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Responding to Conceptual and Value Polarities

learnings from sexuality

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Most values can be grouped within value polarities. For example "bigness" (as favoured by Texans) can be grouped with "smallness" (as favoured by ecologists in "small is beautiful"). In the work on values in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, some 230 value polarities were identified: beauty-ugliness, peace-war, strength-weakness, etc in order to cluster some 3,000 value terms (both positive and negative, constructive and destructive).

A great deal of human activity involves responding to value polarities - navigating between the extremes they represent. Whilst a polarity may, at first sight, appear to suggest that one or other pole is the more appropriate, the experience of it eventually demonstrates its limitations and the need to relate to the other as well. Learning how to do this may be extremely painful and take many years. Political systems demonstrate the continuing pulls between "left" and "right". Religions are fundamentally concerned with embodying abstract principles challenged by the proclivities of "human nature" - and wisdom is acquired through learning to balance the tensions between them.

It is however striking that in many social settings, organizations and programmes are designed as though one value of a polarity could be maximized and the other minimized. So for example, systems of "care" tend to downplay the ways in which they "neglect" people under certain circumstances - and are obliged to do so to avoid encouraging abusive freeloading. Those whose mode of action is essentially violent are eventually obliged to seek relief in peace.

Understanding the conditions under which the opposite pole may be a more appropriate point of reference is far from obvious. When should the switch from peaceful to violent response be made? When is it appropriate to switch from left-wing to right-wing political principles? Understanding the conditions which call for such change is especially challenging if one has been brought up, educated or trained to favour one pole over another under all circumstances. There is ambiguity and uncertainty in deciding in favour of a contrasting value pole.

There is little formal education or training possible concerning how to navigate between value poles. This is because institutional, belief and philosophical systems tend to be organized around particular poles - usually in opposition to their contrasting poles (favoured by others). It tends to be only through life experience that the need to do so becomes apparent. This life experience is most evident in the ambiguity of certain aphorisms regarding one value pole or its opposite. The decisional dilemma may be made quite clear.

One of the most basic polarities is that that of masculinity and femininity - with which most are exceptionally familiar. It is intriguing that there is a certain degree of role reversal from middle age on - men manifest more "feminine sensitivity" and women manifest more "masculine rationality". But throughout life both men and women are attracted and repelled by the values of the contrasting style. This process is subtly facilitated and controlled by choice of clothing and what attributes it enhances or represses.

Humans are bi-symmetrical with the left side of the body mirroring the right - there is a polar organization to the body most evident in the limbs. It is strange that in non-recreational settings, the junction between the right arm and the left arm is normally concealed by clothing. That between the right leg and the left leg is concealed in most circumstances. Does this concealment of "junctions" suggest an unwillingness to comprehend the dynamics of the relationship between right and left - and between polar values in general? It is of course much easier to focus on hands and arms, whether right or left, than to look at the processes whereby they complement, oppose or reinforce each other. For in isolation, the mechanics of a single arm are straightforward. But how two arms work together is one of the great learning of the upper body. In politics, for example, it is far easier to understand the coherence of right-wing or left-wing action than to understand how they work together to sustain a democratic society.

The drama and trauma of the situation is perhaps best illustrated by the junction between the right and left legs - the legs on which the whole human body is supported. This junction is concealed except for special circumstances. It is the major erotic zone. In one way or another it is the theme of literature, culture, advertising and personal fantasies. It is a major worry for many religions as well as being a challenge to parents in educating their children.

Is it possible that the "junction" between polarized values is subject to an equivalent degree of fascination, ambiguity and denial? Is it exciting and forbidden and the subject of taboos within prevailing belief systems? Overtly of course we focus on the "feet" or the "legs" - but it is how they move in relationship to one another and what they imply which is the prime concern. Is this not a feature of how we relate to values such as "good" vs. "evil", "beauty" vs "ugliness", "strength" vs. "weakness", etc?

The attributes of polar values are necessarily obvious and evoke predictable responses - especially in organizations. They lend themselves to unambiguous decision-making. Like the limbs, they can be treated individually as tools - requiring only an instrumental, utilitarian mentality.

It is the art or mystery of how two polar values are joined and function in relation to one another that is the most provocative dynamic for the human psyche. As with the sexual response, a dynamic is engendered in response to polar values. This activates and satisfies forms of awareness that are not captured by rational thought alone. This dynamic can evoke both the highest qualities of relationship between people -- and the meanest form of inhumanity. Ironically as well, it is at the junction of the limbs that excretion takes place, with all the taboos attached to that. Are there related inhibitions with regard to the relationship between polar values?

Notions of both "making love" and "rape" may also have their learnings for the relationship between polar values. Like it or not, it is through that relationship that the future is engendered - in the absence of devices against "conception". And, perhaps more ambiguously than with sexuality, how one value pole dominates or out maneuvers its opposite may be far from obvious. We have a lot to learn!

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