By Dayna Mason
Political issues are rarely simple. Polarized thinking keeps us from seeing these issues as they often are: complex and nuanced. Thinking in extremes, an all-or-nothing, black-or-white mindset, doesn’t allow us to find the middle ground. When we seek to understand another’s viewpoint, we bridge the gap between our opposing positions. This not only brings peace to a contentious interaction but can lead to the discovery of an alternative view that we hadn’t even considered.
The practice of dialectical thinking is a way to achieve a synthesis of two or more seemingly opposing viewpoints. It is the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and to arrive at an understanding and possible third way. A reconciliation of seemingly contradictory information and postures.
The German philosopher Georg Hegel’s approach to dialectical thinking goes beyond mere compromise. In practice this reasoning attempts to overcome the negative by preserving the useful portion of an idea while moving beyond its limitations. It aims to understand opposite and contradictory sides in unity. In other words, the truth is the “whole” picture of which each view is a partial aspect. The whole is an overcoming which preserves what it overcomes. Nothing is lost or destroyed but raised up and preserved as in a spiral. Conflicts are transformed towards “the understanding.”
In contrast to problem-solving styles, this relational style focuses less on agreement making and more on opening lines of communication.
Dialectics does not accept anything as an absolute. It continuously asks, “What is missing from our understanding?” There is always more than one side to anything. Dialectical thinking encourages us to find and understand all sides of an issue.
The danger of polarized thinking
Psychologists Kirk Schneider and Sayyed Fatemi, who study the problem of intergroup hostility, have found that the biggest threat to peace is not any specific belief but polarized thinking. “As psychologists concerned with the social and psychological bases of human destructiveness, and as dedicated observers of history, we have arrived at the conclusion that so much of what we call human depravity (“evil”) seems to be based on a principle termed the polarized mind. The polarized mind is the fixation on a single point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view, and it has caused more human torment and misery than virtually any other factor.”
When we engage in polarized thinking we become fixated on one extreme viewpoint to the exclusion of all other perspectives, seeing our position as good and all others as bad. This cognitive style prevents people from being aware of the full range of possibilities available to them. People feel they must make either/or choices when there are actually many options in between.
Dialectical thinking helps us to see more than one way to solve problems. It considers different perspectives, allows opposing views to both be true, and promotes balance instead of perfection, which can lead to new possibilities.
Finding the middle way
In Buddhism, the middle way is neither a path of denial nor of affirmation. The middle way brings attention to the paradox of the universe, within and beyond opposites: “Be in the world but not of the world.”
Dialectical thinking is the balance between opposites. It encourages us to consider that things which seem like opposites can coexist, and they can even combine to create a new truth. Dialectics uses and instead of but.
“I want my life to change, but I don’t want to do things different” versus “I want my life to change, and I don’t want to do things different.” The “but” in the first statement stops us. It’s a conclusion with nowhere to go. The “and” in the second statement leaves an opening for another “and.”
Both sides of any issue have advantages and disadvantages. Our goal is to find the “Goldilocks Zone”—not too this, not too that, but just right. For example, passive behavior has the benefit of respecting other people’s rights and the disadvantage of neglecting our own. Aggressive behavior is the opposite. Assertiveness, the middle way, is a balanced respect for both ourself and others.
The path forward
When we disagree, rather than dig our heels in further to our position, we can try to find a kernel of truth in the opposing view. Remember that no one has the absolute truth. There are multiple sides to every issue. Accept that different opinions can be legitimate even if we don’t agree. Understanding another is not agreement with their position, it’s simply understanding their perspective. Once we understand the opposing perspective, we can communicate our position in terms of the other’s values. This gives us a better chance of being heard.
When we honor the thoughts of others, we give them the freedom to do the same. When we feel understood we are more inclined to listen to alternative information. This understanding and mutual respect can provide a path forward out of the divide.
How to bridge the political divide (Stanford)
Today’s Biggest Threat: The Polarized Mind (Scientific American)
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