February 27, 2006

Slater: Why America is Polarized

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:53 pm

Philip Slater, the former sociology professor, author, playwright and liberal activist, has an article out titled “Why America is Polarized“. In it, he argues that the Red/Blue divide is a clash between two cultures, the Control Culture and the Connecting Culture. We find ourselves at a transition point in history, caught between those clinging to the Control Culture of the past based upon hierarchy, certainty and reductionism, and those creating the Connecting Culture of the future based upon networks, ambiguity and complexity. Slater uses examples from politics, business, technology and science to illustrate the transition from control to connectedness, but those of us comfortable with the blogosphere, social software and open source should readily grasp where he’s going.

What I find interesting is that the Control/Connecting divide, in Slater’s view, isn’t a conservative/liberal divide. Economic libertarians, with their reliance on the bottom-up uncontrolled mechanism of the market, are very much of the Connecting Culture, while old-fashioned big government liberalism epitomizes the Control Culture. Instead of a clash between conservatives and liberals, Slater describes a clash between metaphors: the clockwork universe of the 18th century vs. the biological universe of the 21st. Clockworks are designed (intelligently) to operate perfectly within precise tolerances, while the biological world is messy, wasteful, complex and incredibly rich and vibrant. Small wonder that the evolution vs. intelligent design debate is one of the flash points of contention between these two metaphors.

Slater also argues that the recent emphasis of political and religious conservatives on maintaining intellectual conformity and attacking even allies for not being “pure” is a symptom of the Control Culture’s death throes. Believers in the Control Culture are desperately trying to hold back the tide, and are increasingly alarmed at even the smallest leak in the levee. He seems to echo the historic inevitability of Marxism, which is the risk for any kind of grand historical meta-narrative.

But still, Slater’s thesis certainly seems to fit a lot of the trends we’re seeing, and it echoes the post-modern emergent movement in Christianity. (I’ll leave it to those more familiar with post-modernism to explore its alignment with Slater’s Connecting Culture.) So I’m buying it.

I think it’s incumbent upon us searching for new progressive policies to keep Slater’s cultural divide in mind. We need to search for solutions that fit within the Connecting Culture, the biological metaphor. The government-as-control reflex we have in wanting to right the wrongs of society must give way to more flexible, evolutionary trial-and-error. We need to be more comfortable relying on market mechanisms, the private sector and individual choice where we can. We do our cause no favors to fall back on voluminous legislation laying out rules and regulations (i.e. controls) to create by fiat our desired outcomes.

I will certainly be keeping this in mind as I run down the home stretch on this healthcare analysis towards recommended policy options. Look for something connected, messy, evolutionary, bottom-up — something biological.


  1. It might be a leap, but, here’s an attempt at a theological interpretation of Slater’s work. Though conservative Christians would take issue with me, I see this argument as very consistent with the teaching of Jesus. Jesus introduced a new way of seeing the law. Jesus taught that laws were no longer cold rules and regulations but are based on interpersonal relationships. If a law keeps a person from coming to Jesus then the law needs to be broken. That’s what happened in Mark 2 when a leper approaches Jesus as asks for healing. Jesus breaks the Sabbath laws by healing on the Sabbath. Then he gives us a new commandment based on love.

    This is not just theology or theory it is very practical. A law says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” I obey the law not because it is written but because of the relationship I have with my wife. Adultery would destroy that relationship. My behavior is the result of honoring the relationship and respect for another person not honoring something written in cold stone.

    Do you see how this relates to the control/connecting divide? The law before Jesus was about control. Honoring relationships is about compassionate connecting.

    Comment by Tony — March 1, 2006 @ 1:12 pm

  2. Not such a leap, imo. In the OT, God’s people are to obey his laws, which get pretty detailed when you fold in the Talmud. In the NT, we are to be in relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus’s greatest commandments are about relationships — love the Lord your God…love your neighbor — and the rest of the commandments follow from these. Jesus is turning the law into relationship.

    And of course sin is that which separates us from God and from one another, as your adultery example illustrates. Again, its about relationship, not about rules. We could do something never proscripted or even mentioned anywhere in the Bible, but if it damages our relationship with God, then it’s sin.

    Comment by Bob — March 1, 2006 @ 2:31 pm

  3. These are signs of hope! I guess I’ll buy into the argument because I want to. It’s sure better than crawling into a fetal position in a corner while awaiting the end of the world by global warming and totalitarianism. One thing I beg to differ on: If these changes are happening so fast, how can he say we’ll be “in the middle of the bridge for a long time”? If we hang there too long it collapses. For all we know, we may make it to the other side much sooner than he thinks. Time is running out on the planet, so they say.

    Comment by wildwest — March 6, 2006 @ 8:43 am

  4. Again this Spring, as every Spring, our church will hold its synodical assembly and there will again be a resolution introduced that will call for everyone to support gay and lesbian pastors in committed relationships. So we have conservatives introducing resolutions to ban such activity and we have liberals introducing resolutions that say its OK. It seems to me that Slater provides a new way looking at this conflict. When either side attempts to legislate their position it is doomed to fail. Wouldn’t a better way be to find a way of connecting? Might there be some way of connecting with one another without demanding everyone agree on what is right or wrong? Hey, Bob… what do you think?

    Comment by Tony — March 7, 2006 @ 4:51 pm

  5. Tony is totally wrong re: Jesus and the whole issue as is Slater. The perverse pick and choose, or more likely totally misquote scriptures to validate their perversion.

    Tony: “If a law keeps a person from coming to Jesus then the law needs to be broken.”

    Jesus: “Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfill.”

    Jesus: “It is easier for Heaven and earth to pass away than one tittle of the Law to fail.”

    Jesus: “Until Heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is fulfilled.”

    “I am a Christian too!” Only Christ decides who is a Christian. We’re save by grace; by confessing our sins and asking forgiveness and mercy. Parading your sins before the world and declaring your perversion to be virtue and your corruption righteousness guarantees you nothing. You can’t be forgiven unless you confess. That is Christianity. “Sin not but if you sin

    Even more laughable and sad is this preposterous adaptation of “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” to the culture clash. Such outrageous ignorance masquerading as intellect. The free market and open source are not random events. There is a force guiding the development of open systems; self-interest of free men and women and the good will of same. Insert here the dozens of quotes regarding the tempering of the markets by civil morality, Christian conscience or Providence from the Founding Fathers to Locke, Hume or Smith. Your groups libertine vision of markets and morality is a juvenile fantasy.

    You people essentially admit it in your version of “exceptionalism”. You see yourselves and your time as new and different from all that has gone before. What nonsense. There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between a man living 7000 years ago and you and I today. There’s no more difference between the Muslim zealot in Peshawar and you and I here in America. We’re flesh and blood living in our sins and dealing with it as conscience dictates. No delusion of a New Day or New Rules will allow us to escape the consequences of our actions. What has gone before will be repeated once again. There is nothing new under the Sun.


    Comment by Richard L. — March 11, 2006 @ 12:29 am

  6. Richard… interesting. I would be interested in knowing your response to two questions.

    1. Why do you think Jesus broke the Sabbath laws by healing on the Sabbath when he could have waited until sundown? In Mark 1 Jesus casts out the unclean spirit on the Sabbath and then “casts out” the fever in Simon’s mother-in-law. Then Simon’s mother-ion-law breaks the Leviticus laws by serving them. And why does Jesus break the Leviticus laws by touching the leper in Mark when in Luke it is clear he could heal 10 lepers without touching them?

    2. Regarding Jesus as the one who fulfills the law, we know that the law condemns and the consequence of the law is death. Is it not possible that Jesus fulfills the law by dying and rising? By doing so Jesus demonstrates and makes real the fact that though law leads to death, Jesus conquers death: “O death where is thy victory?” I think you might find Romans 6 and 8 interesting in this regard. Let me know what you think.

    Comment by Tony — March 11, 2006 @ 9:27 am

  7. Oh… one other thing: “There is nothing new under the sun.” The Holy Scriptures inform me that there is something drastically new in Jesus Christ. Jesus brings a new reality to our relationship with God and with one another: “A new commandment I give you; that you love one another as I have loved you.” Our relationship with God is no longer defined by how succinctly we observe the laws, but how genuinely we love.

    Comment by Tony — March 11, 2006 @ 9:36 am

  8. I found many, many things I could comment upon in reading Philip Slater’s “Why America is Polarized,” but I think I can sum it up this way. America has always been in the process of accepting change and America has always experienced different levels of polarization in the process. I disagree with many of Dr. Slater’s hypothesis, primarily having to do with “human nature.” He appears to suggest that culture dictates human nature, this simply is not true, culture does not dictate human nature. Human nature is not dictated by external circumstances and exterior action. Human nature is more about internal motivations — things that are common among ALL men, regardless of where they live, regardless of custom or culture. Human nature is instinctual and fixed, attitudes may change, human nature remains the same.

    As far as breaking down our society into a “Control Culture” vs a “Connecting Culture” both “cultures” communicate and both “cultures” cooperate. I disagree with the idea that our society can be placed into these two little boxes so neatly, just as I have always disagreed that we can generalize to broadly about “progressivity” or “conservatism.” Both Dr. Slater’s “Control” and “Connecting” Cultures seek the same goal. We are all controllers, we just use different means of reaching our goal.

    Slater uses the example of “breaking” a horse in the traditional “broncobuster” manner as opposed to the “horse whisperer” method. In the end both the broncobuster and the horse whisperer seek and achieve the same goal, control over the horse, use of the horse and dominance of the horse. Both are controllers using different methods. People cooperate and communicate generally to get what they want, to win the argument, to win the battle, to fix a belief already held or to change to another fixed belief. People are just not that malleable and to suggest that the “Connecting Culture” attitude is completely free of the want or will to become the “Controlling Culture” is just simply dishonest.

    Slater says: “The only thing that can be expanded indefinitely is communication—relationships, linkages. And that’s what Connecting Culture is all about.” I beg to differ. That is what LIFE is all about and always has been.

    Under the caption of “The Legacy of the Sixties,” Slater writes: “Few people recognized the common denominator to these movements, and the various groups involved—hippies, anti-war protesters, civil rights activists, feminists—engaged in loud and bitter arguments about priorities. But the significance of the period should not be underestimated. For the first time every assumption of Control Culture was being called into question by a substantial segment of society.” The reason for these loud and bitter arguments was to exert CONTROL in an effort to move our society in a different direction. Connecting and Controlling are the same, again, they only use different tactics to gain control.

    Slater says “it would be nice if some sort of compromise were possible.” There will be compromise. That’s how change occurs and it is inevitable. There is a center, it simply remains unrecognized right now, it is there, just as always. If, as Slater seems to be suggesting, the Controlling Culture is on it’s way out to be replaced by the Connecting Culture at the point that is accepted the Connecting Culture BECOMES the Controlling Culture. Further, he claims that basic values or fundamental principles will smother itself out…I disagree. I believe that, since, unlike Chinese communism of Mao Zedong, America has lived under a system of Democracy and Capitalism, that the smothering will come from an overload of debauchery in our case and that debauchery will smother itself out rather than the opposite as Slater suggests. That’s human nature, human nature will return to a state of support for basic values and fundamental principles. We will not continue to spiral into chaotic oblivion wherein Slater seems to think that communication and simple cooperation are the end goal of the Connecting Culture, that is merely the means to their goal. The goal is and always has been about control.

    For these reasons I feel that Slater’s paper is an exercise in futility. As hard as we try to pretend we are living in unique and incomparable times that is simply untrue. It is just as Richard L. said “No delusion of a New Day or New Rules will allow us to escape the consequences of our actions. What has gone before will be repeated once again. There is nothing new under the Sun.”

    Comment by Jacke — March 11, 2006 @ 10:17 am

  9. Oh, Bob? I hope I won’t be considered as “trolling” over your way because I wanted to comment on your blog entry. ;0 Wildwest recommended that I read it.

    Comment by Jacke — March 11, 2006 @ 1:07 pm

  10. Jacke, I enjoyed reading your comments about Slater’s article. I
    would encourage you to send your comments to Philip Slater. His
    e-mail address is on his home page.

    Comment by wildwest — March 14, 2006 @ 9:41 am

  11. That’s a good idea, Wildwest. I did so and blogged about it. I’ll keep you updated if I hear anything in reply. Thanks! 🙂

    Comment by Jacke — March 15, 2006 @ 10:28 am

  12. Amazingly, I did receive a reply from Dr. Slater.

    Comment by Jacke — March 17, 2006 @ 10:02 am

  13. Cool!

    Comment by wildwest — March 18, 2006 @ 7:14 am

  14. I am very interested in the roll that Christianity does and can play in developing cultural competency.
    I develop and facilitate the implementation of cultural competency programs, workshops, seminars, coursesand systems.
    I am not a Christian, but I am interested in the relevance of Christian teachings and livingto being culturally compotent.
    I have observed hundreds of business, military, government, NGA, and religious
    people in situations that require cultural competency.
    My experience has been that one’s religious life can be a great benefit to one’s cultural competency, but it is too often the source of incompetence.
    I came to your site looking for material to expand my efforts to make all of us more compotent at reaching worthwhile, love-based ends while working and cooperating across cultures, whether the cultural divides are across the globe or across the dinner table.
    Thank you for the ideas.

    Comment by Steve A. — July 28, 2006 @ 10:06 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress