Polarization: On the Threshold Between Political Ideology and Social Reality


An analysis of polarization: “To be aware of the abyss of polarization is already to be forewarned and forearmed.”




This column is based on my Foreword to the forthcoming volume by Marcos de Noronha, MD, on polarization, to be published in both Portuguese and Spanish and appears with his permission. Dr Marcos de Noronha is a noted Brazilian ethno-psychiatrist who conducts social therapy in Florianópolis, Santa Catarina. His analysis focuses on Brazil, but the general argument holds for all Western democracies and liberal societies.1

From Description to Prescription

The “is-ought” problem was articulated by the Scottish philosopher David Hume in the 18th century (1739-1740).2 He noted that thinkers make claims about “what ought to be” based on claims about “what is.” The “is-ought” problem is a critical issue in both moral philosophy and social science. It is so fundamental that the great British liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin asserted that, “No man has influenced the history of philosophy to a deeper or more disturbing degree,” and US philosopher of mind Jerry Fodor claimed that Hume’s treatise is “the foundational document of cognitive science.”3 In trying to distinguish science from religion a century ago, German sociologist Max Weber drew the “fact-value” distinction (1917),4 proposing that science deals with facts while religion addresses questions of value.

What should be a distinction often becomes a slide, the famous “slippery slope” from good intentions to bad outcomes. This slide—confounding the “is” and the “ought,” facts and values—is precisely the opposite of what Hume and Weber wanted to distinguish. In their footsteps, I offer a gloss on the slide, filling in some steps: From description to explanation to justification to prescription.

In my gloss, I add some nuances to this slide, using poverty as an example:

  • We start with a description of “reality” or facts—what “is.” We define and establish operational criteria for poverty in each area, accepting that the salience of those criteria will differ in different places. Indeed, the judgment of what is poverty can be deeply subjective and has a social context.
  • But how do we get from facts to values—what “ought” to be? We can assert the value that in a higher-income country like Canada, we should not have the kind of poverty where people starve to death.
  • After description, we search for explanation, to answer the question, “How are things the way they are?” That is natural and understandable: given description, we search for explanations. How is it that in Canada we tolerate a certain level of “food insecurity” when there is enough food and food wastage is a regrettable fact of life?
  • What is less understandable or acceptable to everyone is the next jump to justification. In our example, here is where values diverge most. The right will say, poor people “choose to be poor and stay poor” by misusing their resources, squandering them on non-essentials, like drugs and alcohol. The left will say, that’s a trivial part of the problem since poverty also often means not having the models and skills for the best use of resources, including food, and in any case, other factors like the housing crisis are pushing people into poverty and onto the streets.
  • Now, the slide from justification to prescription is also easy to understand and to follow. Once we have a justification, it is easy to reach for a prescription. If we believe that food insecurity and poverty are part of the structural inequalities of our society (justification), then social interventions (prescriptions) like meal programs in schools (common in Brazil, for example, where tragically, keeping children out of school during the COVID-19 syndemic meant that millions of children missed their one reliable meal of the day), food banks, homeless shelters and “soup kitchens” are not only justifiable but social justice demands them.
  • It’s how we go from explanation to justification that is truly slippery and threatens social and political cohesion!
  • And we can pair them: description calls for explanations and justification calls for prescription.
  • Again, the critical and divisive step is from description-explanation (is/facts) to justification-prescription (ought/values). Even if we agree about how to define poverty and its impacts (description-explanation), there will be divergence as to who is responsible for its remediation (justification-prescription). In the Reagan (US) and Thatcher (UK) era, there was an acknowledgement of the facts of poverty and besides blaming people for being poor, conservative governments encouraged neighborly actions in the private sector (such as charity and volunteerism) and philanthropy by big business. Liberals on the other hand believe in more direct government interventions, ranging from protecting the health of workers, to parental leave, and child subsidies (Canada offers “child benefits,” monthly stipends for school-age children, and well-funded public schools; in Quebec, we have government subsidized affordable daycare, and generous parental leave).

Other examples? Fill in your own—abortion, gun control, euthanasia, capital punishment, decriminalizing drug use, transgender youth, state-sponsored assassinations, reparations for past injustices—and try to sort out facts from values, descriptions versus prescriptions.

Rationality Versus Subjectivity

That is my analysis of how a key aspect of polarization comes about. It is partly a consequence of poor thinking and the lack of a critical perspective. Daniel Kahneman, PhD, who recently died, was a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in behavioral economics for his research into our imperfect human judgment and irrational choices.5 Yet, even his insights can only partly explain polarization. What Kahneman’s research does is clarify the vagaries of human judgment about what is—and exhorts us to live without illusions and ungrounded intuition.

However, an analysis of distortions in judgment and the illusions they engender cannot explain our values. Facts do not trump values; they are 2 different spheres that influence each other like reason and emotion. Attempting to reduce social problems to bad judgments reveals the prejudice that complex human predicaments have solutions based solely on a proper understanding of the facts. My friend Steven Pinker, PhD, a cognitive scientist at Harvard, promotes rationality.6 Along with Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, I agree that we should be as clear as possible about those things that can be understood rationally, logically. The concluding proposition to Wittgenstein’s famous treatise is: “Whereof one cannot speak, one must consign to silence.”7 That’s great—all you are missing is aesthetics, morality, religion and spirituality, philosophy, the arts, and literature.

Pinker’s appeal to rationality and Kahneman’s research on how it is limited by irrational human judgments are valuable to sort out the facts—meaning the best evidence available about those things susceptible to our current methods of proof—to eliminate cognitive distortions, misinformation, and cultish groupthink. What rationality cannot do is either explain or combat polarization alone because it is also driven by a divergence in values.

All these aspects of human society are bathed in personal subjectivity which generates innovation that may lead to a shared consensus of values about their worth. That consensus nonetheless remains subjective and cognitive scientists opine that even science is a shared illusion.8 As US educator and social critic Neil Postman declared in Technopoly, which he defined as the surrender of culture to technology, “Technopoly is at war with subjectivity.”9

“Single-Message Ideologies” Versus Pluralism

Polarization privileges utopian “single-message ideologies” over the pluriverse of the actual world we live in.10 That is not only driven by getting the facts wrong through misinformation and poor judgment but also by values which may be manipulated in the service of politics that we may not approve of. That is the slippery slope I am describing. “From description to prescription” ultimately means sliding from a consensual social reality balancing facts and values to a divisive political ideology privileging its own narrow view. That is the chasm and the abyss we are living in now in liberal democratic societies.

And why, the reader will ask, are you somehow protected from these errors of judgment and extremes of ideology? Why doesn’t Marcos de Noronha, the author of Polarization—or indeed myself—also fall into the abyss?

To be aware of the abyss of polarization is already to be forewarned and forearmed. That knowledge encourages compromise based on an understanding of the shared tasks of social life. As one of my supervisors once said about another staff person during my psychiatric residency, “It’s a narcissistic injury for him to agree with anybody else about anything.” Not surprisingly, the person in question held strong convictions about psychiatry, which made him a passionate partisan while alienating others.

One of the greatest authorities on religion, race, and social justice was Martin Luther King, Jr, who understood that, “Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values.” Yet, he saw them as “complementary” rather than rivals. Science keeps religion from “crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism,” while religion prevents science from “falling into ... obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.”11 Words to live by!

Speaking for myself, I have straddled dual realities all my life—born in Italy, raised in English Canada, I have now spent half of my life in Quebec, working and teaching in French. For me, it is not “either/or”—it is “and/and.” Canada was founded on the lands of the indigenous individuals and colonized by the English and the French 4 centuries ago, and now accommodates individuals from all over the world. Almost a quarter of Canadians in the 2021 Census were foreign-born. Close to a third of children under 15 had at least 1 foreign-born parent.12 To refuse to acknowledge and celebrate our present pluralism is to make a partisan choice. As Leonard Cohen wryly observed, “There is no present in Montreal. Only the past claiming victories.”13

For 30 years, I have been visiting and working in Brazil, part of the Global South, embracing what Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls southern epistemologies14 and Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso’s tropical truth.15 These are calls for refounding the idea of the good society, based on their own histories, traditions, and values. Living with and understanding pluralism is a bulwark against monocultural or single-message ideologies. My self-definition is that I have an Italian heart, an Anglo-Saxon brain, a Jewish soul, and a Brazilian family.

A Dialogue About Power

A final consideration in my analysis of polarization concerns the recourse to power. Here is a dialogue about power between a teacher and a student:

Mara Selvini Palazzoli, MD, the teacher, a family therapist, is talking about power in families.

Student: “But, Professor, power is an illusion.”

MSP: “Power may be an illusion but the struggle for power is a fact.”

That student was me. My statement was both a statement of fact and the affirmation of a personal value. Selvini Palazzoli’s brilliant riposte was a clinician’s answer—power struggles within the family are a fact of social life. Nonetheless, on a larger canvas, do we want to build our view of human relations on an illusion? We need to deal with illusions without being seduced by their allure of a better, more beautiful world or succumbing to the cynicism of Machiavellian power struggles. In sociopolitical terms of once popular but now discredited political philosophies, that would translate into Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” (liberal democracies won the day and all that is left is to sort out the winners and the losers)16 or Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” (in which we are doomed to an endless Hobbesian war of “all against all”).17

Founding our psychology, society, and politics on the struggle for power creates polarization. I understand that aggrieved groups seek power to affirm themselves and fight for a place in the sun. It explains a lot about their struggles. Yet, justifying violence or prescribing it, as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre did in his Foreword to psychiatric revolutionary Frantz Fanon, MD’s The Wretched of the Earth, is unacceptable.18 It might even work for a time—but it will never lead to a just world. If for no other reason, because of the trauma that political violence leaves in its wake, as did the Red Brigades and the IRA, 2 movements I encountered in my native Italy and in London at the time of “The Troubles” in the 1970s.

This became painfully clear to me when I visited Che Guevara’s mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba. Among other artifacts of his life, I saw the revolver with which he killed people. I understand that Comandante Guevara was fighting a revolutionary war. What I neither understand nor can justify is that Dr Ernesto Guevara would do such a thing. These roles are incompatible. And that was the end of one of my youthful idealizations. The film of the young Che, touring South America with fellow medical student Alberto Granado on his motorcycle and confronting the appalling poverty there is moving, as is their founding of a medical school in Cuba.19 The older Che, the physician, killing people in the name of the revolution is not.

Against Mao’s famous dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” the revolution I can believe in will happen spontaneously, contingently, and organically, as Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci described it. Along with a mistrust of binary oppositions and the polarization they create, I reject a society based on polarizing power, whether in personal, economic, political, sexual, or social relations. In every sphere of my theory and practice as a social psychiatrist and philosopher, I start with a convivial and interdependent collective (family, community, society) and construct the individual as a subject based on his or her family and social relationships, always seeking the Buddhist “middle way” or the Greek “golden mean” and, in modern terms, “win-win” solutions.20,21


Here is a layered list of contemporary approaches to reason, progress, and subjectivity:

  1. Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, makes the case for reason in Rationality.6
  2. Daniel Kahneman, a behavioral economist, and associates point out the limits of reason in Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment.5
  3. Those who champion reason hold that it is the engine of social progress which is challenged by historian and social critic Christopher Lasch in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics.22
  4. Finally, educator and cultural critic Neil Postman argues compellingly in Technopoly that in our technocratic society, reason is tied to objectivity which is “at war with subjectivity.”9

Dr Di Nicola is a child psychiatrist, family psychotherapist and philosopher in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where he is Professor of Psychiatry & Addiction Medicine at the University of Montreal and President of the World Association of Social Psychiatry (WASP). He has been recognized with numerous national and international awards, honorary professorships and fellowships, and was recently elected a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences and given the Distinguished Service Award of the American Psychiatric Association. Dr Di Nicola’s work straddles psychiatry and psychotherapy on one side and philosophy and poetry on the other. Dr Di Nicola’s writing includes: A Stranger in the Family: Culture, Families and Therapy (WW Norton, 1997), Letters to a Young Therapist (Atropos Press, 2011, winner of the Camille Laurin Prize of the Quebec Psychiatric Association), and Psychiatry in Crisis: At the Crossroads of Social Sciences, the Humanities, and Neuroscience (with D. Stoyanov; Springer Nature, 2021); and, in the arts, his “Slow Thought Manifesto” (Aeon Magazine, 2018) and Two Kinds of People: Poems from Mile End (Delere Press, 2023, nominated for The Pushcart Prize).


1. de Noronha M. Polarização: Sintoma de uma Doença Social [Polarization: Symptom of a Social Disease]. Editora Letras Contemporâneas; 2024. Link to his video and blog in Portuguese: https://doencasocial.my.canva.site/blog

2. Hume D. A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. John Noon; 1739-1740.

3. A Treatise of Human Nature. Wikipedia. Accessed April 8, 2024. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Treatise_of_Human_Nature&oldid=1208103608

4. Weber M. Science as a Vocation. Gerth HH, Mills CW, trans & ed. Free Press; 1946.

5. Kahneman D, Sibony O, Sunstein CR. Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment. William Collins; 2021.

6. Pinker S. Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. Viking; 2021.

7. Wittgenstein L. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Moore GE, Ramsey FP, Wittgenstein L, trans. Routledge & Kegan Paul; 1922.

8. Why some scientists think that science is an illusion. Mind Matters. August 6, 2019. Accessed April 8, 2024. https://mindmatters.ai/2019/08/why-some-scientists-think-science-is-an-illusion/

9. Postman N. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage; 2011.

10. Kothari A, Salleh A, Escobar A, et al, eds. Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. Tulika Books/Columbia University Press; 2019.

11. Fact–value distinction. Wikipedia. Accessed April 8, 2024. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fact%E2%80%93value_distinction&oldid=1213727402

12. Statistics Canada. Immigrants make up the largest share of the population in over 150 years and continue to shape who we are as Canadians. October 26, 2022. Accessed April 8, 2024. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/221026/dq221026a-eng.htm

13. Cohen L. The Favourite Game. Secker & Warburg; 1963.

14. Santos B de S. Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. Routledge; 2016.

15. Veloso C. Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil. Bloomsbury; 2003.

16. Fukuyama F. The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press; 1992.

17. Huntington SP. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. Simon & Schuster; 1996.

18. Fanon F. The Wretched of the Earth. Philcox R, trans. Grove Press; 2004.

19. The Motorcycle Diaries. Wikipedia. Accessed April 8, 2024. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Motorcycle_Diaries_(film)&oldid=1215165694

20. Di Nicola V. A Stranger in the Family: Culture, Families, and Therapy. W.W. Norton & Co; 1997.

21. Di Nicola V, Stoyanov DS. Psychiatry in Crisis: At the Crossroads of Social Science, the Humanities, and Neuroscience. Springer Nature; 2021.

22. Lasch C. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. W.W. Norton & Co; 1991.

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