Stephen Stills wrote a song in 1966 for the group Buffalo Springfield titled “For What It’s Worth.” It became an anti-war protest anthem of sorts in the 1960’s. The song seems more broadly applicable today than in 1966. Parsing the lyrics:
There's battle lines bein' drawn. Nobody's right if
everybody's wrong. A thousand people in the street. Singin' songs
and a-carryin' signs. Mostly sayin' hooray for our side.
In the responding chorus, Stills gives good counsel
singing, “It’s time we stop children, what’s that sound, everybody look
what’s goin’ down.”
Western countries are increasingly divided in partisan
political animosity that is personal and intense - the U.S. most
acutely. Mutually antagonistic political groupings cast their political identity like an umbrella over
personal and professional relationships. Irrational
allegiance to political identity and confirmation bias are at play, not opinion. Shared opinions on specific
issues and policies flourish across the dividing lines. Many people hold political identities that are
largely inconsistent with many of their expressed opinions and policy preferences. Much is written about the divide - when it started; how it gets worse with time; that
it may cause the breakup of the U.S. or even a civil war.
Both sides of the divide seek to impose their values through control of
government, particularly national government, and through cultural and economic
entities. On the one side, the goal is to restore a nostalgic, almost
mythical past, and stop change that is often essential to the renewal of
institutions and culture. On the other side, the goal is to transform
society to an unattainable political and cultural utopia that necessitates the
destruction of the social institutions that bind society and undergird
The United States is a country of 330 million people with a range of diverse personalities, interests, and ideas. Its success is largely determined by how much its people can cooperate, not by obtaining and imposing power to intimidate others to comply with a particular view. We need each other. Dr. Jordan Peterson, in in an interview about Rule #1 of his book “Beyond Order,” passionately calls for people to recognize that the one side “cannot denigrate social institutions haphazardly, nor can the other side deny the need for necessary change through creative achievement.”
Bringing together a center-based coalition from within our many views seems
the obvious pathway to progress. Yet, in the current climate, it seems
impossible to come together as the extremes of partisanship harden and
coarsen. The United States has faced many very difficult obstacles and
periods of fierce partisan acrimony in its past and overcome them.
It can be done again; but it will take a great deal of soul searching. That soul searching begins by looking in the
All invertebrates have a divided two-hemisphere brain. According to McGilchrist, this division exists for a reason. Survival depends on the ability of our brains to focus attention in two different ways simultaneously. The left and right hemispheres pay attention differently. At its most basic, that attention is split between the detailed focus of the left hemisphere to find and grasp food and prey, and the right hemisphere’s attention to the broader world to detect predators and threats. He uses the example of a bird that is both detecting, distinguishing, and collecting small seeds in the sand of a beach, using its left hemisphere while simultaneously using its right hemisphere to keep watch on the entire surrounding area for threats.
To understand more fully the basic ideas of the book, I
recommend that interested readers watch this short animated
summary of McGilchrist’s basic
hypothesis on the divided brain.
The two hemispheres are at the same time involved in
everything that we do but contribute in different and distinct ways. The
left hemisphere seeks order and control, with a focus on detail and
categorization of what it knows. The right hemisphere experiences the
world as it is without preconception. These mutually reliant, yet divided
hemispheres, struggle for dominance to shape human perception of the world.
McGilchrist contends the right hemisphere (the Master) and
left hemisphere (the Emissary) of the brain have evolved in their relationship
over the millennia. He hypothesizes an imbalance has developed between
the hemispheres: the left should be the servant of the right, but it is now
Left hemisphere dominance disrupts an essential balance
necessary to fully perceive and engage the world. The imbalance results
in the individual focusing too much on the left hemisphere’s categorizing and
organizing, and reducing everything to choices to bring order, and control the
world. Left hemisphere perceptions are restricted to what it knows;
and, thus, opinions and judgments that rely on it are not fully informed. It
lacks and needs the broad, open, and fuller intuitive and contextual input of a
universe of possibilities and experience that only the right hemisphere can
The left hemisphere plays a large role in grasping things,
accumulating things, and exploiting things, but it lacks the ability of the
right hemisphere to appreciate things or understand their meaning.
In other words, for the left brain, the pecking of seeds is no different than
the accumulation of “stuff” in our modern lives through exploitation of our
environment, rather than appreciation of our surroundings and experiences.
This grasping is not isolated to the physical. In
language, we say, “she grasps the idea.” The left brain is trying
to isolate all things, physical and intangible, from context. It focuses on a particular aspect to model,
categorize, and control it; and, thus, have power over it. The
expression, “can’t see the forest for the trees,” seems apt.
The dominance of the left hemisphere in the individual
further extends to the macro level of the broader society and
civilization. McGilchrist contends at times in history the two
hemispheres were in harmony to produce some of the most flourishing periods in
Western Civilization – the “richness of thought and expression” in early Greece
and Rome, and most of the Renaissance period. In contrast, he contends
left hemisphere dominance destroyed the Greek and Roman Empires. He says,
the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire flourished up until the 2nd Century
A.D. when “bureaucracy, totalitarianism, and mechanistic emphasis arose to eventually
contribute to the destruction of the Empire.”
Note that this discussion is exclusively about the Western
World. McGilchrist explains that Oriental cultures have a more balanced
view of the world. It is not that there are significant differences
in the brains of Eastern and Western people, but that there are “differences in
the way they use them to view the world.” We shape culture and culture
shapes us, so there are differences East to West. That said, it
seems obvious Oriental peoples are adopting Western “cultural ideas so fast
that they are in danger of becoming a parody of the worst aspects of our own
Bureaucracy, totalitarianism, and mechanistic emphasis are
the extension of the left brain’s modeling, categorizing, and controlling at
the societal level. In the ancient world, the written language and
money were the technologies that enabled Greece and Rome to flourish and create
empires. These technologies served as the tools of command, communication, and
trade. Think of how these technologies served the Roman Empire’s
administrative bureaucracy to conduct a census of conquered lands or impose
taxes. In time, the left brain is refining and extending the
bureaucracy and its control as it does with the individual. Eventually, both the individual and the
society fall subject to the excess of the left hemisphere and bureaucracy to
Today, technology permits the monitoring, manipulation, and
control of every aspect of human life by government and private corporations –
the left hemisphere’s utopia. The political identity groups seek power
through these technologies to bring control and order consistent with the
values and narratives they espouse.
The societal impact of left hemisphere dominance, and the
power to subjugate through technology, are a threat to Western democracies. They can consume and weaken themselves in
internal conflict fighting for control.
In the vacuum of their distraction competing civilizations rise.
In addition to the immense threat to Western societies and
civilization, if McGilchrist’s hypothesis is correct, there is also the
negative impact on the individual. Left hemisphere dominance diminishes
our ability to seek happiness. Despite the material abundance and
connectivity of our modern lives, we have never been so unhappy, resentful,
unfulfilled, and disconnected. We have gained power, but lost
wisdom. To change the direction of the society and increase happiness
will require change at the individual level.
McGilchrist recommends that individuals work on
themselves. Because the left brain is dominant does not mean we cannot
recognize it and take conscious action to resist its tendencies.
recent interview, McGilchrist was asked,
“What makes life worth living?” He responded (again paraphrasing) it is
in our social relationships that we find fulfillment, happiness, health, and
purpose. We have done our best to destroy social cohesiveness,
vandalize and subdue nature, and dismiss the possibility of the divine.
Better to work in the flow of life in a creative way to nourish deep
relationships with other people, nature, and the divine than struggle with the
mechanism of life.
The left hemisphere thinks it knows what it knows and does
not need to know any more. The right hemisphere is constantly questioning
it – are you sure...here is some contrary information...here is some context
that better explains. Both sides essential, but the right hemisphere
should be the Master and the left hemisphere the Emissary.On a personal level I
recognized that I must be aware of this struggle between the brain hemispheres and
give the right hemisphere its due.
Thinking about practical ways I can resist what may be a biological
struggle within the brain I committed to choose to nourish deep relationships
with other people, nature and the divine more.
To temper the left hemisphere’s inclination to order and control and
power. To expose myself more to the
unfamiliar. To take time off from the
chatter. To be humble; to listen more;
and be more open minded; to admit I could be wrong in my process and conclusions. To ask if I have adequately sought out
knowledge and truth to support a position or opinion or simply applied group identity
We need both sides of our brains, and we need each other to
be our best.
P.S.: Much of what we know about the two hemispheres is
from the study of people with brain injuries.
For those interested in this topic there is a TED
Talk by Jill Taylor who was a brain
researcher when she had a massive stroke that destroyed her left hemisphere.
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