I recently wrote a post concerning polarization: Language gap. I received some great feedback on that from two of my developmental anthropology conversation partners—thanks Barbara, and Jon! As I’m trying to keep to the no-screed blog commitment I’ve made, my weekly space is limited. In the instance of the ‘Language gap’ post, the input I gathered directed me toward a more nuanced approach to address what I’ve been describing as a problem of society being stuck on binary exclusivity and highly resistant to pluralist inclusiveness.
The excellent recommendation was Barry Johnson’s Polarity Management model. If you [especially clergy] are not familiar with Johnson’s work, I urge you to get acquainted. We will likely spend at least a couple of weeks on it here. We’ll take Johnson up in a moment. First, though, proper respect for legacy wisdom: Taoism, an ancient, and perhaps even more nuanced, way of approaching the subtleties of unsolvable dilemma (polarity).
My ‘Language gap’ post confronted some of the unintended consequences of dominant Western thinking on the either/or topic. In distinction to Aristotle’s perspective, Eastern thinkers, like Lao Tzu, developed (in Taoist philosophy) a sublime perspective on polarities. Aristotle’s binary—excluded middle—approach helps identify the bedrock of the exact sciences. While Aristotle’s approach helped Sapiens visit the moon, I feel the Taoist perspective on duality is much more appropriate and effective to most everything outside the direct purview of mathematics and the hard sciences.
As I alluded, Taoism handles the problem of opposites quite elegantly. The above visual is a graphic indication of the subtlety with which Taoism treats polarity. Chapter 2 of Te-Tao Ching—Taoism’s foundational text and attributed to Lao Tzu—reveals the sage’s wisdom regarding the mutual-arising, mutual-indwelling nature of the opposites. Taoism captures the underlying essence driving what we’ve talked about regarding the tetra-arising nature of the quadrants in our holism mnemonic. The first few lines from Chapter 2 of Te-Tao Ching (translated by Robert G. Henricks):
When everyone in the world knows the beautiful as beautiful, ugliness comes into being;
When everyone knows the good, then the not good comes to be.
The mutual production of being and non-being,
The mutual completion of difficult and easy,
The mutual formation of long and short,
The mutual filling of high and low,
The mutual harmony of tone and voice,
The mutual following of front and back—
These are all constants.
This image (above) that concisely depicts the polarity management concept is a vivid indication of Johnson’s rather elegant way of organizing the complexity of dilemma/paradox that even explains the dynamics—e.g., infinity symbol. Johnson uses a quadrant formula as the background (foundational organizing structure) dimension of his model. Please note the only common ground between Johnson’s model and our quadrant holism mnemonic model is both models happen to use a quadrant format.
Let’s begin with Johnson’s basic insight…
The first crucial distinction Johnson draws is between problems to solve and polarities to manage. Johnson’s way of defining/illustrating polarities to manage is brilliant and I’ll share that to begin next week.
Before we continue our introduction of the Johnson model, first an important insight as to a major part of the ground and gravity of the polarization [(binary/pluralist) (technical/adaptive) (exclusive/inclusive) (problem/polarity)] issue in U.S. society right now.
Looking into Johnson and his model I came across a paper he had written back in the 90’s. The PDF offers crucial insight into the background of why our society generally seems so stuck in polarization, and flummoxed by the problems intrinsic to difficult dilemmas.
The root of our polarization problem? In a word, pedagogy.
The simple reason we feel like we are virtually hard-wired to react to difficulty with either/or problem-solving in the foreground is our educational system. In his 1998 paper, Polarity Management A Summary Introduction, Johnson writes:
1. Definition = “Problems to solve” are those with 1 right answer or 2 or more right answers that are independent.
2. Problems with 1 right answer are essential for one generation to pass key, knowledge elements of its culture on to the next generation. Below are five elements of culture and a corresponding “Either/or” problem (test question) we are likely to give our children in an effort to assess their understanding of the subject.
All of the above, academic type “problems” have 1 right answer. No culture can teach its language, mathematics, history, science or morals without using primarily single answer, problems. They are absolutely essential. It is difficult to overstate their importance, power and influence in the lives of those growing up in any culture. No single answer problems, no culture.
We’ll pick up Johnson’s Polarity Management from here next time.
I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?
Note: This blog page has employed a serial approach to outline, Spiral Dynamics, a helpful developmental anthropology based on the research of Clare Graves. Introduction (June 30, 2018), first in series (July 1, 2018).