Friday, July 8, 2011

On breaking our addiction to polarization (update)

(Hang in with me here. I'm going to go a bit deep into my own journey to explain what I think President Obama is doing and why I support him.)

I've admitted here previously that I'm a "recovering therapist." That's partially a snarky way of saying that as I practiced the discipline of therapy, I became more and more disenchanted with how its being crafted these days to resemble what I believe to be an outdated medical model. In other words, you diagnose the individual's problem, give them a label, and then most often give them a pill that tries to make the problem go away.

I started out my career in the 1970's working in a residential program for chemically addicted teens. They were placed in treatment for 6 months and for the first few weeks we got to know them and their behaviors pretty well. Then, about a month into that, their parents would come in for family night. As a young professional - this had an amazing impact on me. All of the sudden, the behavior of the young person in treatment made sense. In other words, within their particular family, it was pretty adaptive. The trick was to get the whole system to change...together.

I was so enthralled by this approach that I went on to get my Masters Degree in family systems therapy. After practicing that for a few years, I became the director of a small non-profit. What I realized at that point was that it was also important to look at how people's behavior is adaptive to the dis-ease in our culture. Whenever a particular diagnosis becomes the rage in the medical model of our current mental health system, my tendency is to look at how our culture makes that adaptive.

For example, it should come as no surprise that in our fast-paced, multi-tasking, pressure-cooker of a culture these days, the really hot diagnosis is manic/depression. People's insecurities and anxieties are funneled into the most culturally adaptive kind of disorder. Any really good therapist knows that in order to change, you have to address the underlying insecurities and anxieties rather than simply chase their manifestation.

Its this attraction to systems and how they influence behavior that underlies my interest in national politics. And its also the lens through which I judge President Obama.

To put all this into the language of our mental health system, I believe that President Obama has diagnosed our major political problem to be that of increasing polarization. When people feel anxious and insecure, these feelings are stoked into rage by both the extreme left and right - feeding the polarization of people who actually, when re-assured, might be able to reason together to find solutions to the things that create their anxiety.

Feeding all of this is our cultural embrace of dominance as a means to power and viewing every struggle as a competition with the enemy. Again, this kind of thinking tends to affect both sides of the extremes. Its all-out war all the time. And the casualties of that war - as in most real wars - tend to be those who find themselves needing to rely on good government, which ceases to be the focus in a time of war.

The trick is that its very hard to break out of this war when only one side is interested in doing so. One of the toughest kinds of cases I used to run into as a family therapist were the ones I called "divorce wars." They were the ones where the parents were caught up in a battle to hurt each other and used the children to do so. The classic example was a family I worked with where the parents had been to court over 25 times on custody issues. Neither one was willing to leave the battle scene - not even their love for their children was powerful enough to motivate them to do so. Taking a blow back at the one who hurt them had become addicting and they were willing to sacrifice their children to the addiction.

So President Obama is saying, "I'm not going to play that game." And folks who are so embedded in that kind of struggle that they can't see an alternative are wailing. They think he's conceded the battle when what he's trying to do is transcend it to help us break our addiction.

What I learned in studying systems theory is that whenever anyone introduces change to a system, it produces some chaos and unless people are willing to take that ride, everyone reacts by trying to reinforce the old patterns - sometimes fiercely. That's why our visionary leaders have always been maligned in their day and often revered in the future.

I don't know if President Obama will be successful in helping us break our addiction to polarization. As Michelle once said about him...

Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.

That exploration is underway and its likely that only history will be able to judge the outcome. In the meantime, I'd like to think that I contributed just a tiny bit to understanding that this kind of change is difficult and have been part of the group that says I'm willing to ride out a bit of chaos to give it a go.

UPDATE: As I re-read this I can just hear the cynics saying, "If that's what Obama believes then he's naive. Politics has always been a kind of war."

They probably have a point on the way politics has always been (although I'd argue that in the last 30 years, its gotten worse). But my response would be to ask when we let our vision be constrained by what has always been.

Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?

- Robert Kennedy


  1. Smartypants, I post on other pragmatic progressive blogs as "a night owl." I just wanted to say thank you! I've been reading your blog for several months now, and IMHO you have the best take on what makes President Obama tick than anyone I have seen (except maybe for his immediate circle). BTW, I have taken it upon myself to link to your posts on other blogs as often as I can!

    Re this post: very interesting take on things from an adaptive-response perspective. My background is in science. I tend to think in terms of the instability of polarization, and the energy it requires to maintain it. Electrons and protons all mixed together coexist quite nicely, but separate enough of them far enough apart, and sooner or later there will be a pretty big and destructive bolt of lightning! I think polarization in society is also an energy-sucking, unstable, and ultimately dangerous state.

    Like you, I think PBO recognizes that decreasing our polarization is a fundamental key to improving our society. And it seems obvious to state it, but people don't seem to grasp the idea that you cannot decrease polarization by adding to it. If you want people to be less partisan, you can't just try "bipartisanship" once and give up the first time it doesn't work, or even the second time. You have to be RELENTLESSLY bipartisan (and it would require another long reply to talk about what I mean by "bipartisan," which I won't do here). To many people, this looks like weakness, or "insanity"--doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result (which is not really the definition of insanity, just a witty quip that has become a cliche; I hate it). Nevertheless, people who are capable of thinking beyond the last cycle of stimulus-response know that you have to keep trying, keep defusing the anger, let that energy dissipate little by little. That requires a lot of strength, patience, and humility. President Obama is exactly the right person for the job.

  2. a night owl,

    Wow, thanks so much for that comment.

    Of course it always feels good to have someone agree with your perspective, so I appreciate that. But your take on polarization is fascinating. I hadn't thought of it that way before. I've been more focused on understanding some of our current madness as being a result of the kind of chaos you see when change is introduced into a system. So I'll have to think about what you're saying a bit more.

    Thanks so much for commenting - and for spreading the word. These kinds of connections amongst us as pragmatists on the blogs are important. I think we're a bit more dispersed - but growing in number and linkages.

  3. Smartypants, yes, you are a smartypants. Excellent post. Somebody has to be intelligent, and fortunately, the American public was smart enough to elect the intelligent one. We were convinced by his well-spoken, well-thought-out words, and he has not changed his character.

    For Blacks Obama is not black enough, and for Whites, Obama is BLACK. Who sees Obama as a man, the product of a very rich environment?

    We all would do well to analyze Obama, as you have done, and ask ourselves, "What will he do next?"

    Obama does not have to go it alone as long as everyone is willing to do his or her part to make democracy a reality here.

    We need to concentrate on our own country; we have made a very big mess abroad.

  4. Thanks JaneAnneJ!

    I find that when I ground myself in really trying to understand the big picture of what Obama is doing and why, I'm less likely to fall prey to the daily hysterics. And boy, its all raging today!

  5. I remember the days when I bought into the system, hook line and sinker, as a Psych RN. It makes me cringe now, at how blithely we slapped illness labels onto what, as you say, more often than not was adaptive attempts to survive dysfunctional systems.

    I share your basic read on Obama. He's too smart to not have known what he was taking on, or that it would create a backlash that would take a tremendous toll on his and his family That, to me speaks of immense courage in the face of almost incalculable odds, on Michelle's part as well as his.

    I also agree with the thousand points of light thing,with the blooming of more and more blogs like yours, that may not be visited by the larger crowds, but are visited by those who will spread it's links around like seeds. Just know that your words are sorely needed, and your efforts very much appreciated.

    :) scribe

  6. Scribe,

    Your comment inspired a whole new post.


  7. Wow. You really hit me with the story about parents fighting over custody. My husband and I have a decent marriage, but one of our areas of disagreement at times is parenting. Recently our 6 yo heard us argue and ran to her room crying. When I went to comfort her, she said she wished she wasn't part of our family, bc then her daddy and I wouldn't fight. And that hit me so hard. I told her that she's our greatest joy and we would work harder not to fight.

    I realized that what happens is that I get defensive when my hubby questions my parenting choices, bc I think he's saying I'm a bad parent. And I can't let that happen. Our daughter has to be more important than our egos. In the same way, our country needs to be more important than our egos, too.


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