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There are some things we should all be able to agree on. We should all be able to agree that more rational understandings of the challenges and opportunities we face as a society are preferable to less rational understandings. We should all be able to agree that “rationality” is not entirely subjective, and that if we can establish with sufficient cogency that something is indeed more rational or less rational, we should favor that which has been cogently demonstrated to be more rational. We should all be able to agree that, all other things being equal, a kinder disposition is preferable to a crueler disposition, more empathy is preferable to less empathy, caring about others is preferable to not caring about others. The preceding should be our common ground; we should fight first and foremost to establish it as our common ground. And we should be able, from that common ground, to identify that which is consistent with it and that which is antithetical to it, that which should be embraced by all and that which should be rejected by all, that which is the expression of what I described just above and that which is the opposite of what I described just above.

Obviously, irrationality* and cruelty are the antithesis of reason and kindness. And let’s allow that they are not binary, but rather poles of continua defining a complex space within which actual ideological positions and dispositions fall. So let’s begin by identifying that which is consistent with reason. (*I am actually referring to one kind of irrationality here, “dysfunctional irrationality,” as distinct from things which are “irrational” but wonderful, including, for instance, emotions and spontaneous generosity that gratify us or motivate us or lead to better outcomes but are not the product of rational thought on our part. “Dysfunctional irrationality” is that kind of irrationality that leads to unwise choices and undesirable outcomes. Distinguishing between the two is, indeed, a vital skill to develop. “Irrational,” for the remainder of this essay, refers to “dysfunctional irrationality.”)

Consistent with reason, we should all be able to agree that it is a complex and subtle world, that the comprehension of even the most brilliant among us is limited, that most of us aren’t the most brilliant among us, and that we all have cause for humility, that humility helps inform wisdom by allowing us to recognize how little we know and understand and continue to learn and understand ever more as a result. Indeed, reason is a function of knowing that we don’t know rather than of assuming that we do, and then using disciplined methodologies to determine what actually is and is not true. We can, therefore, add humility to the elements of what should be our common ground, what we should all agree is worth striving to cultivate and commit to, both within ourselves individually and among one another socially.

Consistent with reason, we should all be able to acknowledge our interdependence, our interdependence with one another and with the natural and physical world around us. Clearly, we require air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and a certain range of temperatures and other environmental conditions within our physical tolerance in order to survive. We also require other human beings in order to survive; even the most extreme survivalist, who goes off into the wilderness naked and without any tool or weapon of any kind, relies on knowledge and skills taught to them by others or acquired from others in some way. And few if any are that extreme; most rely at least to some extent on weapons or tools or equipment others have made. The rest of us rely on one another so constantly and in so many overlapping ways that we don’t even notice how ubiquitous our interdependence is.

Our interdependence goes far beyond survival. The languages we think in, the religions or philosophies we hold to be true, the scientific theories we acknowledge or apply, the rituals and tasks in which we engage in the ordinary course of our days and our lives, the techniques we utilize, the skills we employ, the norms we adhere to, the values we embrace, the music and art and recreations we enjoy, indeed, by far the greater part of who and what we are, is the expression of a collective existence and a historical evolution that we have inherited and are an integral part of. In fact, both physically and mentally, we are far more similar than different, an array of variations in how collective genetic and cultural material is combined and expressed, with occasional, very slight modifications on the margins. Our individuality is an expression of our interdependence.

There are quite a few other understandings that flow naturally from these foundations, such as the fact that we live in a predominantly non-zero-sum rather than zero-sum world, in which there are far greater gains to be had through successful cooperation than there are through its absence. We could, in fact, build an entire paradigm out of these basic axioms and their logical implications, informed by the research and practice of many others over many generations as well as by our own work in the present and future. And we could, while perpetually developing that paradigm, perpetually apply it, engaging in organizational efforts to draw people into the shared endeavor of being informed by it, informing it, helping it to evolve, and implementing it in our daily lives and our various collective endeavors.  I have begun to do so, with the help of others I’ve attracted to my initial framing of our shared cause (and who are now participants in its continuing evolution), calling this intellectual and organizational and behavioral paradigm “Transcendental Politics.”

So, we’ve identified some things that define or are logical implications of what we should all be able to accept as our common ground: a commitment to reason, a recognition that reason isn’t purely subjective, a reliance on objective criteria in determining what is reasonable; a commitment to kindness, to empathy, to putting ourselves in the shoes of others and caring about their welfare as well as about our own; a recognition of our interdependence on multiple dimensions and in multiple ways, how much our interdependence permeates our lives, how much we as individuals are an expression of it; and our recognition that we live in a predominantly non-zero-sum reality, in which cooperation yields greater benefits than its absence does. What, then, are some of the things that are antithetical to this common ground? What is the antithesis of our Transcendental Politics?

We’ve already established that irrationality and cruelty (including a lack of empathy) are antithetical to Transcendental Politics. We can add to these, based on the preceding discussion, that a lack of humility, a failure to acknowledge our interdependence, and an inability or unwillingness to engage in or seek out cooperative solutions to conflicts or shared challenges are all antithetical to Transcendental Politics. There are three further things that, though to some extent inevitable and in some ways beneficial, seem to be implied as aspects of the antithesis of Transcendental Politics: dogmatism, individualism, and tribalism.

First, let’s carve out their range of utility. While substantive dogmas, such as off-the-shelf ideologies that assume truths not necessarily in evidence, are counterproductive, methodological and attitudinal “dogmas” can be quite useful. A dogmatic commitment to the methodologies of reason and to respect for our shared humanity is, I would argue (and am arguing), a very positive thing. We’ll reserve the word “dogma,” therefore, for substantive dogmas rather than methodological and attitudinal dogmas. I refer to such substantive dogmas as “false certainties.” The counterpart of false certainty is “wise uncertainty,” the expression of intellectual humility. (Methodological and attitudinal “dogmas,” conversely, we will refer to as “disciplines.”)

Individualism and tribalism, in certain forms, have many benefits as well. Our individualism provides us with the intrinsic benefit of “liberty,” our freedom to choose our own destiny (leaving aside for the moment the philosophical question of free will and determinism). But it also provides collective benefits in terms of how robustly we contribute to our collective welfare. Extreme individualism, however, that is predatory or parasitic or unable to engage cooperatively with others, is neither personally nor socially beneficial. It is a rare narcissist, a rare sociopath, who is truly happy with their narcissism or sociopathy. And it is a poorly functioning society that is made up primarily of such people.

Tribalism, our impulse to gather together into groups that share a common identity, also has many benefits. There are the intrinsic benefits of shared identity and camaraderie as well as the functional benefits of working together for mutual benefit. Individualism and tribalism are, in one sense, opposites, in that some pure form of extreme individualism would prohibit identification with a tribe to which the individual belongs. But individualism and tribalism are also parallel and complementary, in that both are identities that are held and are distinct from other identities held by others, leading either to conflict or cooperation (or non-engagement) between and among the various such entities (whether individuals or tribes).

Extreme individualism is, therefore, sociopathological, and extreme tribalism is similarly dysfunctional on a different level. Healthy individualism, which recognizes interdependence and seeks out mutually beneficial cooperative relationships where possible, is sometimes called “enlightened individualism.” We can therefore call the tribalistic counterpart, which recognizes tribal interdependence and seeks out mutually beneficial intertribal cooperative relationships where possible, “enlightened tribalism.”

While extreme, pathological individualism is incompatible with tribalism (as well as transtribalism), there is an intense form of ideological individualism that is also highly tribalistic, the individualism becoming an integral part of the tribal ideology. To distinguish this form of intense ideological individualism from the sociopathic variety, I’m going to refer to it as “hyper-individualism,” and, for consistency, will refer to extreme tribalism as “hyper-tribalism.” This ideological hyper-individualism sees people as first and foremost individuals and tends, as a result, to downplay interdependence and be more inclined to see the world in zero-sum rather than non-zero-sum terms. It also tends to be more reactive than proactive (since proactive policies usually involve navigating interdependence), and more oriented toward prevailing in conflicts than in avoiding them through mutually beneficial cooperation.

The tribal identity that incorporates this ideology is therefore naturally hyper-tribalistic as well, translating the hyper-individualism into the tribalism. It has strong and unchecked attribution biases (biases that favor one’s own tribe and disfavor other tribes with which one doesn’t identify in terms of how attributions are made), is more combative, is less aware of intertribal interdependence, is less inclined to seek the mutual benefits of intertribal cooperation, is more reactive than proactive, and so on.

Transcendental Politics is the discipline and social movement dedicated to transcending those aspects of our individualism, tribalism, and dogmatism that are antithetical to reason, kindness, empathy, humility, a preference for mutually beneficial cooperation, and a preference for proactive rather than reactive solutions. These three things exist distributed individually and in various combinations and forms throughout our ideological and cultural spectrum. They can be found on the left, on the right, in the middle; in the form of egotism or religious fanaticism or ideological zealotry. They are problematic, each on their own.

But when they combine into a single ideological and social package comprised of dogmatism, hyper-individualism, and hyper-tribalism, that ideological and social package becomes the antithesis of Transcendental Politics in its entirety. (Arguably, Transcendental Politics is the antithesis rather than thesis here, born in response to this toxic blend of hyper-tribalism, hyper-individualism, and dogmatism that has long been nascent in American culture but has recently coalesced into a tangible force in our national political and cultural landscape.)

That particularly toxic concentration of all three antitheses of Transcendental Politics, however, is augmented and reinforced by positive feedback loops with political opposition that is imbued with too much dogmatism and tribalism (and sometimes individualism) as well. The form of opposition to that toxic concentration ends up being part of the problem rather than part of the solution to it. And that is why Transcendental Politics is not embedded in the partisan divide; it seeks to encourage and facilitate the transcendence of dogmatism, hyper-individualism, and hyper-tribalism throughout our political and cultural landscape, creating feedback loops that reinforce imagination, kindness, and humility and reduce irrationality, cruelty, and false certainty.

Developing a paradigm inevitably results in the creation of a language for that paradigm. In the language of Transcendental Politics, mobilizing more imagination, kindness, and humility in our political positions and behaviors is, by transcending our false certainties and tribalistic animosities, politically “transcendent.” Those qualities of imagination, kindness, and humility are contagious; the more of them we see on display, the more they spread, just as their opposites are contagious, the shared endeavor we’re in being to spread those transcendent qualities rather than the qualities that they seek to transcend. The real political divide, therefore, is not between the right and the left, but rather between the thesis and antithesis of Transcendental Politics.

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