Elephantine Culture

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The bigger hatred makes you feel, the smaller you are.


Okay, time to wax clinical, I think. So the cartoon looks something like this…

The social interdependence of humans means that the social standing of individuals possesses far more survival value than the theoretical standing of their beliefs. Since it’s far better to belong to present coalitions than to be right about absent facts, the machinery of the latter is placed at the disposal of the former. This is the drum I’ve been beating for years now, as well as Haidt’s thesis.

As we’ve witnessed first-hand, the machinery of belonging operates in ways that can be quite ugly. Shaming, scapegoating, denigrating, and bullying seem to be the most natural and readily available communicative modes—schoolyard stuff I’m sure all of us have suffered (and employed) in our childhood.

Despite all the bad press these methods generally receive, people employing them think they are entirely justified, either regardless of the harm that results or (in the case of ‘trolls’) because of it. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, given the existential stakes of inter-group competition in human prehistory. The idea is that some version of the ‘false-negative selection bias’ is at work here: it’s better to jump at thousand shadows than to miss one killer. Evolution often favours the quick and dirty over the slow and scrupulous. It doesn’t matter if innocents are punished, so long as the dragnet reliably catches genuine competitors. You can see the same evolutionary principle at work in PTSD, where the low resolution of the ‘quick and dirty’ fear system regularly mistakes innocuous stimuli for potentially lethal threats.

It really is quite remarkable, if you think about it. It’s no surprise that the perceived facts of the matter make no difference, since each party in the dispute duly believes that it has cornered the truth. The surprising and alarming thing is the way even obvious second order claims find themselves batted aside. So, even though it’s obviously the case that all parties could be wrong, arguments that turn on appeals to this fact have no more immediate impact than those that argue contrary facts.

I say ‘immediate impact’ because I find it very interesting the way Vox felt compelled to return after a year or so, convinced he had arguments that could demolish this second order case. This might hold for ACM and her party as well, but I know my every attempt to make this second order argument was either buried under red herrings or ignored outright. Vacuous dismissal, personal attack, accusations of communicative malfeasance—anything but a simple acknowledgement that, yes, they could be wrong. It really is quite extraordinary—and alarming.

One of Haidt’s recurring themes in The Righteous Mind is the injunction to step outside of the moral circuits we find ourselves caught up in—to avoid, as much as possible, becoming embroiled. The book’s raison d’etre, after all, is to find some way of resolving America’s political impasse. It’s a classic Enlightenment approach: before you can solve a problem, you must first learn what that problem is.

So what is Haidt’s solution? Not much more than a vague call for institutional ‘decompartmentalization.’ ‘Compartmentalization,’ as those weary souls who have weathered my rants against the literary establishment know, is what I call the process of ‘belief and value-grouping’ enabled by information technology. It’s the whole reason I opened TPB to Vox and ACM in the first place: an attempt to cut against the psycho-technological grain, to reach out–if only to ponder the blisters on our fingers!

The idea is that information technology, far from being a communicative panacea, is deeply mixed bag, especially given the consumer ‘belief culture’ it finds itself expressed in. Just think of Fox News. Rupert Murdoch’s genius lay in realizing the way belonging trumps being right, and that ‘facts’ (group specific values and beliefs) were simply a market like any other. Beliefs and values are in the process of being branded and commodified in a manner and on a scale without historical precedent. Call it the ‘birds-of-a-feather effect’: absent any geographical or material constraint, people will generally gravitate toward groups that confirm their values and beliefs.

This is why I see Haidt’s conclusions, not to mention our first hand experiences here, so damn depressing. Haidt isolates, for instance, Newt Gingrich’s 1995 demand that Republican representatives not move their families to Washington as a crucial turning point in the collapse of political civility and cooperation in Washington. It’s far more difficult to hate the father of your kid’s best friend than it is the stranger across the aisle.

The more difficult it is to sort us from them the more difficult it becomes to maintain an adversarial coalition mindset. You listen to the father of your kid’s best friend. And thinking back, this rings true of many of the most profitable political debates I’ve had: they all began in the absence of any clear-cut political identifications. (The biggest error I made picking ACM as a left-wing counterpart of Vox was the fact that I had an obvious axe to grind—which is to say, the way I came in ‘pre-identified’ as one of the ‘evil them.’). What we need to do, Haidt is suggesting, is redesign our political institutions so as to complicate the kinds of identifications made by their members.

This seems simple enough. Segregation is the problem, the lack of common identifications and the meaningful interdependencies that give rise to them (Vox’s boxes are anything but the cure he imagines them to be!). And this totally makes sense, given that our cognitive egocentrism is likely the evolutionary product of daily, existential interdependence. Our self-serving biases are the product of a high-pressure social atmosphere, one where concession and compromise are inescapable facts of daily existence.

And this is what I find so depressing! Industrialization had already sucked much of the social air out of the human room by relocating material dependency beyond the pale of identification. We live in an age where strangers make all the implements of our survival, a time when we can shut down all interpersonal contact whatsoever, and still survive. But the degree to which we needed to socialize, we were still pretty much stranded with the people—along with the attitudes—that chance and geography served up to us. The social atmosphere was thin, but it was still an atmosphere, still a check on the violence and radicality of our values and beliefs.

No longer. Now, stranded with the bland injunction ‘to believe’ and stamped with the false conviction that having an opinion is all it takes to be a ‘critical thinker,’ we can float and gravitate toward whatever values and attitudes ‘just feel right,’ utterly ignorant of any rational criteria whatsoever, let alone any knowledge of our tragic dispositions to be duped. Now the worst of us can call and call, do everything they can to appeal to what’s worst in us. Since we are hardwired to be self-exculpating and other-denigrating, these kinds of attitudes exert a gravitational attraction almost inversely proportional to their rational warrant.

We can now effortlessly join communities were bigotry is simply ‘common sense,’ where punishing perceived out-group competitors on the basis of nothing more than an ill-will and a hunger for celebrity can double as ‘good clean fun.’

Compartmentalization is the theory that the internet, by removing the geographical brakes on cognitive egocentrism, will lead to an increasingly ‘elephantine’ culture, one that is ever more fractious, extreme, and irrational. In the United States, for instance, the worst case scenario would be that the present political polarization will eventually generate genuinely disastrous economic consequences, which will lead to even more polarization, and thence to a complete breakdown of democratic institutions.

Since I’m not a psychologist, all I can do is appeal to those of you who are. It would be interesting, I think, to run experiments on the patterns of groupishness that arise given different communicative logistics. Over the past few weeks there’s been more than a few times where I’ve found myself wondering how old my interlocutors were, thinking that the willingness to adopt, let alone tolerate, abusive and irrational modes of social discourse was simply the product of some kind of generational sea change in communicative expectations.

How do the attitudes of a group evolve when extremists are given a voice? How do they evolve when communicative logistics force or incentivize collaborative activity with out-group competitors? What, for that matter, is the base rate for ‘ideological mutation’ in various kinds of groups?

The list of potential questions go on and on. As do the worries.