Breaking Society

Jared Kush­n­er, Trump’s son-in-law, recent­ly wrote a book called, “Break­ing His­to­ry.” It’s received poor reviews. How­ev­er, I do like the idea behind the title and have stolen it to name this post, “Break­ing Soci­ety” because that is the actu­al con­text for his book, a soci­ety in dan­ger through polar­iza­tion and mis­trust. Although that might seem to sig­nal this post is mere­ly polit­i­cal opin­ion, that’s not actu­al­ly my intent. 

I’ve been study­ing the social process and impacts of deeply felt neg­a­tive assump­tions for well over twen­ty years and cer­tain themes are clear — no mat­ter the con­text. Here are some pat­terns I’ve picked up, illus­trat­ed through exam­ples from the cul­ture wars. (Keep in mind these prin­ci­ples might apply more gen­er­al­ly to pret­ty much any seri­ous con­flict although the exam­ples would change):

  • Allow­ing fears of what might be hap­pen­ing to dri­ve egre­gious con­clu­sions about oth­ers’ motives and char­ac­ter­is­tics (e.g., “they are only doing this for power”)
  • Reduc­ing oth­ers to these motives and char­ac­ter­is­tics in extreme forms (“they are fas­cists; they are com­mu­nists; they are pure evil”)
  • Pro­ject­ing onto oth­ers an intent to cur­tail or con­strain rights or free­doms (“you’re try­ing to get me to shut up”)
  • Abhor­ring com­pro­mise as if it were a per­son­al vio­la­tion of one’s dig­ni­ty or a group’s dig­ni­ty, ulti­mate­ly jus­ti­fy­ing inter­per­son­al or actu­al vio­lence. (“I’m not going to let them steal our coun­try, no mat­ter what!”)
  • Blam­ing the oth­er side for the exis­tence of the con­flict in the first place (“they’ve been doing this for a long time; it’s too bad we did­n’t rec­og­nize it then and stop it earlier”)
  • See­ing trolling, mock­ery, sar­casm, per­son­al attacks, put-downs and oth­er judg­ments as not only jus­ti­fied but as a sign of mem­ber­ship and of stand­ing up for one’s side (“they are snowflakes; they are bigots”)
  • Por­tray­ing one­self as a vic­tim of oth­ers (“they are so unfair”)
  • Express­ing con­tempt and hate for the oth­er side (“they are the ones who hate America”)
  • Call­ing out the hypocrisy of the oth­er side with­out exam­in­ing your own (“Look at what they said five years — or five min­utes — ago!”)

While the exam­ples I’m cit­ing have to do with cur­rent cul­ture wars, unfor­tu­nate­ly the con­flict isn’t rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent than oth­er forms of mis­trust. What these dynam­ics all have in com­mon is the trig­ger­ing of deeply felt neg­a­tive beliefs that define each side’s idea of the truth about what’s hap­pen­ing while alleg­ing oth­ers are insti­ga­tors and bad actors. This makes truth a sen­si­tive and extreme­ly vul­ner­a­ble tip­ping point. Lack of agree­ment on what the truth is, who’s right, who’s wrong are the hors­es pulling the char­nel wag­on. Each side attacks the verac­i­ty of the oth­er side per­sis­tent­ly and dynam­i­cal­ly as deter­mined by their own con­fir­ma­tion bias­es. As mis­trust builds, out­right men­dac­i­ty if not sim­ple mis­lead­ing become self-jus­ti­fied tools but per­haps more sad­ly they also become the base­line assump­tion about what the oth­er side is always doing. Ulti­mate­ly, I think we yield to self-igno­rance in order to con­tin­ue ratio­nal­iz­ing our own inner tur­moil and ques­tion­able conduct. 

And here we are.


Even though to an out­sider the behav­iors may look sim­i­lar for both sides, it would also be a grave error to sug­gest there’s some kind of equiv­a­lence between the sides. We feel forced to take sides. And that is exact­ly how I believe mis­trust breaks rela­tion­ships and ulti­mate­ly breaks soci­ety. Once we can­not believe each oth­er and we are total­ly hooked on our ver­sions of real­i­ty, we are no longer tru­ly able to iden­ti­fy or empathize with one anoth­er. We are con­stant­ly and auto­mat­i­cal­ly in the process of vio­lat­ing one anoth­er’s dig­ni­ty. We do not share a com­mon moral­i­ty. You assert your beliefs. I assert mine. But we are no longer talk­ing to one anoth­er at all. We reduce the human­i­ty of oth­ers and are reduced our­selves. They are no longer real or whole peo­ple. They are lib­tards. They are con­ser­v­a­tive ass­holes. And that’s all. From such a place, there’s no way back. We have to go through.

So, what is the way through this quagmire? 

To which I must ask one last relat­ed ques­tion: Is there any hope that the sides can talk togeth­er about the mis­trust and polar­iza­tion, about the break­ing of soci­ety and its impacts, with­out that con­ver­sa­tion sim­ply devolv­ing back into an argu­ment between the sides? My own expe­ri­ence with con­flict sug­gests that when mis­trust tru­ly dom­i­nates so that there is no equiv­a­lence then there is prob­a­bly also no way such a poten­tial­ly uni­fy­ing con­ver­sa­tion can real­ly take hold. It might hap­pen in small groups or between a pair of peo­ple, but in the midst of pro­found con­flict, peo­ple are most­ly dis­in­clined to step into “meta” space at all, no mat­ter how care­ful­ly framed the invi­ta­tion. If it is vital for them to win because their base­line iden­ti­ty is at stake, they’ll keep pro­vok­ing one anoth­er (and them­selves), even if that ulti­mate­ly means lean­ing into hos­tile dis­putes, destroy­ing rela­tion­ships, incit­ing legal bat­tles or con­don­ing the phys­i­cal vio­lence that lurks just around the cor­ner. Then the ten­sions inex­orably build, a war of some kind takes place and only when both sides are total­ly beat up and exhaust­ed do moves toward peace and com­pro­mise begin to appear. 

Look, in this coun­try we’ve been trig­gered by a mas­sive, poi­son­ing infu­sion of mis­trust, sketched by the nine bul­lets list­ed above, plus — and this is key — a lack of equiv­a­lence. And now, whether it’s two peo­ple, or two hun­dred mil­lion, we need to find a con­struc­tive way through. We are all respon­si­ble for that.

I believe we all do kind of know what the answer is and that it requires con­scious, delib­er­ate work rather than allow­ing our­selves to be seduced into wound­ing oth­ers in the name of pro­tect­ing our­selves. What can we do?

Place more focus on your own behav­ior than that of oth­ers. Rec­og­nize your belief sys­tem and its lia­bil­i­ties; step back; unhook from believ­ing that your own emo­tion­al (espe­cial­ly fear­ful or angry or right­eous) log­ic is the only truth. Rebel against sneak­er waves of blame set off by friends, col­leagues, fam­i­ly or your own inner con­di­tion­ing. Know your bound­aries and lim­its. State your truth plain­ly but watch what motives you are attribut­ing; what pro­jec­tions you are mak­ing. The default ought to be treat­ing oth­ers with kind­ness; being gen­er­ous in your inter­pre­ta­tions. Being fair and just. Avoid­ing inter­per­son­al vio­lence. Work­ing toward dia­logue. Not tak­ing the bait.

I believe it’s also impor­tant to rec­og­nize the seeds of mis­trust in the broad­er fact that we are cur­rent­ly con­fronting some very tough prob­lems in our coun­try: gov­er­nance; equal­i­ty, resources; aware­ness; respon­si­bil­i­ty, none of which have easy answers and all requir­ing an evo­lu­tion of con­scious­ness and new lev­el of human matu­ri­ty. Soci­ety is break­ing, at least in part, because we are all hav­ing to come to terms with real­i­ties that are intrin­si­cal­ly prob­lem­at­ic, painful and urgent. Many in lead­er­ship roles are not help­ing near­ly as much as they could. Inac­tion is epi­dem­ic. Yet, our increased dis­cord is also evi­dence that change is com­ing. It’s inevitable and we know it; we just don’t know yet exact­ly what it will be and what we will do with it. That does­n’t mean we have to go to war with one anoth­er. It does require us to help with the birth, rec­og­niz­ing that not every­one can be there or will be in time. 



  • I con­tin­u­ous­ly stand in awe of your abil­i­ty to artic­u­late as you do — so clear­ly and pro­found­ly. Dan. Love read­ing and reflect­ing on your stuff. 

    Rumi — “Out beyond right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

    In that field, there is no right and wrong, good and bad…only “dif­fer­ent.” When one feels safe and con­nect­ed to one’s self, there is no need to live in a world of pejo­ra­tive labels, i.e., sep­a­ra­tion from oth­ers. You have so clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed the steps to get to that place of safety.

    The amyg­dala area of the brain is not heart and soul driven…it’s a place where “uncon­scious” fear-based reac­tiv­i­ty lies and breeds.

    Rumi’s teacher, Tabriz, wrote:

    When the soul lies down in that grass,
    The world is too full to talk about.
    Ideas, lan­guage, even the phrase each other
    Doesn’t make any sense.

    (Dan) “It does require us to help with the birth, rec­og­niz­ing that not every­one can be there or will be in time.”

    There are those of us who are able and will­ing to help with the birth. There are those of us (due to their ear­ly and con­tin­u­ous wound­ing) are either unable or unwill­ing to help with his birth.

    The cycle of life on this dimen­sion. Spir­i­tu­al teach­ers tell us that every­one is going home but the path is dif­fer­ent for each pilgrim.

    Some pil­grims can and will find their way at this point in the cycle of life, on this dimen­sion; oth­ers not so much.

    How­ev­er, we can hold all oth­ers in the light with the inten­tion they will get­To the “field.”

    And, in our own indi­vid­ual ways and forms, we strive make the world just a lit­tle bit bet­ter today because of our pres­ence on it.

    That’s what youand your work do, Dan. 

    Great post!


  • pert 2, Dan

    The amyg­dala area of the brain is not heart and soul driven…it’s a place where “uncon­scious” fear-based reac­tiv­i­ty lies and breeds.

    Meant to say that our indi­vid­ual “work” is to serve and sup­port oth­ers to move out from the amyg­dala to our heart and soul area of our being and from there influ­ence the neo cor­tex area of the brain — free from emo­tion­al reactivity.

  • So love­ly, Peter, and the feel­ing is mutu­al regard­ing how well you artic­u­late and pro­voke deep­er reflec­tions. It’s grand we can connect!

    I espe­cial­ly love your shar­ing Rumi and Tabriz, who hold our way to that field with an unname­able joy, as if we are mere­ly reeds the wind has learned to blow through.

    Their invi­ta­tion is a rev­o­lu­tion with­out the need of words at all. How lucky we are to hear their voices.

    How lucky we are to hear yours, Peter!

    All the best~Dan

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