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Michael Moore, Polarization and Power: A timely lesson in co-intelligence


by Tom Atlee
July 2, 2004

There is something interesting, odd and potentially powerful going on.

There is a lot of conversation about polarization, and a flurry of Op Ed pieces about it, from both the Left and the Right. Here are five examples:

Normally I would be encouraged. Polarization is one of the major obstacles to people coming together co-intelligently. Polarization is a powerful weapon to divide and conquer populations who could otherwise challenge entrenched, life-degrading centers of power.

But ANTI-polarization essays and dialogue can also be used in this same way -- to divide and conquer populations who could otherwise challenge entrenched power. Some of the most vital and powerful voices of dissent can be silenced or marginalized by calling them polarized, and getting their allies and the general public to SEE them through the lens of polarization, and reject them. Attacking an individual or group for polarizing the conversation can, by marginalizing them, undermine informed dialogue and collective intelligence.

The kind of anti-polarization work that is needed, in contrast, is persistent, open exploration of the polarizing forces in and around all of us, and the polarizing activities of all sides.

This is significant because much of the current flurry of commentary about polarization has been triggered by Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 911. In the world of democratic discourse, Moore's deeply felt propaganda is a powerfully articulate, well researched statement. It shares its bias and innuendo with thousands of other partisan screeds of all stripes. But its attack on Bush is far more substantive than many other influential attacks on public figures from both the Left and Right. (See Paul Krugmann's "Moore's Public Service" <>). Is it fair and useful to turn the anti-polarization spotlight on it, alone?

If we want to enhance collective intelligence in our political process, the important thing is not to silence the polarizing partisans. The most important thing is to establish adequate forums where citizens can hear articulate advocates of opposing views; productively deliberate about their ideas, information and proposals; and creatively use those different perspectives to arrive at understandings and policies that serve them and their collective welfare.

The problem with polarization is that it shuts people down into oversimplified stories about each other so that they can no longer hear each other or process diverse viewpoints. Therefore, trying to overcome polarization by silencing or marginalizing certain effective spokespeople is to miss the point entirely, generating conformist co-stupidity instead of inclusive co-intelligence.

It is important to simultaneously challenge both polarization (and its accompanying arrogance and dehumanization) AND entrenched power (with ITS accompanying arrogance and dehumanization). That rare combination was part of what so many of us find inspiring about Gandhi and King. They used nonviolent power to challenge oppression with vision, humility and humanity, pioneering one of the most co-intelligently potent forms of social change.

We can take their work another step further by establishing democratic institutions that wisely use all viewpoints -- including those of both marginalized and powerful groups -- and processes them through enlightened dialogue and deliberation to produce higher forms of common sense with which to govern our collective affairs. Like the work of Gandhi and King, this approach includes the powerholders (without their oppressive power) and the marginalized (without their victimized powerlessness) as potential sources of a greater truth that can only be brought to light through their peer conversation and collaboration.

Ultimately, our challenge is not to eliminate disagreement and conflict, but to provide society with the means to harvest wisdom and life-serving power from all forms of diversity, even the most extreme.


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