Treating Polarization With Diversity & Kindness Protocol
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Inspired by Election Acrimony, Attacks on Mountain Rose, Posts About Sam Coffman, Disparagement of The AHG, & Rosemary Gladstar’s Advice
I have lately felt besieged by both online pre-election stridence, and upset at the way some herbalists have taken to uncaringly attacking their fellow practitioners of the caring art. I am also inspired by remarks on this very problem by the venerable Rosemary, pulled from the 21st Century Herbalists book interview with her I’ve been excerpting for the upcoming Winter issue of Plant Healer Magazine. Kiva and I hope you give this post some thought, share it on FaceBook, inspire reasoned discussion, and help counteract counteract binary thinking and polarization in herbalism, a perceptual disease that could rip apart our vital healing field if left untreated.
binary |ˈbīˌnerē, -nərē|
1 a grouping, system, or notion, broken down and divided into two parts
We exist within an ever more binary paradigm, brought about by what I call the Binary Disease. It is a disease infecting our society as ourselves, spreading by contact and example through entertainment, news and social media, with little research going into its prevention or cure. In fact, it has even infected the community of natural healers, health providers and caregivers, much as it has the rest of our politic and culture, making it harder for people like herbalists to do their vital work. Left unchallenged and unchecked, it can and will disorient, divide, and weaken us. It is, as we speak, working to alter our very natures, resetting our traditional proven methods for interacting, evaluating, negotiating, compromising, adjusting, evolving, bringing together, getting along, influencing, and thus contributing to the wellness of each other and our world.
Symptoms of Binary Disease include:
•Increased inability or willingness to hear
•Gradual to complete loss of objectivity
•Loss of one’s reasoning facilities, or a growing unwillingness to utilize one’s ability to reason
•Expressed or feigned certainty, adamance, and righteousness
•Increasing mistrust of differences – of opinion, appearance, etc.
•Delusions, such as imagining it is fair to disenfranchise right-wingers but not progressives
•Manifest disdain for other herbalists’ conclusions, approaches, or techniques
•Visibly increasing intolerance for not only disagreement but nuance
•Tending to be more reactive than response-able, more victimized than proactive
•Avoidance of interaction with anyone imagined to hold different views than oneself
•Keeping company only with those who share the same views and lifestyle
•Increasingly viewing everything as “either/or,” good or bad, and people as “us” and “them”
Through the course of this disease, polarization and factionalization become accepted as the new norm, once praised “free speech” gets recast as an offense of the privileged, diversity of perspectives is demonized even by some who champion racial diversity, and root causes remain unaddressed as we blame some “opposing team”…all while human reason, diversity and unity get sicker and die.
1 to divide or cause to divide into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs
“What a waste of brilliant energy.”
The very notion of binary is largely unnatural. There is not just life and death, but infinite degrees of consciousness and life. There are unlimited shades of gender, not just the touted male and female. There are never only two options in any situation, no matter what the hell we’re told. There are limitless shades of colors, not even in the darkest of our collective nights is everything ever just black and white. Nobody can be measured simply good or evil, no matter how clearly benevolent or harmful their acts may seem. Every human is a complex mix of traits and actions which we assess as degrees of good and bad depending on the context, our vantage and perspective, past experiences and future hopes, needs, fears, and aims. Nothing and no one is as simple or as separate as the Binary Disease would leave us to believe.
I am writing this piece in a national election year, a period when it proved impossible to tune into any media source or social media platform without being barraged with unreasoned attacks – not only on the deeply flawed candidates, but on each other’s associates and friends. Discourse disappeared as reason suffered, and it was nearly impossible to criticize the anti-constitutional pro-elitist and anti-freedom tendencies of either without being loudly and unthinkingly attacked by online mobs. Meanwhile, the greatest enemies of freedom, humankind, and all of natural life, are the same profiteering one-tenth of one percent who pull the strings regardless of which party holds office. By focusing our attention on the trumpeted dramatic differences in tone or on a few hotbed issues, the destructive ruling elite elite effectively keeps us the electorate distracted from the greatest threat to liberty, justice, and the environment, that has ever existed: the rapid concentration of wealth and thus influence in the hands of an ever smaller percentage of the population, a concealed ruling class that is uncaring, unethical, and unjust. Most of us will never even hear the names of these parasitical despots, so adept are their lawyers and media manipulators at fixing our gaze. Like stage magicians, they manipulate our attention away from the obvious mechanics of their tricks. But as in the classic book and film “The Wizard of Oz,” we have only to step out of their thrall and outside our group-thinking team or choir and pull back the veil: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
There are only two choices in the election, we were told, and it wasn’t supposed to matter that both choices were in different ways dangerous and unhealthful. So it is with the big news outlets, with the two most polar getting most of the audience. They are not only an effect of this process, but also its purveyor, vectors transmitting the Binary virtual-virus from hate filled newsroom to their half of the viewers. Whether it be the so called left leaning CNN or “ or self named “conservative” FOX network, biases are proudly championed rather than either avoided or denied. In both cases, viewers are subjected to a comparable degree of closed-minded fundamentalism and party-line cliches. Both networks appeal to our greatest fears, separate us into opposing and un-considering camps, stir our reservoirs of moral indignation, incite us to either circle the wagons and raise the walls, or else light the torches and silence or expel the “others.”
Social media such as FaceBook and Twitter also have an extremely polarizing effect on discussion, thought, and potentials for agreement. The programs’ algorithms determine what traffic we see, and those we agree with most end up being the majority that we read, limiting our exposure to a diversity of new and contending ideas, and thereby accelerating the spread of Binary Disease. The focus on approval and anxieties about being unaccepted and “unfriended” drives users into competing “Amen corners” where agreement is assured and nearly total, and where strident derision of those outside the group is easy and encouraged. It becomes first easy, then the modus operandi, then de rigeuer, to disrespect. This disrespect, whether raging or jaunty, is humiliating to the recipient, and disenfranchisement combined with humiliation is a perfect recipe for the creation of the very monsters we might wish to be relieved of.
Additionally, separation into polar factions means that most attacks come not from the people whose actions we fear most, but from the very people we share the largest number of priorities with, and from whom disapproval or betrayal is hardest to take. The greatest damage to the fabric, cohesion, effectiveness and spirits of a community – including the loving community of herbalist care givers – may be the in-house shaming, internecine bloodletting and fractious humiliation that Binary Disease enables.
Infection in The Herbal Community
“We’re so busy creating ‘camps’ that we’re forgetting that we’re all ‘fighting the same battle’. Or better put,
that ‘we’re all in this for the plants’!”
It seems to me surprising as well as tragic that herbalism has so little immunity against Binary infection, that it too is so scarily vulnerable to polarization and extreme, dogmatic self righteousness and vitriol.
Current examples abound, such as the online shit-storm that consumed attention, monopolized conversation, and did far more harm than good this Fall – bitter accusations and hurtful name calling directed against one of this community’s bulk herb providers. An adamant but civil and proportional challenging of any company’s policies or actions is instrumental as well as appropriate, but it deeply harms the community and services of herbalism in general to venomously undermine providers which are demonstratively dedicated to social and ecological justice, and open to input, reevaluation and change.
A second example were the ad hominem attacks against a certain opinionated herbalist teacher and writer, whose opinions are open to debate, but whose intentions and actions are in keeping with the herbalist tradition of giving a damn and trying to make things better. Writing him off as a classist, militarist, or racist, proved to distract from those issues deserving of scrutiny and debate, and made his least considered and most reactive detractors look foolish given that he is married to a Hispanic of Native American blood, and in the past few years has provided free volunteer herbal and first-aid services to disaster victims, impoverished villagers in Central America, and First Nations oil-pipeline protestors in the American Midwest. Such highly personal and largely misplaced attacks are counterrevolutionary as well as counterproductive.
A third example is the unwarranted hate heard expressed against the American Herbalist Guild. Despite the tone of many online comments, nobody as far as we know joins the A.H.G. in order to be part of an anointed elite, elevated above the non-vetted, better than or disapproving of the nonprofessional. Members of this organization appear to me to be motivated by largely the same things as their unaffiliated sisters and brothers, which is to say inspired by the plants and the possibilities of healing, and devoted to practicing or spreading this healers’ art. Like the rest of the herbalist community, their members cover a spectrum from informal neighborhood practitioners to academics and clinicians. Their motivations for membership sometimes involve a desire for and belief in the possibility of herbalism gaining the acceptance, respect and approval of the larger medical establishment, but more often certification is simply a way to feel our qualifications are affirmed and enjoy the camaraderie of association. A better target than the AHG for disparagement would surely be the American Medical Association (AMA) or the Food & Drug Agency (FDA), both of which continue to denigrate, marginalize, regulate and penalize herbalists whether we include official letters after our signatures or not.
Don’t get me wrong, herbalism has long been denigrated… but usually by potion-fearing religious dogmatists, territorial M.D.s, and profit-protecting pharmaceutical companies. Based on my readings of history, it seems out of character for herbalists to factionalize and stratify, for once self anointed and self elevated group to look down on their folkier and non-vetted counterparts, for those who reject the notion of capitalism to lambast any herbal business that manages against odds to succeed, for a ‘progressive’ posse to inflict suffering on those who use objectionable language, or for plant lovers to sarcastically diss others who cite science or research.
Binary thinking and polarization constitute what can be an utterly debilitatingly disease. It presents as divisiveness and other unhealthy conditions, threatening a community and practice paradoxically dedicated to wholeness and committed to healing.
Individuation & Separation
“I vow to be in sweet surrender to your vision, oh, grandmother/grandfather flora, and to follow with the best of my intentions and integrity your guidance, realizing there are many paths that weave through the forest, and bring us home to the hearth and heart of herbalism.”
To be really healthy is to be both vital and whole, something that’s as true for herbalism as it is for herbalists. This wholeness is an amalgam of dissimilar members with varying roles and approaches, interacting in individual ways which in concert contribute to the entire community. It is a product of dynamic diversity, fed by creative individuation, and not of entrenchment, conformity, purity or “correctness” of any kind.
There is a huge difference between healthy individuation and septic separation. Individuation in nature is variety and adaptation within the context, pattern and purpose of the whole. One develops individual traits, abilities and propensities in relationship to one’s environment, including all other beings. Individualization can usher in what will become beneficial adaptations among an entire population or even species, in relationship and response to its ecological community and habitat, and apart from it.
What contributes to polarization is not individuation but separativeness, and this separative momentum is abetted not by individuality but by polarization, factionalism, and class. If we are ever tempted to see things in terms of opponents, there are no enemies more deserving of our defense than this disease of polarization, our self-segregation into binary blocs and head-nodding coterie.
This is not to say there is no need for rejection sometimes, the eschewing of the mean spirited, unjust, and harmful, with is crucial to ours and society’s healthful development. Nor is confrontation always wrong, it can prove crucial in the face of immense institutionalized inequity and terrific forces of destruction. But putting everything on a polar scale of “good” and “evil,” and aligning with cloistered groups who think like us, is to misunderstand the nature of reality and contribute to the polarization that divides us, turns us into chanting team fans, makes us ignorant of all outside our teams, makes us ugly and unkind, and helps perpetuate the very conditions and injuries many teams scream about.
Oneness, not sameness, is a fact of the universe. We are inevitably different, yet invariably related. And we can rightfully oppose, but we can never be opposite. Natural living beings do not seek to be or see themselves as the opposite of anything else, only to be wholly, effectively, satisfyingly themselves. Life seeks to flourish (not survive!), to absorb new information and benefit from lessons (not to resist new ideas!), to evolve (not rigidify!), to celebrate and express (not whine or repress!), and to diversify (neither conform. nor toe the line!).
It is the shared values and customs of a community or tribe that preserves their group identity, but is it is diversity and change within its members that makes truth, understanding, improvements and healthy changes possible. This is only possible when we truly listen to other perspectives and other peoples’ ideas, feelings, and criteria for decisions, and when we can integrate those differences into our patterns of knowing and acting. We are made more effective, and therefore safer, through increased awareness of the source and often validity of other groups’ fears, needs, and intentions. Silencing free expression and amicable debate reduces awareness and understanding. Stifling the offensive makes serious offense more possible. Shaming those who hold objectionable views makes it more likely they will act out in ways that hurt us and themselves as well as the living planet. Misdirected anger not only damages our diverse community, it wastes our finite hours, our energy, and the vehemence that might be better aimed at the most harmful notions, presumptions, attitudes, habits, morays, dogmas, injustices, regulations, and institutions of our times.
Picking Our Targets: The Enemy is Us
“I think that we are our biggest threat. Somehow, over time, we’ve developed very strong egos that want to make us ‘right’ and other herbalists ‘wrong’, our way the best and others not so good. We let it get in the way of seeing the bigger picture, and end up fighting amongst ourselves.”
Clearly, we need to work harder to address issues, to confront and either evolve or rectify. This is most effectively accomplished when we confront harmful concepts and acts, instead of humiliating any perpetrators. We need to carefully pick the targets of our indignation and recriminations. When we do identify and prioritize the people, businesses and institutions that perpetuate harms, our response needs to be one that makes betterment and healing more possible, not less.
After a lifetime of taking actions against the profiteers, manipulators, and agencies of injustice, classism, and destruction, I could fill hundreds of pages naming the most blatant progenitors and delivery systems of evil today. From corporate giants in immoral enterprises from tar sands mining companies and nuclear weapons manufacturers, to rabid bigots and rogue, protestor-beating cops. But given that we and our self-limiting biases are such an integral enabler of the disease cycle, we might want to stop thinking in terms of targeting and punishing altogether, keeping mending and bettering and healing our mission and forte instead.
Without a doubt, we need remain witness to the utterances and acts of our associates and friends, helping keep them honest and open… as well as stay on as questioners, fact checkers, assessors and evaluators of the deluge of supposed ‘facts’ being bandied about for various reasons. It is only our responsibilities – our ability to respond – that function as a reasoned human counterforce to delusion and lies, to oppression and harm, to the current bifurcation of our healing movement into incompatible extremities. We can, however, respond in ways that are more reasoned, open minded, receptive, purposeful, just, considered and considerate. We need to care about not just the issues that matter to us, but about the people who do not share our ideas or values, and about the diversity and wholeness and vitality and future of this living Earth.
Diversity Treatment Protocol
“Diversity is where strength resides; all of us who love nature know this to be true. The more diversity within a community, the greater the strength of the community.”
In the case of any disease or ailment, one needs to:
•Make an accurate diagnosis
•Decide what the preferred or ideal outcome might be
•Determine the least harmful and likely most helpful treatment to facilitate that outcome
•Instigate or administer that treatment
•Monitor effects and results
•Modify and improve treatment as needed
When it comes to Binary Disease, a positive outcome might be the recognition that we are in the eyes of different groups the “others,” and that what we may see as “others” are in the most important ways “us.“. Communication that really communicates, which requires listening as well as speaking. The speaking of truth and expression of understanding and concern. Discussion that stimulates new ways of thinking. Critical analysis rather than unthinking criticism. The identification of common threats and shared problems, where and how they manifest. And alliances for investigating, addressing and remedying them.
We may thus identify an insidious trend towards following the “party line” of our chosen affinity groups. We can observe symptoms, such as the fact that dogmatic rancor is getting worse, as exchanges are filled with unkind criticisms devoid of any real critical thinking. We might determine that the natural immune system has been compromised by the Binary Disease, and is in need of herbs that help stimulate its immune functions, making us less thin-skinned and less likely to react, making it easier for already existing open wounds to bind and heal. Rather than treating symptoms, we get better results by addressing and affecting the condition’s underlying causes. If someone demonstrates displeasure, agitation and anger, we might realize it grows out of insecurity and pain, and therefore offer an infusion of recognition, understanding, acceptance or assistance. A potential harm may need to be brought to light in order to be halted or prevented, but we may choose to do that respectfully and reasonably. We hopefully watch closely for effects and results, and then adjust our treatments accordingly.
In the case of social media, the gentle folk – the balanced reasoners and peace makers, the still sensitive souls whom are as yet neither calloused nor inured – regrettably tend to go silent online after being rat-packed for their attempts to understand or accommodate, assailed or dismissed because of their public statements of accommodation and hope. And yet, it is the their voices – your voices – that are most essential if there is to be any return to productive reason, to compassion, pluralism and balance, both online and in society writ large. As with a “stagnating liver,” a stimulating herb may be called for, in the form of a wide variety of voices, diverse thought, expression, creation, and solution. An “angry inflamed liver” can be treated with calming herbs and anti-inflammatories, suggesting a strategy in which conditions are calmed and inflamed feelings cooled. Even in rare but dangerous situations requiring immediate intervention, every effort must be made to neither inflame, exacerbate, or over-medicate. We don’t want to try to enforce our own regimen, our group’s standards for health and behavior on others, as that would only encourage them trying to impose their ideas and traits on us.
While it is the shared values and customs of a community or tribe that preserves their group identity, it is diversity of and within, its members that enables truth, understanding, improvements, innovations, and healthy changes. We need to deeply listen to a diverse range of perspectives and other peoples’ ideas, feelings, and criteria for decisions, and integrate those differences into our patterns of knowing and acting. We are enriched, informed, stirred and stretched by diversity. We’re made more effective, and therefore safer, through increased awareness of the source and often validity of other groups’ fears, needs, and intentions. Even those forms of diversity and divergence that we find most challenging or discomforting, together contribute to ours and herbalism’s health. Silencing debate reduces awareness and understanding. Stifling the offensive makes serious offense more possible. And shaming those who hold objectionable views makes it more likely they will act out in ways that hurt us and themselves as well as the ecology and integrity of the planet.
This is not to say there is no need for determined rejection, for the eschewing of the mean spirited, unjust, and harmful, something which I consider important to our’s and society’s healthful development. Nor is confrontation always a bad thing, it can prove crucial in the face of immense institutionalized inequity and terrific forces of destruction. The culture of shaming must also be challenged wherever it permeates, which can only be done by speaking out on behalf of the shamed. But being judgmental without nuance, critical without consideration, and confrontational without weighing effects, harm, and the many possible consequences, damages us as well as other people and even our own aims. Putting everything at one or the other end of an extreme polar scale of “good” and “evil,” and then aligning ourselves with cloistered groups who think like us, is to abet and spread the Binary Disease, contributing to the polarization dividing us. It can turn us into chanting team fans, and contribute to our ignorance of everything outside the perspective and precepts of our rah-rah groups, in the end making us ugly and unkind, and helping perpetuate the very conditions and injuries we oppose.
A Dose of Kindness
“I believe in part we’ve forgotten the healing power of kindness. If there’s one thing I think we’re missing not so much among herbalists, perhaps, but with humanity in general, it’s the ability to be kind to one another, and to listen deeply. Then we might be able to move forward in a better way.”
Binary disease can be greatly reduced among herbalists, even if never expunged from the whole of society. The rates of infection can be dramatically reduced, and those who already suffer from its effects can experience a lessening of symptom severity. While decoctions of diversity can jump start the healing response, it may be best to follow up with restorative tonics suck as a dose of old-fashioned kindness. A kind observation goes well with unpalatable revelations, making them easier to swallow. You need not “turn a blind eye,” only a kind phrase. Genuine concern can make discomforting suggestions feel like strong medicine rather than infliction or attack. People hear best, whenever we know we are heard. We do less damage to others, when we feel related to them, accepted by them, a part of them on at least the bio-organism or species level, on a spiritual level or the level of shared loves and and allied purpose.
Fellow Members, Shared Purpose
“In our community, the center or the ‘whole’ is our love of the plants.
Knowing this, how come herbalists can’t honor our differences, embrace our diversity, recognize its importance,
and gather around the center – that unifying love of the plants?”
Even if we imagine that not everything living deserves to be treated with respect, surely we can be respectful, reasonable and kind with those who feel the same love we do for plants, they who get a tear in their eye when digging up and harvesting roots, who dance a jig and squeak with joy at the first appearance of herbal sprouts, who like us choose a poorly paying career trying help people or nature, and who suffer the same repression by this society and defamation by the many corporate, governmental, and elite nemeses of herbalism and herbalists. Surely we can be careful with our treatment of fellow care givers, be kind to those who kindly give of themselves to the plants who bless us and the people in need. Whatever issues or attitudes, loyalties or fears led to our enlistment by polar factions, we are still fellow members of a wondrous and honorable coalition of the relatively few, with a common if sometimes taken for granted purpose, an essential plant-hearted mission even if we sometimes forget that.
We in herbalism need in some ways to be more impassioned, responsive, adamant, forceful and insistent, without losing sight of the fact our work is to heal not wound. The pertinent problem is not so much the imagined flaws and transgressions of some other group, but the Binary Disease that leads us to view them as “other” in the first place. History shows us what terrible acts can be committed against “other” races, nationalities, and religions, and then handily justified.
When it comes to herbalists, those we posit as polar opposites happen to be given to the same mission as us, no matter how differently they may seek to accomplish it, and they’re certainly judged as no different than us by herbalism’s genuine enemies. Indeed, all herbalists face the same threats and weather the same put-downs, share not only a kindly intention but a covenant and commitment to make things better.
Hell, all plant healers belong to a single coalition of caring, as wildly divergent as we are, and as wholly diverse as we must be.
The honorable way – the way that honors contrasting practitioners and brings honor to ourselves – is to act accordingly.
(Please do spread and repost this piece, thank you!)