Christmas and Hanukkah, times of light and love, are coming right after the midterm elections. One side was supposed to win in a big wave. It did not exactly lose, but the other side also won. It could be a new opportunity for the country.
Polarization is still at its maximum. Now is our chance as a country to overcome it.
Let’s first understand how polarization was manifested.
Labeling, calling the other side names and demonizing them have become routine. Every incident is used to mock, devalue and demonize one’s opponent. This black-and-white thinking has divided the population into two different universes, where neither can conceive of the other side having anything of value to say or do. Each side is convinced that they are goo and the adversary’s power must be canceled.
Polarization has become so extreme that it is beyond cancel culture and the arbitrary suppression of freedom of expression through social media. The concept of democracy itself has been sullied as, ironically, the same calls to save democracy are tainted when they actively use demonization to suppress free speech.
In addition to demonization, disinformation and misinformation, creating hoaxes, manipulating language and willfully distorting people’s intentions have been used to suppress free speech. We all unwittingly participate in the destruction of democracy when we remain silent. At the same time, we see that our institutions abandon due process, keep people jailed without trial, ignore the concept of innocent until proven guilty (the very essence of democracy) and remain silent when people’s homes are invaded. Intimidation is used, the rule of law is discarded and all previously accepted forms of institutionalized principles are attacked.
What has brought this situation?
Many factors have contributed to the collective trauma that fuels this polarization—unrelenting secularization, ongoing confusion between secularity and secularization, the supremacy of human rights, the drive towards a New World order and the changing of cultures through massive immigration. The speed of change, the powerful and chaotic forces of globalization, the threat of control by technology and the widening gap between rich and poor have added to the instability and generalized anxiety.
Other related factors included the breakdown of traditional marriage and family, dramatic changes in millenary sexual mores and gender roles, the astoundingly rapid explosion of gender identities and the new ambiguity about the biological nature of the sexes.
They have challenged the traditional world, provoking stronger tribalism, religious renewal and religious fundamentalism. Part of the country clamors for the traditional family and sanctity of life, the sexual innocence of children, the protection of young girls’ ability to compete in sports with biological girls, law and order and patriotic nationalism. It sees it as a fight against exclusive concern over minority rights, unbridled freedom, whether for gender fluidity and sex changes, or extreme abortion rights, the push for a universal identity by demoting the prior one, and the fear of climate change, which they believe is undertaken to the exclusion of any other social concerns and the identity of the nation.
The struggle among these forces rouses our collective nervous system. We are left aroused, polarized and vulnerable to intense and intolerable feelings, which we project unto others. We grope for solutions, even if they are narrowly focused, short-term and dysfunctional.
What happens, individually, to each one of us who is part of this aroused collective nervous system?
At the personal level, we lose our emotional balance, are easily offended, hurt or angry and act out. We lose our compassion and disconnect even from the people we love because they do not think like us. We find ourselves stuck in an obsessive bubble, regurgitating from the same media news outlets the repetitive articles criticizing, judging and putting-down the other side. We mistrust and despise anything from them and lose our capacity for nuances.
When we are polarized, we project onto the other anything in us that is wrong, weak, dishonest, immoral or violent. We cannot conceive that there could be anything good in the other or anything bad in ourselves. We believe our side to be pure and to hold the only truth.
It feels normal to mistrust (and even hate) those who think or act differently than we do. These feelings can often intensify around the holidays. Already a stressful period for many of us because we must face our complex family dynamics, during that time, our feelings become more exacerbated by the political differences. We are affected personally and affected in our families and communities. We are also affected collectively!
How do we, as individuals, contribute to the collective disarray?
In a collective restlessness, we angrily organize in groups that pit us against each other, with ideological media fueling the polarization. We attempt to cancel and delete the other. We fall prey to violent thoughts, feelings and words (and some of us to physically violent actions), attempting to resolve the chaos, whether we try to re-establish the previous order or vie for a new order, and how to impose it.
When we are polarized, we tend to adopt a stringent, totalitarian, oppressive interpretation of our value system, whether religious or secular, racial, cultural, ethnic or economic. We look at our goodness and the badness of the other as established absolutes. We justify demonizing the other by the evil we attribute to them and justify our drive to impose our values upon them, to sacrifice them (and eventually sacrifice ourselves). We are unaware that when we become imbued with our goodness and morality, it is easy to become fascist and break the rules in the name of our good intentions.
When the collective nervous system is in disarray, those of us with less political power go into a freeze, feeling fearful, disoriented, helpless, unable to fight for our rights and powerless in the face of the repressive forces controlling us. Either way, the trauma vortex takes over.
We disconnect religiously and spiritually, which negatively impacts our holidays. As we disconnect from God and the world, and focus on the bad, our connection with our inherent capacity to heal is tenuous at best. The focus on our adversary’s trauma vortex becomes obsessive, making it impossible to work with them toward the common good. Our worldview becomes exclusionary; we cannot “see” the other, empathize or have compassion, nor connect with the healing vortex in “the other.” Our morality shifts—our trauma-based hopelessness leads us to despair, making us adopt double standards, and normalize our aggression. Most aggression remains at the verbal level, but a small minority will turn it outward and view physical aggression as the only viable defense. The far fringes on both sides join extreme movements to disrupt the social, religious, economic and/or political order. Aggression opens the door to previously unthinkable brutality, where our morality, ethics and values are forgotten, and we excuse ourselves for forgetting them.
What can we do? Healing during the Holidays
We can embrace the holidays’ spirit during this coming season and open our understanding and hearts. We can use all the methods and resources we know to center ourselves, regain our emotional equilibrium and extend ourselves beyond our normal limits to listen to and hear the other.
We can ask our clergy to speak and invite us to act from a place of restorative justice that comes from a centered nervous system, the essence of the healing vortex. This centeredness allows for balance. With balance, we can connect with the transcendental, with the oneness.
This fuels our capacity to feel the universality of humankind and our capacity to forgive; to use healthy anger that calls for measured, effective action for necessary change; and not to give in to toxic anger, which turns into hatred, fuels the desire for revenge and replaces one abuse with another.
We must also differentiate between secularization and secularism, to help us move from abhorrence of religion or religious radicalism to moderation. Secularization excludes religion from having any role in political and social affairs, turning into another religion. Secularism promotes a sphere of knowledge and values independent of religious authority. Differentiation between the two allows us to move from discriminating against religious people towards acceptance and lack of provocation, and from discriminating against non-religious people towards acceptance and lack of provocation.
More can be done under the aegis of religious holidays
Can we ensure the religious safety of communities, groups, nations and any collective who feels their religious identity is threatened by the inevitable globalization of information? They may need help to protect themselves from the influence of aspects of Western culture, which pit secularization and the supremacy of secular humanistic values against religious beliefs. Religious communities must also be able to protect their youth from internet pornography.
In turn, they need to sincerely allow for secularism and promote a safe model of “separation of church and state.” They must make room for the beliefs of others and leave people’s decisions over critical religious issues, such as abortion or sexual lifestyles, up to each individual and their relationship with spirituality.
Healing our upheaved nervous system results in a healthier and happier holiday season, with more energy, better and more precise thinking for problem-solving, better communication and diminished conflicts with our loved ones and compatriots.
If we pride ourselves on being open-minded and caring about justice, truth and a compassionate society, we should be able to listen to opinions with which we disagree. It may sound daunting, but it is possible to make this change in talking about political issues without blocking, unfriending, disrespecting, canceling or calling people liars or seeing them as evil. It is a gift we can and must give ourselves.
Gina Ross, MFCT, is the founder and President of the International Trauma-Healing Institute USA and ITI-Israel.