Tension Force: Cohesion from Opposition

The tension force is the force that is transmitted through a string, rope, cable, or wire when it is pulled tight by forces acting from opposite ends. The tension force is directed along the length of the wire and pulls equally on the objects on the opposite ends of the wire.  –Physics Classroom

Please imagine the totality of American politics as groups of people. Not just the official representatives, but all the voices contributing viewpoints from right-wing 1% super-PACs down to organic coop vegan hippies. Now assign all those people to one of two categories: Conservative or Progressive. Imagine the sum total of conservative opinion vs the sum total of progressive opinion as a tug of war. As they struggle against each other imagine the area between them vibrating with the force of their resistance.

That area is expressing the Tension Force of their opposition to each other. It describes the range of political reality for this community, in this time and place. The entire spectrum of opinion on the issues of the day are all in this area: Immigration, economic policy, male/female roles, war, etc. Now, imagine some quick snapshots of progressive and conservative forces in other countries contending against each other in the same way.  Picture Sweden, Mexico, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Each has their version of the spectrum of these opposing forces. Open societies have a broader spectrum than closed societies but every country has its own. The area of tension force (TF) contains the questions being struggled over and the possible policies that might result. Economic justice TF in Sweden and Mexico are wildly different. Sexual politics TF in America and Saudi Arabia also starkly contrast. TF = the local reality that is up for discussion. Progressive and Conservative are the internal states of the ones pulling the rope. Across these cultures, the range of viewpoints radically differ but the nature and motivation of those pulling the rope are the same throughout the human world.

No matter the specific issues of the moment, these forces are always present in varying but predictable amounts. Events befalling a community will temporarily affect the numbers of each but this settles after a time. This struggle is always there in every culture because these forces are the critical counterweights of every community. They hold up the tent by their opposition. Both groups are easy to predict and define.

This isn’t about logic

It might look like I’m making a partisan political statement of good and bad here but I am not. This isn’t judging, it is about recognizing patterns.  Progressives often wonder about the cognitive dissonance of American conservative Christians because logically Christians would support a peaceful “Love thy neighbor” approach rather than being in favor of any military action we take on. Likewise, that those who believe “what you did for the least of my brothers you did for me” would support a kind and generous attitude toward the poor rather than voting against every compassionate social program aimed at lessening the pain and dead ends of poverty.

Conservatives don’t think of themselves as warlike but as patriotic and happy to show it. They don’t think of themselves as harsh toward the poor, or helpful to the rich (though they are) rather, they say: “Nobody ever gave ME anything.” It just feels wrong inside them to be generous to the poor. For conservatives it isn’t what is written in the theology that matters, it’s being a member of whatever religion is the cultural bedrock. If America mostly worshiped Ba’al or Zoroaster (and if their parents did too,) conservatives would have bumper stickers reading: “Ba’al said it, I believe it, and that’s that.” or a little sticker of the holy fire, maybe with a family warming their hands over it. But in their outward behavior, they would express exactly the conservative attitudes they do now. It isn’t about thinking and deciding, it’s about playing your hardwired role.

Progressives have cognitive dissonances of their own. A progressive bumper sticker says: “If you can’t change your mind, how do you know you still have one?“. But if you ask that progressive to reconsider their viewpoints on pretty much anything, they are fixed and defensive. Flexibility and an open mind are guiding light values of progressives, but operationally they HAVE to have fixed points of view. Another Progressive cognitive dissonance is the near-sacred status granted to other people’s cultures, but not to their own. Progressives act like any show of a protective feeling towards their own culture is regressive and possibly even a hate crime, while protecting the expressions of other cultures as an absolute good. This is because progressives structurally counter xenophobia and anti-immigrant viewpoints. This isn’t about thinking and deciding, it’s about playing your hardwired role.

For conservatives AND progressives, the “Bullet Points of Reality” are not flexible or optional. Nor are these stances truly rational though we all think so in our own case. They can be expressed rationally but they are not chosen rationally. As your phenotype expresses eye and hair color, you also express your end of the political ball field. Your own political stance seems sensible because, OF COURSE IT DOES.  The opposition is stupid because OF COURSE THEY ARE. This is why “swaying the opposition with logic” is a fool’s errand. Your logic isn’t logical in that person’s body.

There are nice people sitting under both umbrellas. But if you explore ideas with them you’ll find very little flexibility about any core issues. You will not encounter many people who like a strong, dominant authority figure in charge but also support flexible modern sex roles and generous social programs. When you see someone from either side expressing one of their templated points of view you are seeing a single building block of the local TF, one pixel if you will. They DO come in different “strengths”, there are hard and soft versions for both sides and a Bell Curve distribution for all. Even people in the gentle middle of the road are structural elements of the tension force…just like everyone else.  Middle of the road is never an objective location btw, it can only be defined as the center point between the outside edges, whatever they are, of opinion. All of us add our weight to the scale of local and national politics.

Context Matters
A progressive in one age might suggest treating the slaves more gently but not suggest freeing them because it’s a hopelessly optimistic non-starter idea in her society.  She might even feel that that much change is rash. A conservative in another time might take freeing them for granted, but not give a hoot if they then live or die. The baseline shifts but the roles don’t. This is worth stopping to consider: Your specific beliefs about how things should be handled right now are not what makes you conservative or progressive, but rather your opposition to whatever the other side says about the issue. Conservative and progressive define each other with the context of the existing tension force. It isn’t the issue, it’s the attitude. In this way, the local reality is defined.

It’s clear that these types are a predictable part of human population dynamics because every human group generates them automatically. In early hunter-gatherer tribes, this tension force already existed as individual personality characteristics; some individuals were curious and open to strangers and some attacked them on sight. The resulting intrafamilial compromise handling the tension between these sides was important, it was like the surface tension of the tribe. It had to be open enough to let some things in and closed enough to keep some stuff out. The tribe is an organism and this behavior is its self-management as it relates to the outside world.

Tension force scales up and down automatically with population size. This coined idea of Political Tension Force isn’t a mystical power controlling us from outside, it is an emergent property of something we do naturally. As individuals, we show a range of open or closed responses to strangers and different cultures and behaviors and political tension force is just the scaled-up expression of masses of people holding a similar range of instinctive opinions as a “hive mind”. These hive minds express the dominant traits constructed from the local tension force. In a simple, colorful way we could compare it to how defensive an insect hive is. Maybe North Korea is like killer bees and Canada is like calm honeybees.

Small towns and big cities naturally lean more conservative and more progressive by type as a logical outcome of caring for few or caring for many. Liberalism is about the problem of caring for many, conservatism is about the problem of caring for few. In every generation, the same basic proportions of opponents are born. Is there some system maintaining the population density of the opposing sides? Whether there are sophisticated species level algorithms controlling any of these functions I don’t know. This isn’t science, it’s mere observation.  It’s possible though because our homeostasis includes many diverse human elements also delivered in the same consistent proportions, year after year.

I suspect conservatives will tend to be the slightly larger group because the forces driving human behavior don’t throw caution to the winds. Resistance to change is a braking system preserving the identity of the culture. A modest conservative majority keeps whatever structure has been accomplished here from suddenly destabilizing. Yet over time, successes have piled up on the progressive side in a way that starts to seem inevitable (if extremely gradual). Generally, conservatives are reasonably happy with these outcomes as long as they were born into that outcome, rather than watching a cultural transition to it. As deep as the entirely natural dislike is between progressives and conservatives, we absolutely need each other for our communities to maintain balance and internal integrity. One maintains, and the other reforms. This is a system for preserving our structure but opening it for editing out things that are too cruel or unjust.

To imagine chaos and collapse, picture either side completely and absolutely empowered. The other side is disenfranchised and subverted. Picture one team in the tug of war disappearing and leaving the other in complete control. They don’t stop pulling, instead, they begin to pull against themselves internally because that is all they have left. In the natural course of seeking balance through opposition, they begin to tear into their own “flesh” in search of otherness. Neither can stop opposing because that is the mechanistic yet essential role they play. A lack of opposition is a state dangerously out of balance. It develops a cultural auto-immune disorder attacking its own healthy tissue. This unbalanced state is essentially what political correctness is for both sides: Deprived of healthy push back there is a spike of “purity madness” on the left and “loyalty madness” on the right that begins searching for enemies within. Blacklists, loyalty oaths, and purge trials do a good job of generating some opposition. It’s grimly funny, but in doing so they ACTUALLY begin to create the opposing force and to re-establish a kind of balance.


Social media, purposefully, in order to sell ad space, separates us from each other so completely by our TF role that it generates an unbalanced runaway state like this within both groups. “Safely” sealed in our bubbles, each side scales up the rhetoric because they encounter no opposition to extreme views but will likely be punished for expressing more moderate views. The real problem is that these hard voices and positions are grown in us in this abstract half-real mono-culture of social media but are expressed towards our real neighbors in our real communities where we have to get along and get things done. The other side is as demonized as an enemy in war. Scorn and contempt for differences become automatic. This kills representative Democracy.

If we are such simpletons that we accept these hateful terms as a given that can’t be changed, we are doomed.
Accept the need for opposition and the sanity of the opposition even as you fight them. If their talk is so extreme that it leaves sanity as an unsettled issue, remember that opposition itself is the thing we need. Respecting the people voicing that opposition is the most effective way we have at this moment to cure the political autoimmune disorder induced in us by those who profit from our collapse.

That kind of respectful action will not come naturally to anyone right now unless they recognize the Yin/Yang essence of Tension Force. Consider sharing this mental model of how we work with others as a way to shape a paradigm of healthy conflict. Getting people to merely acknowledge this need for opposing beliefs improves us considerably. It makes people pause before setting fire to the house we all share out of bitterness and spite. We need a healthy political macro-biome and every one of us can play a part in achieving that.


© Hugh Miller Feb. 2016