I recently delved into a theological article on our current national state of polarization, hoping to read insights that would help me understand—and, yes, get the better of—those who I see fueling the polarization with inflammatory and intolerant attitudes. Much to my dismay, the article quickly challenged me, pointing to me as the instigator of polarization. I took offense. I am careful in what I write and preach and say, take pains to reach out to those who are being vilified in polarized arguments.
Yet as I read on, I was convinced and willing to recognize my own culpability in fostering a climate of polarization, not so much by any words I use but by the very belief that “others” are the problem, the cause. The article claimed that the moment I square off with someone and regard him/her as different and, in that difference, a challenge to my own position, I have set in motion the dynamic of polarization.
We seem to need an Other to push against, much as adolescents seem to need parents who never understand them to push against in their work of claiming an independent identity. While I may describe myself and my life in all sorts of ways, often those descriptions begin with a negative, saying what I am not. An Other who is different from me helps me know who I am—up to a point. The usefulness of an Other turns sour when that Other becomes intolerable, and instead of using them as a kind of foil to help define myself, I use them as a punching bag and seek to extinguish them.
Our culture presently urges us to regard whoever and whatever is different as a threat to us, so much so that we cannot even bear to see the Other, to hear even one word from the mouth of the Other, to allow the Other to be part of our community unless the Other surrenders all differences and becomes just like us. Somehow the value of including profound differences in the form of people and habits and religious beliefs in our midst, even if only to provide us something to push against and define ourselves as “not like that,” has been lost. A constant experience of like-mindedness, in our Facebook feeds, our churches, our workplace conversations, our graduation speakers, is now what we seek.
Perhaps this insistence on sameness and agreement, while vilifying whatever is not the same and not in agreement, will prove to be a cultural blip, and we can in time return to valuing the Other even when that Other drives us crazy with otherness. Many spiritual traditions have taught that we do some of our best growing when we struggle to live alongside someone who is not at all like us.