The theory of the morality of polarization

Though Jim Smith and I have our differences—he was insensitive to the utter desperation and futility of my job search situation[1]—there came a moment at the last Human Science Institute conference (billed as a “retreat”) that no one can envy.

He was presenting, covering a range of critical topics, and because he and I have our differences, I was listening critically. Very critically. But truth be told, he was batting a thousand. I might have emphasized some points differently but there was nothing I could or would argue with.

Until he got to one point which, to be completely honest, I still don’t quite understand. He had laid out the evidence and cited examples for what I call the morality of polarization.[2] Metaphorically, he had the ingredients, he had baked the cake, it was sitting in the kitchen on a silver platter.

JoAnn McAllister, my old department chair, a member of my dissertation and essays committees, and president of the Human Science Institute, interrupted. Continuing in my metaphor, she could see into the kitchen, she could see the cake sitting there on the silver platter, she wanted Smith to bring it the fuck out.

He floundered. It was as if he hadn’t even realized he’d baked the cake.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting across the room, watching all this, realizing that McAllister wants Smith to say something I had also been thinking about. This was crystal clear to me because Smith really had had this concept, which I call the morality of polarization, completely surrounded.

McAllister was getting pretty irritated when I interjected. “I believe I can help here.” She whirled around and I have to tell you that this is one of exactly two times in my life—understand I’ve gone through an entire Ph.D. program under her—that I’ve seen her angry. (And I still want to learn more about the other time.)

In my earlier post on this topic, I laid out a description of the morality of polarization, but had not really developed it theoretically.[3] It was that description that I summarized in an impromptu presentation on the spur of the moment, assuaging McAllister.

So in honesty, I’m not completely sure who should take credit for this theory. It is obvious to me that McAllister had thought of it as well and it’s hard for me to imagine that Smith hadn’t thought of it even if, embarrassingly in the moment, he failed to express it, because, like I said above, he had it completely surrounded. This is one reason I’m naming names in this post: Scholarship requires appropriate attribution.

I should also acknowledge that it shouldn’t be in the least bit surprising if all three of us had come up with this independently. Alfonso Montuori, another scholar I have my differences with—I want him to be more meticulous in developing some of his ideas—cites a number of examples where independent teams have developed ideas but because we tend to imagine creation as an individual endeavor (the “lone genius”) rather than recognizing it as occurring in a social context, only one creator or set of creators gets the credit.[4]

So what is this morality of polarization? In my previous post, I described

the morality of polarization, in which what “we” do is good and right, simply by virtue of the fact that “we” are doing it; and what “they” do is evil and wrong, simply by virtue of the fact that “they” are doing it. It’s an impediment to conversation: If your fundamental presumption is that the other side is irredeemably evil, you cannot engage with them to address any legitimate concerns they have. And they, starting with the same moralistic presumption about you, cannot engage with you to address your legitimate concerns.[5]

I would expand this now to incorporate a recognition that we trust neither the motivations nor the information of the “other” side. “We” on the Left[6] think of the right as xenophobic and hateful. We distrust Fox News. “They,” correspondingly, think of us as “elites,” that we’re out to take “their” country and culture away from them, in part by aiding and abetting an “invasion” of Muslims and “illegal aliens,” and distrust any information we have as manipulated in the furtherance of our schemes against “them” (the predominantly white right).[7]

In the process, the right denies its own painfully obvious racism and sexism while privileged elements of the “cosmopolitan” Left too often refuse to acknowledge their own privilege or to confront class.

Hence the often-criticized social media “bubbles” that reinforce each group in its own ideas. We should note further that the Left often does this within itself, as Amy Chua critiques a tendency for each subaltern group to think its own grievances are more important and pressing than anyone else’s.[8]

The tendency to “other” other people has long perplexed me. Simone de Beauvoir sees it as inherent to the human condition. If, she argues, we didn’t differentiate between “us” and “them” using the categories we have today, we would surely find others.[9] The theme keeps popping up in critical thought: Lorraine Code notes the dichotomous thinking that separates so many of us from each other—you are either in a particular category or you are not—and Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich rejects the term dualism for it, as she, like Code, argues that one is always preferred over the other. Minnich terms it hierarchically invidious monism.[10] It often attaches a moral and hierarchical authoritarian value to a temporal condition: It is better to be rich than poor, for example, so it becomes morally better to be rich, healthy, white, male, etcetera, and so members of favored categories are given authority over those of us in disfavored categories.[11]

In the morality of polarization, only one side—“our” side—may legitimately win elections. Who, on the Left, wanted to live under George W. Bush or wants to live under Donald Trump, whom the right now lionizes? Similarly, who on the right could countenance Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, neither of whom were even progressive, let alone “socialist,” but rather, so-called “centrists?”

Instead, whoever loses an election feels tyrannized: “Our” candidate “should” have won. The “other” candidate “stole” the election. The Left bleats about the electoral college, gerrymandering, and various efforts to disenfranchise people of color while the right disputes a birth certificate.

This, as we see in the present, is not a story that ends well. I’ve seen some scholars argue that we have been more polarized in the past: The prelude to the U.S. Civil War comes to mind. And fundamentally, it lies behind my long-expressed view that the U.S. can not survive as a single country. To draw on George Lakoff, we have different moral hierarchies that emphasize different metaphors of moral value.[12]

And there is no longer any conception that the other side might have a point here or there; rather, we hold the other in utter disdain. Irreconcilable differences have arisen; a divorce, as hard as it may be to conceive of a division of territory, other assets, and liabilities, is the only sane way out.

But because we insist on remaining a single country—patriotism and all that—we celebrate our successive tyrannies, as one side or the other emerges victorious in any given election, over each other.

And so the misery continues.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d.,
  2. [2]David Benfell, “The morality of polarization,” Not Housebroken, September 21, 2018,
  3. [3]David Benfell, “The morality of polarization,” Not Housebroken, September 21, 2018,
  4. [4]This was in lecture and, somewhere in the reading, for the Ph.D. program that was the wrong program for me, Transformative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies, in San Francisco. I attended that program between completion of my Master’s program in 2009 and beginning the program that was right for me, Human Science at Saybrook University, then based in San Francisco, in 2011. While I want Alfonso Montuori to be more meticulous and while, for me, the Transformative Studies program too heavily emphasizes individual rather than social transformation, this is in no way to disparage the program: It was my introduction to systems theory and an exposure to creativity research that continues to inform my thinking.
  5. [5]David Benfell, “The morality of polarization,” Not Housebroken, September 21, 2018,
  6. [6]I capitalize “Left” in recognition of a certain authoritarian tendency to impose ideological conformity, which I describe in David Benfell, “The corruption of the Left,” Not Housebroken, September 11, 2017, The odd part, as Amy Chua observes, is that this ideology has splintered along subaltern group lines. Amy Chua, Political Tribes (New York: Penguin, 2018); Amy Chua, “How America’s identity politics went from inclusion to division,” Guardian, November 9, 2018,
  7. [7]See my description of authoritarian populism in David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126). And also as updated in David Benfell, “Barack Obama asks, ‘Why is it that the folks that won the last election are so mad all the time?’” Not Housebroken, November 4, 2018,
  8. [8]Amy Chua, Political Tribes (New York: Penguin, 2018); Amy Chua, “How America’s identity politics went from inclusion to division,” Guardian, November 9, 2018,
  9. [9]Simone de Beauvoir, “Woman as Other,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Philadelphia: Westview, 2017).
  10. [10]Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005).
  11. [11]Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991).
  12. [12]George Lakoff, Moral Politics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).

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