In Modern Political Polarization, Reason is Threatened: An Implication for Mental Health

In his recent book, Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein argues that the tendency towards political polarization is a natural offshoot of social evolution. The argument is that, historically, human ancestors who formed strong alliances against competing groups were advantaged to survive competition.

Cain and Abel, Titian (circa 1543)

We could imagine, then, that one side in the conflict eventually dominates and the unsuccessful side withers in the shadow of the victor. Indeed, one could argue that this is what occurred to resolve the Cold War which pitted the eastern communist block against the western democratic block. Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed in the shadow of the West.

Then, the competition, to simplify, was between the two competing ideals of democracy and authoritarian communism. The tension of the threat was massive. I was but a young boy at the climax of the Cold War, and I can remember going to bed in fear of dying in my sleep in a nuclear attack. But throughout this conflict, the world remained attuned to Reason and common sense.

“There is no monopoly of common sense

On either side of the political fence

We share the same biology

Regardless of ideology

Believe me when I say to you

I hope the Russians love their children too.”

— Russians, Sting (1985)

I worry that a new and much more dangerous type of competition is emerging, and this threat has been developing for quite some time. In this new lens of competition, I see Reason and common sense themselves under threat.

At least in the United States, where the Left seems to be more squarely aligned with Intellectualism, Reason and common sense seem to be threatened by a significant tribe who questions the intellectual establishment. The questioning of the establishment is not, in my view, necessarily problematic. Reason strengthens through healthy consideration. The problem I see is that a growing tribe now argues without the benefit of conventional fact or logic, and the tribe is aligning against traditional Reason. Fact and logic are now in the mind of the beholder. I might argue that even this alone would not necessarily be a final blow to the mind and society, but the tribe seems to align behind changing realities. In one moment, X is reality, and very soon afterwards, Y is reality, and the proposed realities continue to cycle rapidly. To me, this poses a very real threat to individual and societal sanity. It is a threat to our ability to cope. It is a threat to our very existence.

For the first 29 years of my life, the world seemed reasonably structured, and I even succeeded in securing a doctorate in a basic science. Even though I was certainly frequently forced to hold two competing, unresolved ideas in my head, I was always comforted by having methods and a structure to evaluate and accept the conflict. Then in the year 2000, I began experiencing symptoms of a delusional disorder. My perceptions of reality were suddenly challenged and in a rapidly fluctuating manner. I was lucky to have had 29 years of a solid structure of reality under my belt. Without the benefit of being able to repeatedly refer to and rely on that structure with the help of my psychiatric care team, I fear I would have lost my sanity. Indeed with the structure, I was able to continue to work in academia for the better part of another 20 years.

But now I see something happening that I think places humanity at the risk of not having the kind of structure to refer to that has kept me well grounded between psychotic episodes. I worry that the very sanity of our youth is under threat by the methods of thought being championed by this significant tribe, and I worry that if this tribe succeeds, the very fabric of our society will unravel. This time the polarization seems to be existential. Do you see modern polarization as a threat to sanity?

Author: Darren Roesch

I am a retired American biomedical research scientist and professor.

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