do nothing about it?  Yes, absolutely.  There are many benefits to this.  First and foremost, the very fact that you are now aware of your behavior removes the strength of any automatic habits of mind that may be driving it.  Second, it gives you the chance to laugh and stop taking yourself so seriously!  It turns out that we are all human, not just our political opponents!  We don’t have to be pure, ideologically or otherwise.  Now that we don’t have to put so much energy into being perfect, we can instead put it into being kind and being curious.  These positive qualities will almost certainly lead us to a much better future than self-righteousness ever could.

I’ll leave you with the amusing, yet deeply insightful, words of the Indian Jesuit priest Anthony De Mello, from his life-changing lectures on Awareness (highly recommended reading!):

I’m told my great Indian culture has produced all these mystics. I didn’t produce them. I’m not responsible for them. Or they tell me, ‘That country of yours and its poverty—it’s disgusting.’ I feel ashamed. But I didn’t create it. What’s going on? Did you ever stop to think? People tell you, ‘I think you’re very charming,’ so I feel wonderful. I get a positive stroke (that’s why they call it I’m O.K., you’re O.K.). I’m going to write a book someday and the title will be I’m an Ass, You’re an Ass. That’s the most liberating, wonderful thing in the world, when you openly admit you’re an ass. It’s wonderful. When people tell me, ‘You’re wrong.’ I say, ‘What can you expect of an ass?’.

Disarmed, everybody has to be disarmed. In the final liberation, I’m an ass, you’re an ass.