By Keri Phillips
A Perspective on Polarisation

A Perspective on Polarisation

Introduction

The word ‘polarisation’ is currently being used extensively to describe many, frequently deepening divisions which seem to be taking place, both locally and globally. They focus on various aspects including race, gender, health, climate, economics and various combinations of these elements. Often the context is one of turbulence and the extent to which we are living in unprecedented times. There is certainly some truth in the fact that what we experience in the present may be totally new to us; for many, the pandemic would be an obvious example.

Equally there may well be a significant strand of history repeating itself, this perhaps reflected, indeed reinforced by the family and cultural histories, stories and myths which have passed on through the generations. When faced with the apparently enduring certainty of uncertainty, polarisation may be energised by a yearning for solid ground, some sort of ‘normality’. Inevitably, polarisation can only take place if there is THE OTHER, whether real, created, imagined or a blend of these. If there is some validity in my supposition then if, for example, two groups are facing each other, then the creation of separate solid grounds will most likely lead to an ever-widening and deepening trench. This may be accompanied by strap-lines which offer supposedly simple truths in a world often experienced as ever-more complex.

My aim in this paper is simply to offer a perspective on some of the dynamics which could be at play. I am aware that in this I may succumb unwittingly to polarisation myself, whether in the content or manner in which I write. I am reminded of Glennon Doyle, ‘We are not going to get the racism out of us until we start thinking about racism like we think about misogyny. Until we consider racism as not just a personal moral failing but as the air we’ve been breathing’ (Doyle, 2020: 217). I am not always sure of the air I am breathing.

Clearly with polarisation there is the interweaving of the individual and the collective. The path of polarisation may be an intensely personal journey, inside or outside awareness. There is also inevitably the shared dimension: shared with and shared against. The journey, whether individual or collective may be tentative and hesitant through to a leap, sometimes of faith. Such words may well apply to my writing in this paper.

 

The Core

Polarisation uses and generates a lot of energy. For some, the energy may flow from the following:

  • Feeling lonely. Yearning to belong
  • Feeling angry. Believing one is powerless.
  • Feeling bored. Wanting some excitement.

There may well be a mingling and overlap of these feelings with, at their core a sense of existential vulnerability; that is, a profound sense of risk. This can be imagined in an overlapping model of:

Loneliness - Anger - Boredom, with Vulnerability at it's centre.

  
The ebb and flow of these feelings may be confusing to self, and indeed others.  This may further strengthen the focus outward in the drive for clarity and certainty. People are sought out so that one can belong, have some sense of influence and be excited. The drive for ‘me’ to become ‘us’ may heighten or diminish one’s sense of vulnerability. One works so hard to belong that one totally loses one’s sense of self. Some polarisations, for example, may be based upon rebellion, a setting where conformity is a manifestation of individuality whilst also being its denial. Potentially a tricky path to follow, weaving its way through slippery terrains. ‘Rebellion is as much of a cage as obedience is’ (Doyle op cit: 92).

As indicated above, the longing for belonging, power and excitement may be manifest through an urgent need to position other individuals, groups, cultures as ‘the other’.  ‘The other’ may be readily present or may need to be ‘created’ in some way. The unifying purpose will be to identify, provoke and exploit vulnerability in ‘the other’, whilst establishing a clear boundary – social, psychological, philosophical, existential – around one’s own group and culture.

The boundaries often become ever thicker and higher around ‘us’ when facing ‘the other’. In the words of David Armstrong the boundaries become barriers. (Armstrong, 2005). Indeed they may well become literal or metaphorical barricades. They are used supposedly to protect one’s vulnerability and they may consequently manage, express, magnify, suppress and displace one’s anger, boredom and loneliness.

There is an intensification of difference with ‘the other’.  This involves an individual and collective transition from right/wrong………to good/bad……..to virtuous/wicked when considering self in relation to ‘the other’.  This means that ultimately ‘the other’ is unconditionally differentiated on the basis of ‘being’, not just ‘doing’. There is no deal to be done with those on the other side of the trench. ‘There is nothing you can say or do which will convince me you have any value’. The intensification of the splitting between self and ‘the other’ may extend to idealising one’s own leader whilst demonising the leader of ‘the other’. There might also be the fabrication and falsification of ‘evidence’, such as through fake news; or using the term ‘fake news’ to dismiss the truth.  

The price of truly becoming ‘one of us’ might mean that those who do not fully participate in this transition with both body and soul and who may be more cautious and considered in their views are

threatened with exclusion for having betrayed the cause. This internal punishment for ‘who you are’ as well as ‘what you do’, parallels the process taken with ‘the other’. The person may be desperate to stay at any cost having been seduced (or seduced self) into the belief that ultimately there is the prospect, not just possibility, of unconditional love. In the meantime, using the language of transactional analysis, ‘Any stroke is better than no stroke at all’ (Stewart, 2000: 25).

As stated earlier, this will probably be an intensely personal journey with the feelings involved varying significantly with each individual. For example, a friend spoke of her fear, anger and grief as she sought to find somewhere both inside and outside herself that she could call ‘home’. She also said that quite often she would get angry in order to hide her grief, from self and others. 

The Paradoxes

The urgency in the whole process is driven by an overwhelming perceived need for certainty. However some of the core assumptions are inherently paradoxical. That is, they are based on contradictions:

  • My need for the ‘the other’ is vital so that I do not have to look at and explore my own vulnerability. So I both want and do not want ‘the other’. 
  • I am told that here I can be true to myself. At the same time I must make sure I conform, so I have to conform to be myself. 
  • The hugs supposedly offering warmth and support actually suffocate and control me. Often I really enjoy them.

Membership of this group is systemically and culturally provisional, and permanently so. The hoped-for solid ground is rather crumbly and liable to collapse.  There may be an unspoken ‘contract’ of self-delusion to deny this particular reality.

Alternatively, these existentially self-defeating contradictions can sometimes lead to an awareness of the profound futility of the whole enterprise. This then intensifying one’s sense of vulnerability. The echo chamber may offer respite but it does not resolve the underlying impasse, quite possibly currently masquerading as a procession of triumph. 

Resonances

Any of the above may have profound resonances – inside or outside awareness – with earlier experiences, some perhaps going back to childhood:

  • ‘I thought Dad loved me totally, but he didn’t really’. He had been at best a source of conditional strokes, for example ‘discouraging, ridiculing and shame-inducing’ (Phillips 1975: 13). 
  • ‘Mum was so unpredictable; sometimes a smile, sometimes a scowl and I often didn’t know why. I regularly looked over my shoulder in case she was rolling her eyes’. It was a turbulent world. 
  • ‘In my heart of hearts I was never totally comfortable with the family traditions and rituals. Granny quietly offered me love and support with a fleeting gentle touch, but she died before I was old enough to talk to her properly about it all’. Hopes raised then dashed. 
  • ‘I learnt to smile whenever we had visitors; this regardless of whatever had been happening a few minutes before their arrival’. Keeping up appearances was the highest priority.

Some of the resonances will be less vividly recollected and simply be instinctively present. Their elusiveness may consequently be even more powerful and influential in the current dynamics associated with polarisation. Indeed, the positive power of turbulence can sometimes mean that that which was outside awareness is brought to greater awareness, whether a mere glimmering through to vivid technicolour (Phillips, 2011). There may be a realisation that one’s intense engagement with polarisation in the external world is the result of intense polarisation within one’s inner world, including one’s relationship with oneself. For example, one may have a sense of flitting almost haphazardly between feeling powerful and feeling pathetic. Such intense contrasts may begin to outline a potentially rich domain and playground of exploration (Clarkson, 1989; Doyle, op cit).

The resonances can sometimes mean that when, as a relatively non-attached outsider one   witnesses the intensity of polarisation one can see grown-ups having tantrums with each other, even as they use multi-syllabic, ‘clever’ words. The debate, supposedly intellectual is deeply personal. They remain elusive with each other in order to ensure that no common ground is found. It may also mean that some of the feelings expressed - directly and indirectly to each other through words, tone of voice and aura - in the present are feelings stored up from the recent or distant past. Often too, questions, particularly if they are incisive, are never answered directly and there is a ritual of stock phrases to avoid anything but articulating one’s own cherished truth. Rituals being used to push away rather than truly engage.

Another aspect of these resonances may be that engagement in polarisation is unwittingly an attempt to recreate the past and achieve a different outcome. Alexander Lowen suggests that when there are power struggles within the family it is usually the parents who win (Lowen, 1985). Fighting, and ideally humiliating an authority figure in the present, particularly, for example, the ‘demonic’ leader of ‘the other’ group might be a way of exacting revenge on Dad who is either no longer alive or of sufficiently sound mind to receive the punishment and humiliation he ‘deserves’.

Clearly there may be many resonances which come from a more recent past, such as a badly handled restructuring of the business. Promises made and not delivered. However my speculation is that the raw energy of polarisation is invariably driven by a profoundly personal and visceral force which has been part of the individual for many years, perhaps inherited through previous generations. The later episodes, such as the business restructuring may well be part of a pattern of life-experiences, such as a sense of betrayal. As intimated before, they may also on occasion bring to the surface that which had been dormant and outside awareness for a long time.

Within this wider setting there may also be profound political and philosophical differences such as freedom versus responsibility or individualism versus collectivism (Miller, 2003). Challenges in the present may accentuate such contrasting and systemic views, whilst also being deeply personal.

Regarding a present challenge, being in a pandemic can sometimes mean that one is able to revisit assumptions and beliefs. One’s automatic routines and thought processes have been disrupted. For many, probably the vast majority, the opposite is true and the pressures regarding survival mean that the day-to-day demands total attention and commitment. These potentially growing differences may fuel polarisation. This at a time when the need for global and local cooperation is increasingly urgent. The debate regarding health versus the economy continues. 

Possible Learning

Sometimes one needs to escape in order to realise one was in prison.

An echo chamber is rarely a creative void

Loneliness can become a nourishing solitude. ‘Deficiency lies at the root of loneliness, whereas solitude is more an indefinite openness to a variety of experiences, thoughts and emotions’ (Svendsen, 2017: 108). Also Tiffany Watt-Smith refers to the way in which the meaning of the word loneliness changed in the middle of the 19th century, shifting ‘from a description of physical isolation to depict a painful emotion’ (Watt-Smith, 2016: 167). I am reminded how Anne of Green Gables was able totally to immerse herself in nature whilst on her own, often for many hours. She learnt from and was able to offer so much from her experiences (Montgomery, 2009).

Embracing one’s boredom might be interesting (Svendsen, 2008). It can cover a really wide spectrum ranging from ‘having nothing to do’ to ‘being too busy’. Everything is significant and therefore nothing is; and vice-versa.

You’re part of the past but now you’re the future,
Signals crossing can get confusing
Lana Del Ray, Love (She is singing about young people in love)

One may need to step sideways in order to get out of one’s own way (Phillips, 2018)

Notice gifts from the universe – books, stories, sights, chance conversations which seem to create a pattern and experience by which one is held………………..having held out one’s uncertainty with an open hand.  

Hypocrisy sometimes parades as authenticity.

                I’ve tried so hard to tell myself that you’re gone,
                But though you’re still with me, I’ve been alone all along.
                Evanescence, My Immortal

Betrayal does not always flow from malevolence. It may be the result of incompetence or impotence or a mixture of all these (Phillips. 2013).

Forgiveness is an option, not an obligation.

There can be treasures even in the midst of a mess. See the story below and, of course, ‘Mudlarking’, by Lara Maiklem.

Conclusion

I was feeling a bit lost, alone and bored. This was fuelled partly by the fact that I had been enduring writer’s block for some time. (I later realised writing was one of the ways in which I can turn loneliness into solitude: connecting to myself and others whilst alone). I decided I would see if I could bring some excitement to my life by going into Manchester, which is my home city, - physically but not spiritually.

When leaving Manchester Piccadilly station I suddenly decided to turn left towards the university area. I had not been there for some time. It used to be very familiar territory – for example, taking my younger daughter to the swimming pool, going to Alliance Française and visiting the Manchester Business School. I think that, without realising it, I was hoping to reconnect with some fond memories. Then as I turned into the district close to what used to be called The Palace Hotel I was shocked to see that almost everywhere was a huge building site. There was endless scaffolding and pavement closures meaning that one had regularly to cross from one side of the road to the other and back again. Many of my remembered views, almost points of reference, had disappeared or were scarcely visible. I thought I would seek consolation from one of my old favourite cafes……..but it had closed down.

Feeling a desperate need for consolation I quickened my step hoping soon to reach Blackwell’s Bookshop. But it was no longer there! After a moment’s shock, I had a vague recollection that maybe it had been relocated somewhere nearby. Happily this was confirmed by a passer-by and it soon come into view round the corner. It was a relief to step inside and to begin to find myself on some solid ground at last. I meandered around, exploring the new layout whilst truly not intending to buy anything. Then a small light grey book caught my eye. Indeed it leapt out at me. It was called ‘A Philosophy of Loneliness’, by Lars Svendsen. I did not want to risk confusing infatuation with love, so I walked away several times. Eventually, having flirted elsewhere I was hypnotically drawn back. I revisited the section and bought it. I was totally absorbed by it. It was the starting point in my writing this paper. 

References

Armstrong, D. (2005). Organisation in the Mind. London, Karnac

Clarkson, P. (1989). Gestalt Counselling in Action. London, Sage

Doyle, G. (2020). Untamed. Stop pleasing and start living. London, Penguin; Random House

Lowen, A. (1985). Narcissism. Denial of the True Self. New York, Touchstone

Maiklem, L. (2020). Mudlarking. London, Bloomsbury

Miller, D. (2003). Political Philosophy. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, OUP

Montgomery, L. (2009). Anne of Green Gables. London, Puffin

Phillips, K. (2011). Coaching, the Shadow and the Transition Curve. Handforth, KPA

Phillips, K. (2013). Delights and Terrors of Betrayal: Coaching Implications. Handforth, KPA

Phillips, K. (2018). Translation and Transition. Handforth, KPA

Phillips, R. (1975). Structural Symbiotic Systems. Chapel Hill

Stewart, I. (2000). Transactional Analysis in Action. London, Sage

Svendsen, L. (2017). A Philosophy of Loneliness. London, Reaktion Books

Svendsen, L. (2005). A Philosophy of Boredom. London, Reaktion Books

© Keri Phillips 2020
www.keriphillips.com   

https://www.associationofcoachingsupervisors.com/supervisors/profiles/keri-phillips

Free downloads available on request: kerijphillips@gmail.com

E.g. Haunting As Loving Dislocation ; the Delights and Terrors of Betrayal; Vulnerability, Culture and Coaching; Translation and Transition; The Dynamics of Anger; Reparenting Self; Coaching, the Shadow and the Transition Curve; Trust in Turbulent Times; Envy in Coaching and Coaching Supervision; MBTI and the Shadow.

 


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