We all try to make sense of our world. Usually, our attention focuses on understanding threats rather than comfortable aspects of our existence. For the past several years, I have been observing the evolution of contemporary discourse, particularly in its on-line manifestations. I have done so because I consider it a threat—arguably the greatest to our ability to maintain a truly pluralistic society. Specifically, the race to polarization, the dehumanization of opposition, and the reflex to contend and refute rather than converse and discuss all undermine the discursive foundations upon which any non-authoritarian society is built. And I believe that the threat, ultimately, does not derive from any one point of the political or cultural compass: the entire device has been skewed. Largely because it sits atop the deranging machinery of the internet.
What follows is purely personal and purely speculative. My purpose in posting it here (with a connector on Facebook) is not to achieve widespread distribution, but as my only time-effective means of putting it before those who are like-minded. And since I cannot know in toto who those people are in advance (even among those whom FB lists as “Friends”), I have no way of constraining its distribution to those who would find it interesting or useful. So I fully understand and expect readers to simply stop reading when/if it becomes either dull or uncomfortable: I can easily imagine either scenario.
Lastly, it is not anything like an essay (despite the unfortunate length—and I fully expect and understand a “tl;dr” response from many, if not most. It’s just that some concepts and conclusions don’t boil down to soundbites—unless, that is, you just want to fling an assertion and be done with it. Which would utterly defeat the purpose of this post). At best, this is a string of related observations that follow a quasi-sequential train of tentative conclusions. I do not offer it as proof of anything. I do not presume it is “correct.” I do not offer it to elicit comment or reaction, approval or disapproval or bafflement (although I am not trying to muzzle responses on FB in so saying). As I said, several years of observation, rumination, and the social experiment of trying to encourage and maintain a certain style of discourse on my FB page, has resulted and now resolved in these observations. And I have exercised as much time, and disciplined (if no doubt flawed) remove and objectivity, as I am likely to achieve, so this seemed the right time to share this with whoever might find it interesting. At the very least, I feel I owe it to those folks who were regular visitors to my page and obeyed the gentle but firm rules of civility and courtesy that I (imperfectly) tried to encourage, and on occasion, impose.
It is entirely possible for both sides in a debate or argument to legitimately feel that, culturally speaking, they have been the injured party in the history of the exchange (if you doubt this, talk to any divorce attorney about what they see daily). A social-scale example of this is the right/left feelings of social injury. At the risk of gross over-generalization, but to demonstrate quickly what I mean, I offer the following comparison. Broadly speaking, the left associates its sense of injury with the oppression of groups via demographic stigmatization. The right associates its sense of injury with historic devaluation by an intellectual elite that perpetuates itself as an aristocracy. There are undeniable truths to both perspectives. There are also undeniable caveats that may be placed upon each.
It is also entirely possible for both sides to be right, and/or both sides to be wrong, about various aspects of an issue at the same time. In fact, the likelihood that once side is “completely correct” and the other side is “completely wrong” is so unlikely that arriving at this belief may be a warning sign that partisanship is running roughshod over intellectual honest and fair-mindedness. (The major exception to this is when an individual is *intentionally* peddling falsehoods. But unless you are talking to THAT INDIVIDUAL, you are probably NOT talking to a liar, but someone who was taken in by those lies, which is a very, very different scenario). However, in more normative issue discussions, when one feels they have “the right of it,” there is the constant threat of being seduced into that state of mind, into that reductionistic definitude, because it provides a) a sense of closure, b) a sense of shared identity with others of a like mind, c) simplifies the word view into “us and them” and thereby pushes toward polarization and clear “group identities.” This concept of group identities is crucial; it will return later on.
Much of today’s “political debate” is not, at least not in the sense of policy. It is, at its core, cultural criticism.
Cultural criticism benefits from examples (to illustrate both assertions and the arguable presence of trend) but cannot rigorously be “proven.”
Public policy discussions are, unless they are expressly philosophical in nature, ultimately debates. Again, “proof” and “absolute correctness” is elusive, but an assessment of the “superior” argument can be made. (Once again, any deliberate propagation of falsehoods destroys the validity of the exchange. Which is why a social contract can by its nature survive well-supported and even contentious differences of opinion. Lies are, conversely, a mortal poison to pluralism and are consequently illegal, from the witness stand to the very basis of all contractual law.) The most productive debates begin with a “resolved.” In the case of public policy debates, the resolved should be more specific than “what is right?” It must also be more specific than “what is best?” The resolved should be: what specific, measurable ends are we attempting to achieve?” If specific goals cannot be agreed on, then that is the FIRST debate that must be had and resolved: the tangible objectives of public policy. Without it, the debate upon specific policies is sure to collapse into the definitional sink-holes left by the incomplete definition of what the resolved really is aiming to establish/answer. And this inability to come to a functional “resolved” for our public policy discussions is exactly where our contemporary lack of consensus-building is tearing us apart.
Polarization occurs when consensus on goals is not merely limited (as it always is in any complex society) but has more variance than overlap. This creates public unrest and unease, which most humans intrinsically dislike. They will tend to work to reduce that sense of turmoil as a matter of social evolution and conditioning: it is mostly a REFLEX, not a cognitive decision. The intrusion of personal, psychological reflex into social consensus issues is inevitable, but it is also inherently distorting. This particular reflex is an excellent means of maintaining social cohesion (arguably, one of our key evolutionary success-traits), but becomes counter-productive if it begins compromising a focus on the purely utile methods of achieving consensus.
Group cohesion and formation reflexes are, like any other human impulse, not an absolute value across the social spectrum. It stands to reason (and implicit projection from studies) that the intensity of need that most individuals experience in relation to maintaining group cohesion has a bell curve distribution. Logically, certain individuals are never going to be very concerned with group cohesion because they have a “low impulse” toward it. There have always been hermits and loners by preference, after all. However, for the bulk of society, here’s the key consideration: as attempts to achieve consensus are repeatedy thwarted and/or futile, those individuals who have less of a drive to maintain group cohesion will begin to drop out of the process, or actively and angrily reject efforts at securing cohesion.
There may, therefore, be some differences between the broad collective group labeld “right” and “left” that arrive from these different behavioral/need templates. Specifically, I wonder if their is a correlation between right/left, and where individuals from each of those social subgroups tends to cluster on that bell curve of desire for group cohesion. And I do not suggest any particular level of that need to be either good or bad, right or wrong: they are merely different, with different consequences for subgroups into which they respectively cluster, and for society as a whole.
The right seems clustered on the lower-end of the “need for group cohesion” spectrum. They tend to praise and value the “rugged indivdualist” concept very profoundly. Their world-view sites responsibility primarily on each individual and evinces strong limits on how much it is willing to accept social forces as an acceptable reason for aberrant or irresponsible behavior. It is also interesting to note that they are disproportionately represented in rural areas where groupings are smaller and private space and property lines are more easily and ardently enforced. Consequently, they may evince more readiness to strike out on their own and to be less willing to make compromises to secure social cohesion, or to accept “social intervention” in place of indivdual accountability. It also means that as a group, while they are less likely to respond to social pressure to maintain “docrtrinal conformity” and often disassociate from groups which expect it, consensus may instead collect around individuals or authority figures who epitomize and/or compellingly articulate their personal values. In extreme cases, this can lead toward cult-of-personality, or religously-derived moral absolutism.
The left seems clustered on the other end of the bell curve. Generally, they seem to evince a higher need for group cohesion. They praise and value consensus very highly, as well as collective action and the authority of socially-sanctioned agencies and experts. They arrive at their values and objectives by varying degrees of investigation and analysis, but like the right, also tend to inherit many from their immediate family and social clades. Their world view strongly focuses on and presumes that individual dysfunction does not significantly correspond to individual responsibility. Although some flaws are presumed to reside in nature rarely (i.e. genetics), the overwhelming cause of aberrant behavior is deemed to arise from nurture (social conditioning). Consequently, since social conditions are social products, this groups logically focuses on evolving social structures to identify and address inequities in society as the causal agents, rather than presuming that aberrant behavior is a primarily personal responsbility. Interestingly, they are geographically predominant in urban areas where personal space is limited and shared space is the norm. They also tend to evince strong associations between consensus with socially–sanctioned institutions/methodologies and group membership. While there is room for debate about means, agreement on the ends themselves are often a litmus test of whether one is “in-group” or “out-group.”
Please note that I am not suggesting that people who are less concerned with group cohesion are ‘anti-social/introverts.’ Nor am I suggesting that people more concerned with group cohesion are “friendly/extroverts.” (Indeed, I can easily imagine valid arguments that would moderately predict the opposite correlation.) Similarly, individual behavior *cannot* be reliably induced from membership in either subgroup.
Rather, the point of the proceding is to project it forward into a consideration of how the behavioral/needs differences between individuals frequently subgrouped as “right” or “left” become amplified—even dangerously so—when the variable of today’s social media changes are applied as a modifier.
Social media has disrupted many of the expectations of discourse and exchange that have governed the formation of opinions and consensus, some present from the dawn of history, others as recent as the Age of Reason.. However, of all the ways in which social media has rapidly disrupted the “ecology of discourse” which prevailed before, one factor may be key. Specifically, I refer to the speed with which on-line exchanges occur, and the probability that any public loss of face becomes global and permanent in scope, thanks to the pervasiveness and archiving factors of the internet. Wall of words “debate by inundation”, and the related “argument by citation tsunami” (both abettors of the false news phenomenon) are amplifying catalysts of these phenomena.
With persons who were born into the age of the internet, there may be an additional developmental component (although it is logical that all of us have felt some impact from this social conditioning variable). Specifically, all electronic entertainment venues are highly engaging of human attention, but (with the exception of games) actually tend to diminish the utilizaton of cognitive breadth and depth. This is because the media is, indeed the message (MCluhan as rehabilitated by Paul Levinson): in short, the traits of electronic media delivery dictates the audience’s role as passive recipient, rather than co-creative or investigatory/reasoning participant (as in reading, games, etc.) This sets epochally altered benchmarks for what many consider an “entertaining experience.” Increase demand for immediacy, pace of change/novelty, and sensual rather than cognitive gratification are all observable changes. This alters the evolution of patience, attention span, and the very definition of what is “fun” vs. what is “boring.” That pace in expected (and technically possible) speed of interaction also changes professional expectations: that we remain tied to our phones for emails, texts, new data in order to remain maximally responsive to superiors, clients, conditions.
Here’s how this connects to—by amplifying—the trend to rapid frustration with failed attempts to build group cohesion. To the extent that our media environment has impacted the evolution of our “discursive and cognitive temperament,” we are more likely to want fast resolutions, uncomplicated answers, and so, feel fully justified jettisoning any process which frustrates those expectations. This amplifies the speed and readiness with which individuals abandon true group cohesion and resort to the comfort (both reflexive and cognitive) of subgroup affiliation. It is simply “too much work” to achieve a broadly social consensus on anything.
As this state becomes the new norm, polarization increases rapidly, and right behind it, dehumanization of the Other (individuals on the other polarity). Lest the new subgroup(s) suffer the same fate, consensus within the subgroup becomes a matter of great urgency, leading to aggressive policing of opinions to ensure the group’s cohesion. This is, in my opinion, more a psychological reflex than it is the product of reason. Rattled by the inability to achieve broad societal consensus and the consequent loss of cultural cohesion, subgroup members instiinctively fear further levels of diffusion and what might follow: a disintegration of all sizable social units. The speed of internet interaction, which tends to push toward swift resolutons, intensifies the sense that challenges to cohesion must not merely be dealt with decisively, but swiftly. Laxity and indolent reactivity provide the temporal space for dissent to breed, and so genuine inquiry and soliciting of variant opinions perspectives tends to be squashed by “opinion police” and “doctrinal defenders.” The more core the value being subjected to reconsideration, the more rapid and profound this protective reflex. The fear behind this reflex need not be conscious: most social mammals evince mechanisms that preserve the group—often brutally—from excessive internal competition and discord. I suggest that this may be no different.
No 13 simple point rumination can hope to cover all the relevant trends, variables—and exceptions—to so broad a topic of consideration as the interplay between on-line media and varying levels of need/desire for group cohesion, and how all of that synergizes to create America’s (at least) widening cultural fracture lines. But I would end with this observation: if you read this looking for assertions a) to use against “them,” and/or b) that go against your own perceptions and so invalidate all of this out of hand—then you are not merely missing the point: you are exemplifying it.
I would maintain that we are all, to a larger or lesser degree, caught up in this. We are all social creatures and so value social cohesion. At the same time, we are all indivduals and so reject the idea that we are anyone’s or anything’s obedient drone. So we all exist somewhere between these two spectral extremes. That means we’re all caught up in this equation.
And we all live in a fast-media saturated environment (unless we have literally decided to separate ourselves from “the modern world”—which some have certainly done). So whatever our feelings about consensus and individualism, they are all exposed to the same media impacts that hasten and intensify many of our differences, both of temperament and opinion.
What use this is to anyone else, if any, I do not know nor will not recommend/suggest. But I can say what it has confirmed for me:
If the object of discourse is to reaffirm what we believe, without exposing it to the possibility of change, then conversation has been reduced to the level of chanting at the Nuremburg Rally or the Cultural Revolution. And societal consensus is no longer an objective: everything has simply become a struggle to prevail. I do believe that some extreme elements in our society (at every point of the political compass) have resolved themselves to this. And if they seem gleeful or prideful in doing so, beware: you are probably joining what is in actuality an arson society. Because most of us humans regret discord and wish we could achieve large-scale consensus. That some extremists revel in the discord is as close to an unmistakable warning sign as we social mammals get.
But the great majority of society does, I think, still want at least a reasonable improvement in the level of large-scale consensus. I think that is one of the variables driving the extreme dissatisfaction with both candidates in the last election. It was not just a repudiation of the political particulars of each, but an testy, troubled knee-jerk against the whole experience, at the prospect that there was no path to genuine reconsolidation as a more unified nation and culture. It was, in part, a product of the disgust and worry that many felt as they were finally confronted with choices which, whatever else they might do, would not heal this gaping social wound.
For me, the answer is in a) how we converse, and b) what is worth talking about. I’m not disinterested in policy (at all), but since we can’t even seem to agree on a “resolved” to our debates, then my instinct and conclusion is that, for me, the answer is to go back to first cases. To ask not “what do you believe?” (I’ll hear that soon enough) or “what are your reasons for that belief?” (I don’t have time to trade their litany for mine—and what they hell will that achieve anyway?) or even “I’m willing to try to understand you on your terms” (that’s better, but its a cognitive exercise that will tend to cycle back to “dueling values”). No, I want to know “how do you feel, day to day, living in America? What is the itch you wish you could scratch? And don’t bother to defend it with reasons: just tell me how you feel and what makes you feel that way?”
Because at the level of feelings, and just feelings, we tend not create walls of evidence and theories and contending policy: we are on eminently safe ground because it is openly, avowedly, unabashedly subjective. We don’t have to defend how we feel. And getting away from “defending” is a necessary first step.
Here’s why: knowing how the other person feels gives us the knowledge of what they want, and therefore allows us to reflect upon what set of circumstances would allow them to get that happiness without us losing our own. And that is the basis of compromise, and the pathway to a functional “resolved”—a consensus objective that we can all agree upon. And that’s not just or even primarily compassion at work: it’s smart self interest. If the other person’s happy, they’ve got no reason to make us unhappy.
Does this seem like a Montessori kindergarten approach to rehabilitating public discourse in America? Yeah, I guess it is, in some ways. I didn’t start out thinking that way, but I think its not an unreasonable conclusion. When you burn down as many of our prior standards of courtesy, civility, responsible presentation of evidence, self-restraint, and objective reflection (rather than subjective reflex), I think we may very well need to start back near the beginning. The erosion has hit our foundations, so in some places we may have to rebuild from the ground up.
Maybe I’m the only one who thinks it’s worth a shot. I don’t presume success. But I know this as sure as I wake up alive, each day:
If you don’t play, you can’t win.
And I’m not a quitter.