Politics & Media
Sep 04, 2023, 05:57AM

Why Are We So Divided? Schismogenesis!

A concept from the late anthropologist David Graeber throws light on our partisan divorce.

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Horserace polls on a projected a 2024 presidential contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden are remarkably even. It's 46-46 percent according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, and has never gotten beyond about a five-point advantage for either man. This isn’t surprising. With the partial exception of 2012, when Obama beat Romney, the last six presidential elections have been decided by a couple of percentage points at most. Many wild events may take place leading to November '24, but it's safe to guess that the election will be close. So close that, as in 2020, a few thousand votes each in a few states might change the outcome.

It's not the men themselves, really; it's the electorate. If Trump and Biden have health crises and drop out of the race, the election is liable to be close no matter who the candidates are, because we’re an evenly-divided society. No one seems able to persuade anyone on the other side; everyone avoids being exposed to the other side's "reasons" at all. Each looks evil or incomprehensible to the other. "I don't understand how people like that think," is something I've heard from both ends. Again, recently.

Ron Brownstein is one of many who have tried to make sense of the phenomenon. Our division is chalked up to education levels, to urban vs. rural, to media bubbles and social media propaganda. Or it's all about race and gender, people feeling endangered in their privilege. Or it's about educational institutions indoctrinating children.

But perhaps what's dividing us is division itself, if you'll pardon the FDR reference. "I don't understand how those people think" is the sort of sentence brought forth with a certain vehement satisfaction. It is an expression of solidarity, intended primarily to indicate that the person saying it and the person hearing it do understand one another, that they’re in a mutual circle of comprehensibility from which their others are excluded.

The anthropologist and delightfully provocative writer David Graeber died, unexpectedly, exactly three years ago. In The Dawn of Everything, a book published just after his death describing "the origins of civilization," Graeber and his collaborator David Wengrow lean on a concept, "schismogenesis," that they say originates in the 1930s with the anthropologist Gregory Bateson. The word indicates that identities—national, personal, and racial identities, for example, sexual identities, local identities, sub-cultural and class identities—are generated by a very conscious process of contrast and exclusion. Answers to the question "Who are we?" have little power unless they are driven by "We are not them."

A classical example might be the contrasting cultures of the ancient Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. Graeber and Wengrow quote Marshall Sahlins: "Dynamically connected, they were then reciprocally constituted… Athens was to Sparta as sea to land, cosmopolitan to xenophobic, commercial to autarkic, luxurious to frugal, democratic to oligarchic, urban to villagois, autochthonous to immigrant, logomanic to laconic… Athens and Sparta were antitypes." Neither would’ve been anything like it was, if each hadn't been consciously dedicated to rejecting the other. They hated each other and went to war and at times claimed to be incomprehensible to one another. But they were two ends of a single system, defined by their contrast.

When that kind of relationship happens, each side needs the other. Unconsciously, perhaps, both are trying to produce a standoff or stalemate. They want the other side there so they can be themselves. But they hate the other side too and would prefer not to share space with them at all. You start to get a spatially-divided and roughly even standoff, just as though that’s what everyone is aiming for. Perhaps they are, and don't really know it. Admit it, Jake Tapper: you wouldn’t know who you were without Trump.

Graeber and Wengrow suggest that the male/female gender dichotomy in many cultures has exactly this structure: What is a man? Whatever a woman is not, and vice versa: boys against the girls. "What start as minor learned differences become exaggerated until women come to think of themselves as everything that men are not," and vice versa. "If 'national character' can really be said to exist," they argue, "it can only be a result of such schismogenetic processes: English people trying to be as little as possible like French, French people as little like Germans, and so on. If nothing else, they will all definitely exaggerate their differences in arguing with one another."

"Imagine two people getting into an argument about some minor political disagreement," write Graeber and Wengrow, "but, after an hour, ending up taking positions so intransigent that they find themselves on completely opposite sides of some ideological divide… They start out as moderate social democrats of slightly different flavours; before a few heated hours are over, one has somehow become a Leninist, the other an advocate of the ideas of Milton Friedman." Maybe you've seen people define their political positions in contrast to other members of their family. But in any case, coming up with a set of political beliefs is (always, I’d say) as much a process of rejecting the beliefs of others as embracing anything.

This may appear to leave us with no more explanation than we started with. Maybe people like to disagree and define themselves by contrasts. That's a universal fact, but our political divisions are specific. Why are we perfectly divided now when we weren’t, say, during the New Deal? Now, we were pretty closely divided during the New Deal too. But schismogenesis doesn't predict perfectly even divisions, just growing divisions at the level of fundamental identities.

If I were speculating on how we started heading down the schismogentic road with regard to right-left politics, I'd speculate about the dissolution of some other basic identity categories, which have gotten more liquid over the last half century. Maybe we're less directly loyal to regions, professions, even genders and races and classes, though these divisions remain. But political disagreements, for whatever reasons, have taken on a stronger identity-forming role, are closer now than at some other moments to the heart of how people think of themselves.

That means that a political disagreement is a threat to our identities and an occasion to redouble and re-express them. It starts to take on a quality of physical disgust and loathing that recalls racism or homophobia: I wouldn't let my kid marry a leftist, or the most important thing about where I live is to be near "like-minded" people. The idea of Trump and his deplorables makes your body shudder, like the idea of being touched by a Dalit, or corrupted by contact with a blasphemer.

Each side seems to think that somehow—maybe if they could get control of social media or education—they can convert or crush the other. They think that if they get control of the textbooks, they can make everyone see the truth. I think this is unlikely, because as you impose your interpretation, you're inviting a redoubled schismatic response. There's probably nothing you can really do to get me to agree with you, if my whole idea is to not be you, because you're so gross. That’s the level at which our politics is conducted.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell


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