Creative Tension

The thing about partisanship these days is that it’s ugly. The other thing about it is that it is hyper-contentious. So much tension in our politics.

Tension can be bad, like hypertension and the extreme stress that we can put on one another or the kind of tension that leads to people doubling down on what they believe no matter the situation nor the research of experts. Reason be damned! Think about issues like climate change, how police treat blacks in the United States, gun control, the HPV vaccine, or nuclear power. [Read this paper.] A lot of people have super strong opinions about them but are generally poorly informed about what’s going on behind them. These are places where a lot of people put their identity stakes. And then they don’t get anything done because they are more interested in their stake than in doing something productive. That’s pretty useless tension. Not useless. It’s counterproductive in a pluralistic democracy.

Then we have creative tension. My friends Joe Henderson and Dan Kahan of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project and I passed around a piece from the New York Times today that’s on the possibility of creative tension in our politics.* You can read it and I definitely suggest it. I’m not going to give a rundown but rather go into a creative thought.

See, where we can use the heat from that tension for a policy crucible, we have possibilities to be really innovative and come to surprising conclusions and develop good policy. For example, I’m wondering what’s going to happen now that a big Republican donor is going to put $175 million into the 2016 election cycle to prompt Republican discourse on climate change and what we can do about it with the market. That will bring some wildly divergent thinking together, the diversity of which could create something incredible. Matched up with solid science, I hope we can see the policy–not the political–ambitions of those involved become something pretty remarkable.

James Madison wrote about this in Federalist Paper No. 51, saying that people’s (men’s but you know) “personal motives” would check one another in the crucible of democracy. When we engage in the war of ideas and not the war of identities, we can create remarkable things. In a “mode of associated living” as the American philosopher John Dewey called democracy, I’d say representatives have the obligation to use their personal ambition in the service of ideas. When we test those ideas in reality we can create proof in concept. And solution exists in theory. It only exists in proof. And seeing success and admitting failure requires getting out of the way of our identities and not staking claims and badges of membership at the expense of the common good.

Now I realize that we aren’t very good at seeing past ourselves at all. So through the system of free discourse and ambition we have set up that puts checks on us, we can create good. Granted, we need to use good information. Good science anyone? But that’s starting to diverge.

Now I realize that our local problems are small in comparison to the huge policy and political problem of climate change, race and American policing, and so on. But I think that as long as we are true to the idea of testing our ideas to create common good and that trying new and interesting things can get us where we need to go, that we can do some real good. If we are committed to using good information that’s well vetted, we are in an even better position. And we have to recognize that it’s never perfect and that sometimes it’s so imperfect we can’t or shouldn’t do anything. Here I go, multiplying problems.

But this is important for me to think about. Just because I have an idea doesn’t mean it’s a good one. And when I go to serve on Ferguson’s board that I am going to work with and for people with really different ideas some of which I may try out even if I don’t quite get them. And sometimes, those ideas that could set off a lot of my alarms are precisely those I’ll need to engage with to generate that creative tension that will bring the best result.

* Disclosure: Joe, Dan, and I are written into a grant on climate change education that’s under consideration at the National Science Foundation. I have authored a piece at the Cultural Cognition blog on climate change education.

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