July 19, 2019

The Roots of Divisiveness

Divisiveness means “tending to cause disagreement or dissension.” The word is interesting because it illustrates the very condition it describes—people can’t agree on how to pronounce it! Lately, there has been much blather about the condition, particularly concerning politics, but most of it boils down to “the other guys started it.”

I believe the condition is rooted in a single source and pattern of thinking. The source is Humanistic Psychology, which in the 1960s challenged the traditional view of human nature by claiming that people are born wise and good an corruption comes only from without, everyone creates his/her own truth and reality, feelings are more reliable than reasoned thought, self-esteem is prerequisite to all achievement, and the highest possible achievement is self-actualization, all of which has a way of being interpreted as, “I know I’m wonderful, but I’m doubtful about other people.”

The pattern of thinking that has resulted from these claims, broadly speaking, is as follows:

Reality and truth are whatever I say they are, so I have no need to entertain other viewpoints. If others disagree with me, they are wrong and/or acting in bad faith; therefore they have no right to be heard. They do, however, have an obligation to listen to me because I am right.

When personal or societal problems arise, others are entirely responsible for them; if they do not accept full responsibility, they are acting in bad faith and deserve my scorn. I have a responsibility to myself to maintain my self-esteem at the highest level. Those who criticize me or challenge my views are undermining my self-esteem and harming me. I should therefore refuse to treat them with civility, let alone seek compromise with them on issues.

That thought pattern and the intransigence and even arrogance that accompany it are observable in many situations, including office discussions and family conversations. How often have you heard someone say, “I can’t talk to my children (or parents) about current events without getting into a heated argument that ends in anger and resentment.”

In the following paragraphs I will focus on the three areas that have the most profound impact on society—education, journalism, and government—and demonstrate how each is influenced by the pattern of thinking described above.

The traditional goal of education was to help students gain the knowledge and skills necessary to function effectively as workers, family members, and citizens. To achieve that goal, teachers must guide students in acquiring and evaluating information and forming and refining their own judgments. (Providing such guidance is, of course, very different from stuffing minds full of facts to repeat on examination papers, and much more difficult.) Today, however, many educators neither help students develop their minds nor stuff their minds with facts. Instead, they force their personal opinions on students. In other words, they reject the role of teacher and instead are propagandists for their personal views. This is especially so in college, but it occurs in many high schools, as well.

The traditional role of journalism was to inform people of the news—that is, the facts about what has happened and is happening in the world around them. The journalists’ personal opinions about the news were presented, but always in a separate section so they would not be confused with the news itself. Today the standard has changed. Journalists tend not to distinguish between fact and opinion and in many cases regard their opinions as equivalent to, if not more important than, facts. Worse, when the facts do not support or flatter their opinions, they are inclined to dismiss them. The result is that their reporting consists of what they WISH to be true rather than what is true.

The traditional role of government in this country was to serve the interests of the people. (This is not necessarily the same as doing the will of the people; where public opinion favors an action that is detrimental to the people’s interests, government officials will oppose that action.) Each branch of government had a separate way of serving the public interest: the legislative by enacting laws; the executive by carrying out laws; the judicial by assessing the constitutionality of laws. Individuals were and are elected/appointed to carry out their prescribed roles as harmoniously as possible. Today, however, there is an increasing tendency toward disharmony and dysfunction: in the executive branch, by usurping the role of the legislature; in the legislative, by putting party interests over constituents’ interests and refusing to cooperate with the executive branch; in the judicial, by putting personal views above the constitution and, in effect, re-writing rather than interpreting laws.

There is a way to overcome the harmful thinking pattern and the intransigence and arrogance that accompany it. That way, taken with a healthy dose of humility, involves three simple steps:

Admitting that we don’t have truth and reality within us; we have to seek them from without, and one of the places we should search is our neighbor’s view. Often as not, she will have discovered one part of the truth, and we another. By joining the two parts we will both be richer.

Admitting, too, that other people’s errors are more than likely as innocent as our own and not an indication of bad faith.

Understanding that admitting we are wrong and the other person is right need not undermine our self-image or sense of worth. It can be, instead, the first step in gaining new insight and growing in wisdom. Moreover, that whatever feeling of embarrassment it may bring will soon be replaced by an even stronger feeling of pride in having been honest.

If educators followed this advice, they would stop trying to create carbon copies of themselves and focus on guiding students more responsibly. If journalists followed it, they would put ego aside and report the news more honestly. If government officials followed it, they would end political gamesmanship and work together in the public interest.

Finally, if the rest of us followed the same advice, we might retire that word whose pronunciation we disagree about and enjoy a generous measure of harmony.

Copyright © 2018 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero