Profound Problems: Band-Aids and Polarizations
Polarizations are easy to see, especially in our politically driven media. Listen, do what I say, pick this side. When simplicity rules there are only two sides, right and wrong. It’s a little harder to see the polarization when it’s close to home because it’s more emotional when your spouse is yelling at you or your daughter is failing in school. At these times we are more driven to act based on feeling personally threatened. All kinds of emotional polarizations are coming at us, in our homes, at work and in the larger world we live in.
A first step to seeing polarization is recognizing it: someone wants you to take his or her side, someone needs to be fixed, someone demands you change. Once the emotional tone picks up in conversations any of us can jump on the “blame the other or you are wrong band wagon”. Heightened emotionality results in a focus on someone to blame and/or to fix. We miss the complexity.
When intense feelings are aroused in us, our primitive or programmed automatic behaviors designed to fix others are activated. We’re less able to focus on self as part of the problem or solution. In the attempt to fix others one can become possessed. And those who are focused on, who are under pressure to take a side, may feel they have no choice but to give in or to follow along.
In the last blog I wrote about “feeling” the situation in a chess game as the threatening pawn approaches our knight. The idea was that it is automatic to be so narrowly focused on the threat that we become reactive, and therefore unaware of the options available on the broader chessboard. In these circumstances we can even forget the rules of the game. Reactivity is driven by fear and that fear shuts down our ability to think clearly.
Reactive emotionality is part of our ancient heritage. We are a part of evolution. Our brains like simple, “feel-right” answers. Problems appear to be outside of us, out there in others. When things get intense in relationships sides are taken, we rush into things. When it comes to side taking there is no middle ground. We can feel that others are for us or against us. I put it this way in a poem celebrating our humanness.
Feeling is Seeing
Easier to find someone
Only one can be
when emotionality is your light.
From Family Process to Societal Process
Now that we are approaching elections, can you see this same emotionality (polarization) spike in society? Turn on your TV and see who makes you mad. Political and economic fortunes are built on promoting our brains to take sides. While this concerns some of us, others are pleased to have a job creating 30-second advertising campaign messages increasing reactivity. It’s their employment security. Some people seem to think voters cannot deal with complex problems and just want to know who is a jerk or who is on the “other side”.
When people you love get really mad at you it’s hard to think logically about what they said. When an authority figure tells you what they think, and especially when they are on TV, they too can hook into your feelings.
Enough research has been done on group behavior to know how advertising can manipulate the crowd. We know people like “feel right” answers achieved by going along with experts, our friends or people we met an hour ago. Making decisions based on going along with others or hoping to avoid making people mad are like silly band-aids covering the profound nature of the problems.
More than five thousand political ads will be aimed at viewers this year. Each 30-second commercial is aimed at making you vote the emotional way. According to Borrell Associates, political ad spending will reach $4.2 billion this year double the $2.1 billion the firm estimated was spent in 2008.
Advertisers know how to influence your emotional system. They threaten you like an angry parent/spouse. “You are wrong. Do it my way.” Your can react and feel like your way of life is being threatened, and your children will suffer.
So how do you step aside when an emotional weapon is aimed at your psyche? If you try to step aside and observe and wonder what all the fuss is about, your friends and family members may just think you are unfeeling, stupid or even against them.
A few people are on to this game. I had a good chuckle over Gail Collins’ NY Times Op-Ed column, The Fury Failure. Her comments that rage is not working out approaches with humor the profound relationship between anger and the ability of people in social groups to think, especially when threatened by high emotionality in others.
Really, people, rage never gets you anything but overturned garbage cans and broken windows. If you want to do rage, go to France. We are talking here about undifferentiated anger, which creates nothing but a feeling of moral superiority on the part of the irate. It’s natural to get furious at specific things: a tax increase or an unfaithful spouse or a blown tire. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/opinion/21collins.html?src=me&ref=general
Reacting to intense emotional messages is what happens in disintegrating families, and it can happen to a society.
The broad question, in these moments before the election, is this. Can we be thoughtful about and take the time to discover and understand the profound problems we face? The first step in doing this is to understand the nature of the emotional system that surrounds problems. To put this simply, evaluate your emotional response to any message you receive and then check the facts. Then take the second step and analyze the profound nature of the problem.
George Soros wrote a thoughtful analysis of the complex relationship between China and the rest of the world in a recent issue of the Financial Times. His thesis: Engage thinking not blaming, then look at the long and the short-term risks and rewards.
Since the Chinese government is the direct beneficiary of the currency surplus, it would need to have remarkable foresight to accept this diminution in its power and recognize the advantages of coordinating its economic policies with the rest of the world. It (the Chinese government) needs to recognize that China cannot continue rising without paying more attention to the interests of its trading partners. Only China is in a position to initiate a process of international cooperation because it can offer the enticement of renminbi appreciation.
China has already developed an elaborate mechanism for consensus building at home. Now it must go a step further and engage in consensus building internationally. This would be rewarded by the rest of the world accepting the rise of China. http://www.gurufocus.com/news.php?id=109928
Soros has written about his concept of reflexivity, which has to do with the biases of individuals entering into market transactions, possibly altering the perception of fundamentals. Soros’s also understands that anything he believes may in fact be wrong, and is therefore to be questioned and improved. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Soros
So there you are, thinking while living with the reactivity all around you. From chess games, to family life and out to the broader world we are asked to consider both self-interest and the ability to cooperate with others.
The hopeful part is that if any of us can see the emotional system, step away from the urge to react for a moment, then this can allow the people around us to calm down. When one person is a bit more neutral everyone calms down.
Thoughtfully integrating our feelings with our best thinking is a discipline that can be embraced. It is not easy. Even if you can smile and take your head into a more objective state you may still suffer a bit. After all, you will be on the outside. There will be no ancient comfort of being on someone’s side, or enjoying the power of telling others how to think and what to do. You can move into the land of observing and profound thinking with awareness and discipline. But it’s not easy and can be a bit uncomfortable.
You will know when you have stepped outside the emotional system when no one is really on your side. You are standing alone to figure out what you think and feel. If this goes on for any length of time as it does in families, then others may be confused that you are still talking to them but not agreeing.
It is a very different feeling state when we are observing situations and thinking about them more objectively. Overall the state of neutrality is one way to avoid getting caught up in the sticky, emotionally reactive, interactional system.
If any of us have the backbone to resist the comfort of side taking or being controlled by the threats or weaknesses in others, then we can move towards analyzing the deeper nature of profound problems. This is what makes individuals emotionally stronger and better able to be a well-defined self in any social group.
Once again many thanks to my editor, Judy Ball and HAPPY HALLOWEEN as you shape your future….