Polarisation and the Myth of Political Positions

We’re more similar than we think, but our firm belief in rationality divides us //

Political positions aren’t as rational as we’d like to think and, in fact, both what we call the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ are formed by the same agnostic instinct of self-preservation. As much as we’d like to believe we’re perfectly rational creatures, deep down we often believe in that which benefits us or our belonging to social and political groups – and this illusion of rationality is fuelling a biased media and dividing us.


Humans are very similar creatures. Our brains share the same structures. Yes, the thoughts that run inside them as electrical signs vary, and change all the time. And with them, albeit more slowly, the opinions that they form. Two of the same palm trees will never have the wind blow their pointy leaves into the exact same position at the same time, just like two people will never have the same composition of thoughts and opinions. And still, just like the trees, we are the same.

Like the wind, the reasons why our thoughts blow in one or another direction are many, and many in fact much less rational than we’d like (see the myth of our opinions). The main underlying driver for them is not rationality, but a sense of self-preservation imprinted in us – be it in our own defence or in our own promotion.1

Humans are hierarchical social animals, and as such we don’t crave only safety and wellbeing but also power and status. In that pursuit, we associate ourselves with different individuals and become part of different groups (families, political parties, even countries). This has always been part of our biology, and of our history. As we settled our first non-nomadic neolithic tribes, our populations grew bigger, and so did the space for divisions and alliances in a fight for resources which were gradually more scarce. We learned to defend the groups we belonged to, and the ideas which helped our groups succeed – or which created disadvantages to groups that threatened or antagonised us. Through thousands of years of civilisation, we have only created more sophisticated political ways to exercise our tribal instincts.

In this class struggle, the formula to gather and control allies has always been pretty much the same: the promotion of a “view” that doesn’t only tell us what purpose we should have but also the correct ways to reach it, and that promises godly rewards to those who follow and fearful consequences to those who deviate. To convince us to fight against other groups, this view needs to dehumanise them – usually by fear or hatred – and convince us that having power over them is the only way to save ourselves or reach our well-intended goals (see for example the Crusades, Manifest Destiny or Jihad).

No political positioning is immune to this. In the National Assembly that succeed the French Revolution in 1792, many of those sitting left of the presiding officer (coining for the first time the term “political left”) defended regimes as controlling as that of the destitute King Louis XVI, and were in fact more totalitarian than many of those sitting on the right of the assembly (the “political right”), who often held more moderate views. Maximilien de Robespierre for instance, from the left-wing Montagnard group, established what the French called a “reign of terror”, promoting massacres and public executions. Over a century later, the far-left leader Joseph Stalin imposed rigid rules in the Soviet Union which tightly controlled people’s personal lives and freedom of expression and were largely legitimated by a religious cult to his personality – in fact in many ways similar to what the far-right leader Adolph Hitler did in Germany. Both proclaimed that the ultimate good would only be achieved by getting rid of an “oppressing” and dehumanised group (those who owned the means of production, and those who belonged to “inferior races” such as the jews, respectively), and both murdered millions in that process. We often believe them to be so different when in fact they were just people making use of the same psychological repertoire (voilà the horseshoe theory).

“In the National Assembly that succeed the French Revolution in 1792, many of those sitting left of the presiding officer (coining for the first time the term ‘political left’) defended regimes as controlling as that of the destitute King Louis XVI, and were in fact more totalitarian than many of those sitting on the right of the assembly (the ‘political right’) “

With the socioeconomic development of the last centuries and the unprecedented rise of a middle class, the neolithic threat of other groups taking up our physical resources lost traction. The more equal we became, the less profitable was the fight for power and status. We were gradually less religious, and more scientifical and technological. No longer governed by fear, we gradually allowed ourselves to calculate our own ways to reach our goals. This brought up a new mindset, where good and bad are no longer dictated, but changing and verifiable – nothing is inherently good but only good because and as long as it leads to a positive and measurable outcome. And with less perverse enemies, those goals can be more empathic and altruistic. The good we believe in has become the common good – with both the left and the right often disagreeing only on the most logical ways to reach it. And we’ve become generally more accepting of other groups, and more socially liberal.

But this change didn’t affect the biology of our opinions. Even our biggest political divides are still largely grounded in that same instinct of self-protection. Take how economically liberal we are, for example. Businessmen who have little ties with the government other than paying taxes usually want a smaller government, whilst those connected to the government (by public employment or welfare, for example) or antagonising the class of businessmen (for example, by unhappily working for them) often want it to be bigger. To them, their reasons are entirely rational and only purely coincidentally happen to benefit them and their group. Reason is a part of the equation, of course, and they can each be convinced otherwise. The less corrupt and more efficient our governments become, the easier it is to convince businessmen to trust them with their resources. And the more successful businessmen give back to their communities, the less people want to take away from them. But different from what we’d like to believe, reason isn’t the only element.

“Paradoxically, the belief in rationality is making us more polarised. In denying our biology, we fail to properly understand why we believe certain things and why others diverge.”

Paradoxically, the belief in rationality is making us more polarised. In denying our biology, we fail to properly understand why we believe certain things and why others diverge. We ignore the fact that all of us tend to focus more on the arguments that benefit us (sometimes indirectly, by avoiding conflict with our social or political groups), and overlook the ones that don’t. We ignore that, in fact, we probably haven’t really studied all our opinions exhaustively and aren’t fully certain of their outcome in order to defend them so fiercely. We think: if something is so rationally obvious, and if rationality is the only driver, how can other people just not see it? This lays the grounds for our current frustration with each other, a misunderstood frustration which is often improperly leveraged by the media – in itself a strong political tool of control (see the power of storytelling) – to incite us to dehumanise, fear or hate in benefit of causes that aren’t really ours. In the absence of real threats, biased media can create illusional ones.

If we really want to reach the common good, we need to remember that we tend to believe in that which benefits us or harms those who we oppose, that we like to agree with the ideas of our groups (such as friends, family, and political parties), that the “right” and “left” are much more similar than we’d like to think, and that our emotions, especially fear and hatred, can be used to control us. Understanding our limitations is the only way to overcome them.

1 The lines between self-defence and self-promotion can often be blurry. We often use a discourse of protection to defend material gains for a group we identify with. And we can also support causes which don’t benefit us directly when that care or belief raises our social status in the group.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *