Note: This post uses religious symbolism for secular purposes. It is not a tool of proselytization.
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Matthew 7:13-14 New International Version (NIV)
Christ’s principle of the ‘broad’ and the ‘narrow’ is evidenced in virtually all world histories, religions and sciences. It is by no means a Christian concept; it’s a human concept. In all of those instances, balance, moderation and equilibrium lead to the best outcomes. Extreme philosophies and ideologies have the capacity to become dangerous outliers and often entail chaos, variation and sometimes disaster. A fundamental component of American society, politics, is infected with the disease of divisive radicalism. Sadly, the problem’s roots are far deeper than ideological squabbles. Human psychology plays a key role in this conflict and also how it can help us understand the phenomenon’s mounting severity and how to course correct appropriately.
While the controversial presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama mobilized partisan zeal for sixteen straight years, Donald Trump’s campaign and inauguration seemed to tear the country apart (this perception is exacerbated by the mainstream media’s obsession with controversy and catastrophe). Nevertheless, we can’t blame Trump for Americans’ seduction by the broad path of absolutism. Psychologists have a clinical term for people that split the world down the middle in a black and white fashion. People that can’t tolerate ambiguous shades of gray are classified as bivalents, which means that they perceive the world binarily. This mindset creates a cognitive distortion known to mental health experts as ‘splitting.’ Splitting is typically a result of intense childhood trauma or conflict that occurs before a child has developed a capacity for the cognitive processing of external ambiguity. The child begins to view the world in black and white terms in order to cope with intense external stressors. The behavior carries through into adulthood and is characterized by the draconian judgment of others and the absence of self-awareness.
The safety and clarity that people get from mental splitting comes at a high cost: the distortion of reality. Information gleaned from the external world rarely fits into clear, definitive categories or classifications. Maintaining a rigid existential narrative requires a lot of willful ignorance. A realistic view of a person’s surroundings and environment requires the taxing, and sometimes painful synthesis of vast quantities of information and vast numbers of different viewpoints, which contain a plethora of contradictions and misinformation. Bivalents ignore problematic information (that which contradicts their worldview or understanding) or discount it as flawed, instead of putting it through the process of cognitive incorporation, i.e. considering certain realities instead of ignoring them.
While bivalents are an example of a psychological extreme, all humans value absolute certainty and view chaotic ambiguity in a negative light. Anyone who says that they relish ambiguity is either lying or joking. That being said, there is a lot of variation in individuals’ capacity for tolerating ambiguity.
Assuming that the values of the population’s ambiguity tolerances adhere to a normal statistical distribution (which is a safe assumption considering that the scientific consensus says the preference of certainty over ambiguity is a basic human trait), roughly 70 percent of the population ranges from severe handicap to moderate disadvantage, with respect to degrees of ambiguity intolerance (84.14% fall to the left of the first standard deviation to the right, i.e. μ + σ). So, there’s a massive amount of people that have some degree (ranging from moderate to severe) of innate tendency to oversimplify the world.
Intolerant people (meaning they have a low tolerance for uncertainty) tend to be less creative, have lower levels of emotional intelligence, be less successful in leadership roles and enjoy lower degrees of general well-being (largely due to higher levels of anxiety produced from excessive worrying). A short review of the list of characteristics associated with ambiguity intolerance makes it clear why people have these outcomes. Here are some primary and secondary characteristics of this mental handicap:
- Need for categorization
- Need for certainty
- Inability to allow something (including a person) to possess positive and negative attributes simultaneously
- Accepts attitude statements that depict a black and white reality
- Prefer familiar to unfamiliar
- Rejection or repulsion of the unusual, abnormal or different
- Difficulty changing opinion, even when circumstances have drastically changed
- Swift and early association with one view or solution in a perceptually ambiguous situation
- Premature closure
- Can be predisposed to ethnic prejudice
What does this list of attributes bring to mind? I would argue that American voters would interpret the qualities through the lens of their ideology’s narrative. They might even fall prey to the dreaded cognitive distortion known as ‘splitting’ and then attribute those qualities to a person or group of the opposite political affiliation. Some might say the list accurately describes Donald Trump or Jeff Flake or even John McCain (RIP). Others might say it sounds like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders. Personally, this list doesn’t make me think of individuals. This list reads like a sociologist’s description of the American electorate.
The last characteristic on the previous list, a predisposition to racism, illustrates the intolerant (of ambiguity) world that we live in, where the ‘splitting’ behavior is visible front and center in the political arena. Liberals will be quick to condemn conservatives for the final point; Trump’s inauguration was enough for all liberals to write off all conservatives as backwards bigots. That’s not to say that Republicans haven’t given liberals ammunition for this claim; they definitely have (a lot). Conservatives over the past two decades HAVE painted the world in black and white terms, which has led to simplistic solutions to complex societal problems.
Justified or not, the left has believed that the right was inherently racist for decades, but the emergence of the ‘alt-right’ (a societal autoimmune disorder caused by the left’s totalitarian imposition of political correctness on the public), a fringe movement that actually isn’t conservative at all, has given leftist social justice warriors license to associate white supremacy with conservatism (not just run-of-the-mill, apple pie racism). The radical left’s narrow worldview has blinded them to their own hypocrisy, and their intolerance of ambiguity and religious dedication to absolute equality is just as racist as anything that the right has done.
It’s no secret that, as a population, university professors are much more liberal than conservative. That makes the fact that students tend to become more liberal during their college career not a huge surprise. Some would argue that’s tantamount to mass brainwashing, but that too is an oversimplification. While ideological indoctrination is a murky issue, racial discrimination is not. Harvard University is currently being sued by a group of rejected students for the school’s history of racial discrimination against Asian applicants. The plaintiffs contend that Harvard has systemically penalized Asian applicants, due to the population’s high level of achievement, by giving preference to other racial and ethnic groups. The minimum acceptable scores for Asians are higher for blacks than for Hispanics and blacks. This practice is a quota system that’s based on race, not on merit or ability. This is the literal definition of racism, yet many liberals and the ACLU itself are extremely critical of the lawsuit. As shown in the tweet below, liberals are concerned that white students will somehow unfairly benefit from the lawsuit. So, the ACLU and its illiberal comrades either don’t like Asians or they don’t like white people. Either way, by purportedly trying to combat racism, liberal universities are themselves perpetrators of racial discrimination.
Any potentially oppressed group can benefit from this new social badge of honor. Status is seen as a symptom of privilege, which is the progressive equivalent of the mark of Cain. The leftist activists, especially in academia, are hostile to the idea of any meritocracy, largely because they believe that accomplishment isn’t a function of ability and work ethic; instead it’s a function of privilege and environment. Leftists push for artificial equity in other areas besides academia. Google fired software engineer James Damore for writing a memo, Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber, that criticized Google’s discriminatory diversity practices and cited scientific evidence that showed that men and women have different interests, which is why there are more men than women in STEM fields (not because of discrimination). Despite the correctness of the science and the actual absence of any sexist sentiment, Damore was fired for sexism. He did highlight the sexist and racist nature of Google’s hiring quotas.
Heather Mac Donald, attorney and American political commentator, has commented on the bizarre double standard that the left has adopted. She has criticized the burgeoning culture of self-serving victimization and noted the left’s hypocrisy on the subject of equality. While the left despises meritocracy in academia and professional life, they don’t care about it in sports. Most sports are dominated by black athletes. Oddly, there are no cries from egalitarian sports lovers advocating racial equality in the NBA or the NFL. Coal miners and underwater welders tend to be white men. Wedding planners tend to be female. Cheerleaders tend to be female. Nail technicians tend to be Asian. Should there be gender and racial quotas for those careers too? Or could the reason for those discrepancies be due to the fact that, when free to make their own decisions, men and women choose different careers.
.This issue is one example of a pattern that keeps playing out: both sides are so intent on demonizing the other and enacting their agenda, that they will engage in any behavior to defeat the enemy, even the one that they crusade against. They have no interest in even considering evidence for the other side’s claims.
In America today, we have a large portion of the population that cannot tolerate uncertainty, that are naturally inclined to adopt extreme, aggressive positions and advocate for various universal panaceas that will magically solve all of society’s problems. This natural tendency is further exacerbated by the state of American media. Non-partisan news outlets are virtually extinct. Conservatives rely on Fox News, Breitbart and The Wall Street Journal. Liberals prefer NPR, MSNBC, CNN and most mainstream newspapers. Social media algorithms fine-tune content so that users will never be burdened by ‘problematic’ content (the other side’s viewpoints) and that users will cement their radical worldviews with each website click, as the algorithms narrow the intellectual diversity of their shrinking ideological echo chamber.
It’s also important to note that a person’s ambiguity tolerance has nothing to do with their general intelligence. Many smart, capable people are enslaved by bivalent thinking. It would be great if the far left and the far right were composed of only idiotic demagogues (make no mistake – there are a lot of those out there). Sadly, there’s brilliant minds on both extremes. These capable thinkers are generally concerned with domination, not discourse. Compromise is not only viewed as undesirable, it’s considered defeat. These pundits, commentators, anchors, YouTubers, podcasters and others are able to muster armies of mindless protestors, completely controlled by groupthink dynamic. Right-wingers claim that the Nazis were leftists and leftists ignore the body count and dangers of collectivist tyranny.
Mobs shout down the opposition with monotonous, repetitive shouts and not with civil discourse. How do we get the brilliant bivalents to compromise (which will hopefully inspire the mindless partisan warriors to shut their mouths and open their ears)? The answer (the ‘narrow’ path of moderation, reason and ambiguity tolerance) seems self-evident in theory, but the mechanism for turning that abstract solution into solid reality isn’t readily apparent. The only way to solve a problem is to understand its origins (pt. 4).
- Kets de Vries, Manfred F. R., (2015). “How to Manage Someone Who Can’t Handle Ambiguity.” Harvard Business Review.
- Beck, Julie., (2015). “How Uncertainty Fuels Anxiety.” The Atlantic.
- Galarnyk, Michael., (2018). “Explaining the 68-95-99.7 Rule for a Normal Distribution.” Towards Data Science.
- Kornilova, Tatiana V., & Sergey A. Kornilov., (2010). “Intelligence and Tolerance / Intolerance for
Uncertainty as Predictors of Creativity.” Psychology in Russia: State of the Art.
- O’Connor, Peter., Becker, Karen., & Kerryn Fewster. (2018). “Tolerance of ambiguity at work predicts leadership, job performance, and creativity.” Creating Uncertainty Conference 2018 Main content Creating uncertainty: Benefits for Individuals, Teams, and Organizations
- Bochner, Stephen., (1965). “Defining Tolerance of Ambiguity.” The Psychological Record.
- Thorne, Ashley., (2011). “Why Are Most College Professors Liberal?” National Association of Scholars.
- Kurtzleben, Danielle., (2016). “Why are Highly Educated Americans Getting More Liberal?” National Public Radio.
- Hartocollis, Anemona., (2018). “Asian-Americans Suing Harvard Say Admissions Files Show Discrimination.” The New York Times.