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

Imagine American politics. Not just the official representatives, but all the voices contributing viewpoints: From right wing 1% super-PACs down to organic coops. 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 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 issues of the day are all in this area: Immigration, economic policy, male/female roles, war, etc. Now, imagine some quick snapshots of other countries contending against each other in the same way.  Picture Sweden, Mexico, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Each has their version of these opposing forces. The area of tension force (TF) contains the questions that are being struggled over and the possible policies that might result. Economic equality and justice TF in Sweden and Mexico are wildly different. Sexual politics TF in America and Saudi Arabia also have a stark contrast. TF = the local reality that is up for discussion. Progressive and conservative are the internal states of the ones pulling the rope. In all these cultures the issues are radically different but those pulling the rope are the same.

Whatever 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 any culture because these forces are the critical counterweights of any and 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 generally 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) they say: “Nobody ever gave ME anything.” It just feels wrong to them to be generous to the poor. For conservatives it isn’t really 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 (and if their parents did too,) conservatives would have bumper stickers reading: “Ba’al said it, I believe it, and that’s that.” But their outward behavior would be exactly what it is 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 then ask that progressive to reconsider their viewpoints on abortion or war or pretty much anything, they are fixed and defensive. Flexibility and an open mind are guiding lights 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 a hate crime, while protecting the expressions of other cultures as an absolute good. This is because structurally they counter xenophobia and anti-immigrant viewpoints. This isn’t about thinking and deciding, you are playing your hardwired role.

For conservatives AND progressives, the “Bullet Points of Reality” are not flexible or optional. Nor are they rational though we all think so. Your own political stance seems sensible because, OF COURSE IT DOES.  The opposition is stupid because OF COURSE THEY ARE. There are perfectly lovely people sitting under both umbrellas. But if you explore ideas with them you’ll find very little flexibility about any of these 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. They DO come in different “strengths” there are hard and soft versions for both and a Bell Curve of distribution for all. Even people in the gentle middle of the road are structural components of the tension force.  Each adds their 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.  A conservative in another might take freeing them for granted. 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 general angle toward the issue. Conservative and progressive define each other with the context of the tension force. It isn’t the issue, it’s the attitude.

It’s clear that these types are a predictable part of human population dynamics because every group of humans generates them automatically. In early hunter-gatherer tribes, this tension force already existed, some individuals were curious and open to strangers and some killed them on sight. The resulting compromise 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. 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 tension force is just the scaled-up expression of masses of people holding a similar range of opinions as a “hive mind”.  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. Whether there are sophisticated species level algorithms controlling any of these functions I certainly don’t know. Small town and big city naturally lean more conservative and more progressive by type but allowing for that, is there some algorithm guiding the population density of one type or another? It’s possible because homeostasis is needed for healthy communities.

I suspect conservatives will tend to be the slightly larger group because the forces driving human behavior don’t throw caution to the winds. Yet over time, the changes have piled up on the progressive side in a way that starts to seem inevitable (if very gradual). And often conservatives are reasonably happy with these outcomes (as long as they are born into that outcome, rather than watching a cultural transition to it). As deep as the dislike is between these groups they obviously need each other.

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 complete control. They don’t stop pulling, they pull against themselves because that is all they have left. In the course of seeking balance through opposition, they would tear into their own “flesh” in search of otherness. Neither can stop opposing because that is the mechanistic role they play. A lack of opposition is a state out of balance. This unbalanced state is essentially what political correctness is for both sides: Deprived of healthy push back there is a spike of “purity madness” that begins searching for enemies within. Blacklists, loyalty oaths, and purge trials do a good job of creating some opposition. It’s grimly funny, but in doing so they ACTUALLY begin to create the opposing force and begin to re-establish a kind of balance.

Social media, in order to sell ad space, separates us from each other so completely by our TF role that it generates an unbalanced runaway state in both groups. Safely in our bubbles, each side scales up the rhetoric because they can’t find a stopping point anywhere. The real problem is that these voices and positions are established in us as we live with real neighbors in our real communities and try to get things done. The other side is as demonized as an enemy in war. This kills Democracy.

Accept the need for opposition and the sanity of the opposition even as you fight them.

© Hugh Miller Feb. 2016 


This grows out of my post The real role of Progressive and Conservative. If you are curious about what makes progressives and conservatives what they are, check out Tension force, one person at a time.