Thankfully, most of us aren’t caught up in life-or-death fights for our survival. When we go to political rallies or get into arguments with strangers on the internet, we don’t have to worry about the possibility that our opponents will retaliate by sending soldiers to our houses to kick our doors down and threaten our lives. This is an incredibly good thing; compared to the billions of other people throughout human history who haven’t been so lucky (and some who still aren’t), we are part of a very privileged minority, and we should be grateful for the degree of peaceable coexistence we’re able to enjoy.
Unfortunately though, for a lot of people it’s almost disappointing not to be able to fight in the kind of high-stakes life-and-death struggles that their forebears went through. (Recall 8footpenguin’s reflections earlier about yearning to be part of something bigger than yourself.) There’s just something about that heroic good vs. evil narrative that’s impossible to shake; that deep inner need to think of yourself as someone who bravely fights for good is just too compelling. So given the lack of an actual flesh-and-blood conflict to fight in, a lot of people maintain their combative mentality anyway, and just “wage war” in a metaphorical sense, by making the “battle of ideas” their battleground. They may not be able to fight in a real war, but they can at least convince themselves that what they’re doing is the same thing. But the result of this attitude, as Alexander points out, is that in areas like US politics, “liberals and conservatives are seeming less and less like people who happen to have different policy prescriptions, and more like two different tribes engaged in an ethnic conflict quickly approaching Middle East level hostility.”
This is not a good sign, to say the least; and the patterns of behavior that have emerged around these antagonisms – the sharp escalation in “outrage culture,” people wanting to forcibly silence opposing ideas rather than constructively engage with them, and so forth – can feel distinctly worrying. Of course, it’s not that they’re completely without historical precedent. These impulses have always been present in people’s attitudes at some level; and in fact, recent surveys suggest that modern attitudes toward banning opposing ideas are basically in line, percentage-wise, with those of previous generations. It’s true that a troublingly large proportion of people nowadays are in favor of prohibiting speech they don’t like – but this is equally true among different age groups, and has been just as true in previous eras as it is today, if not more so.
So for instance, as frightening as a lot of right-wing movements have recently become in their aggression toward racial and religious minorities, feminists, people they perceive as socialists, and so on, it’d be a major mistake to act like these ugly impulses were some completely new phenomenon that we’d never had to deal with before. As recently as a few decades ago, you could have gone to prison (or worse) if you dared to advocate for socialism. Voting while female or non-white was literally illegal. Even just openly existing as a gay person meant that you were running a serious risk to your life. If nothing else, you could count on being met with an absolute firestorm of backlash – ostracism, public shaming, threats of violence, etc. – if you tried to advocate for the “wrong” ideas, like not demonstrating enough nationalism or not believing in the Christian religion strongly enough. As true as these things often are today, unfortunately, they’re just extensions of patterns that have always existed.
Similarly, if you’re someone who thinks that the excesses of “political correctness” from the modern left are completely unprecedented, you might also recall the ideological landscape during, say, the 60s and 70s – or for that matter, the late 80s and early 90s. Here’s Chuck Klosterman (writing shortly before the modern-day culture wars blew up so dramatically), describing that latter era:
I’m reticent to use the term “political correctness.” I realize it drives certain people really, really crazy. (My wife is one of these people.) However, there isn’t a better term to connote the primary linguistic issue in America from (roughly) 1986 to 1995. Today, the phrase “political correctness” is mostly used as a quaint distraction. No one takes it too seriously. It feels like something that only matters to Charles Krauthammer. But in 1990, that argument was real. If you cared about ideas, you had to deal with it. At the debate’s core, a meaningful philosophical question was exposed and dissected: If someone is personally offended by a specific act, does that alone qualify the act as collectively offensive? It’s a problem that’s essentially unsolvable. But what made things so insane in 1990 was the degree to which people worried about how this question would change everything about society. Up until the mid-eighties, there was always a shared assumption that the Right controlled the currency of outrage; part of what made conservatives “conservative” was their discomfort with profanity and indecency and Elvis Presley’s hips. But then – somewhat swiftly, and somehow academically – it felt as if the Left was suddenly dictating what was acceptable to be infuriated over (and always for ideological motives, which is why the modifier “politically” felt essential). This created a lot of low-level anxiety whenever people argued in public. Every casual conversation suddenly had the potential to get someone fired. It was a great era for white people hoping to feel less racist by accusing other white people of being very, very racist. A piece of art could be classified as sexist simply because it ignored the concept of sexism. Any intended message mattered less than the received message, and every received message could be interpreted in whatever way the receiver wanted. So this became a problem for everybody. It was painlessly oppressive, and the backlash was stupid and adversarial.
And here are still more examples, this time given by Pinker in his discussion of the tribulations suffered by behavioral scientists in previous decades. Again, what these cases illustrate is that the phenomenon of activists and academics getting overly riled up about ideas they find offensive isn’t something that’s just emerged recently; it’s been around for a long time:
The topic of innate differences among people has [always produced considerable controversy]. But some scholars [in the 1960s and 70s] were incensed by the seemingly warm-and-fuzzy claim that people have innate commonalities. In the late 1960s the psychologist Paul Ekman discovered that smiles, frowns, sneers, grimaces, and other facial expressions were displayed and understood worldwide, even among foraging peoples with no prior contact with the West. These findings, he argued, vindicated two claims that Darwin had made in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. One was that humans had been endowed with emotional expressions by the process of evolution; the other, radical in Darwin’s time, was that all races had recently diverged from a common ancestor. Despite these uplifting messages, Margaret Mead called Ekman’s research “outrageous,” “appalling,” and “a disgrace” – and these were some of the milder responses. At the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Alan Lomax Jr. rose from the audience shouting that Ekman should not be allowed to speak because his ideas were fascist. On another occasion an African American activist accused him of racism for claiming that black facial expressions were no different from white ones. (Sometimes you can’t win.) And it was not just claims about innate faculties in the human species that drew the radicals’ ire, but claims about innate faculties in any species. When the neuroscientist Torsten Wiesel published his historic work with David Hubel showing that the visual system of cats is largely complete at birth, another neuroscientist angrily called him a fascist and vowed to prove him wrong.
Some of these [kinds of] protests were signs of the times and faded with the decline of radical chic. But the reaction to [certain] books on evolution continued for decades and became part of the intellectual mainstream.
[Foremost among these books] was E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, published in 1975. Sociobiology synthesized a vast literature on animal behavior using new ideas on natural selection from George Williams, William Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, and Robert Trivers. It reviewed principles on the evolution of communication, altruism, aggression, sex, and parenting, and applied them to the major taxa of social animals such as insects, fishes, and birds. The twenty-seventh chapter did the same for Homo sapiens, treating our species like another branch of the animal kingdom. It included a review of the literature on universals and variation among societies, a discussion of language and its effects on culture, and the hypothesis that some universals (including the moral sense) may come from a human nature shaped by natural selection. Wilson expressed the hope that this idea might connect biology to the social sciences and philosophy, a forerunner of the argument in his later book Consilience.
Following a favorable review in the New York Review of Books by the distinguished biologist C. H. Waddington, the “Sociobiology Study Group” (including two of Wilson’s colleagues, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and the geneticist Richard Lewontin) published a widely circulated philippic called “Against ‘Sociobiology.’” After lumping Wilson with proponents of eugenics, Social Darwinism, and [Arthur] Jensen’s hypothesis of innate racial differences in intelligence, the signatories wrote:
The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race, or sex…. These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.
…What Wilson’s book illustrates to us is the enormous difficulty in separating out not only the effects of environment (e.g., cultural transmission) but also the personal and social class prejudices of the researcher. Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.
They also accused Wilson of discussing “the salutary advantages of genocide” and of making “institutions such as slavery… seem natural in human societies because of their ‘universal’ existence in the biological kingdom.” In case the connection wasn’t clear enough, one of the signatories wrote elsewhere that “in the last analysis it was sociobiological scholarship … that provided the conceptual framework by which eugenic theory was transformed into genocidal practice” in Nazi Germany.
One can certainly find things to criticize in the final chapter of Sociobiology. We now know that some of Wilson’s universals are inaccurate or too coarsely stated, and his claim that moral reasoning will someday be superseded by evolutionary biology is surely wrong. But the criticisms in “Against ‘Sociobiology’” were demonstrably false. Wilson was called a “determinist,” someone who believes that human societies conform to a rigid genetic formula. But this is what he had written:
The first and most easily verifiable diagnostic trait [about human societies] is statistical in nature. The parameters of social organization … vary far more among human populations than among those of any other primate species…. Why are human societies this flexible?
Similarly, Wilson was accused of believing that people are locked into castes determined by their race, class, sex, and individual genome. But in fact he had written that “there is little evidence of any hereditary solidification of status” and that “human populations are not very different from one another genetically.” Moreover:
Human societies have effloresced to levels of extreme complexity because their members have the intelligence and flexibility to play roles of virtually any degree of specification, and to switch them as the occasion demands. Modern man is an actor of many parts who may well be stretched to his limit by the constantly shifting demands of the environment.
As for the inevitability of aggression – another dangerous idea he was accused of holding – what Wilson had written was that in the course of human evolution “aggressiveness was constrained and the old forms of primate dominance replaced by complex social skills.” The accusation that Wilson (a lifelong liberal Democrat) was led by personal prejudice to defend racism, sexism, inequality, slavery, and genocide was especially unfair – and irresponsible, because Wilson became a target of vilification and harassment by people who read the manifesto but not the book.
At Harvard there were leaflets and teach-ins, a protester with a bullhorn calling for Wilson’s dismissal, and invasions of his classroom by slogan-shouting students. When he spoke at other universities, posters called him the “Right-Wing Prophet of Patriarchy” and urged people to bring noisemakers to his lectures. Wilson was about to speak at a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science when a group of people carrying placards (one with a swastika) rushed onto the stage chanting, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” One protester grabbed the microphone and harangued the audience while another doused Wilson with a pitcher of water.
As the notoriety of Sociobiology grew in the ensuing years, Hamilton and Trivers, who had thought up many of the ideas, also became targets of picketers, as did the anthropologists Irven DeVore and Lionel Tiger when they tried to teach the ideas. The insinuation that Trivers was a tool of racism and right-wing oppression was particularly galling because Trivers was himself a political radical, a supporter of the Black Panthers, and a scholarly collaborator of Huey Newton’s. Trivers had argued that sociobiology is, if anything, a force for political progress. It is rooted in the insight that organisms did not evolve to benefit their family, group, or species, because the individuals making up those groups have genetic conflicts of interest with one another and would be selected to defend those interests. This immediately subverts the comfortable belief that those in power rule for the good of all, and it throws a spotlight on hidden actors in the social world, such as females and the younger generation. Also, by finding an evolutionary basis for altruism, sociobiology shows that a sense of justice has a deep foundation in people’s minds and need not run against our organic nature. And by showing that self-deception is likely to evolve (because the best liar is the one who believes his own lies), sociobiology encourages self-scrutiny and helps undermine hypocrisy and corruption.
Trivers later wrote of the attacks on sociobiology, “Although some of the attackers were prominent biologists, the attack seemed intellectually feeble and lazy. Gross errors in logic were permitted as long as they appeared to give some tactical advantage in the political struggle…. Because we were hirelings of the dominant interests, said these fellow hirelings of the same interests, we were their mouthpieces, employed to deepen the [deceptions] with which the ruling elite retained their unjust advantage. Although it follows from evolutionary reasoning that individuals will tend to argue in ways that are ultimately (sometimes unconsciously) self-serving, it seemed a priori unlikely that evil should reside so completely in one set of hirelings and virtue in the other.”
Behavioral science is not for sissies. Researchers may wake up to discover that they are despised public figures because of some area they have chosen to explore or some datum they have stumbled upon. Findings on certain topics – daycare, sexual behavior, childhood memories, the treatment of substance abuse – may bring on vilification, harassment, intervention by politicians, and physical assault. Even a topic as innocuous as left-handedness turns out to be booby-trapped. In 1991 the psychologists Stanley Coren and Diane Halpern published statistics in a medical journal showing that lefties on average had more prenatal and perinatal complications, are victims of more accidents, and die younger than righties. They were soon showered with abuse – including the threat of a lawsuit, numerous death threats, and a ban on the topic in a scholarly journal – from enraged lefthanders and their advocates.
So again, in historical terms, this whole trend of outrage-fueled hyper-reactivity isn’t anything new. Is it worse this time around, though? It often feels that way from the inside – although if you remember the 1992 Los Angeles riots, for instance, I’m sure you could make a good case that the modern-day version is actually a hell of a lot tamer than its earlier incarnations. Certainly it’s not nearly as bad as the most egregious examples from the more distant past, like the Reign of Terror or the Cultural Revolution or what have you (not that that’s saying much.)
Still, regardless of how bad it may be on an absolute scale at the moment, it also matters which direction it’s going – whether it’s getting better or worse – and how sharply. And it does seem like the toxicity has started trending in a dramatically worse direction in recent years, as well as getting more widespread, with increasing numbers of people getting sucked into it due to the rising influence of the internet, cable news, and social media. And I think that’s a factor that really is new and unprecedented, and makes the modern-day situation different from previous ones in certain significant ways.
For one thing – and I touched on this briefly earlier but want to mention it again here – these new forms of media tend to amplify everything to a much more extreme scale, in a way that wasn’t really possible in previous generations. Events that might otherwise have gone relatively unnoticed can blow up and turn into massive national fiascoes as everybody circulates and shares them. (Just think about how much pandemonium there’d be in response to a YouTube clip of those anti-Wilson demonstrations if they happened today, for instance.) In that same vein, whereas in previous generations these events might only have received commentary from a handful of career journalists and commentators – most of whom followed codes of conduct requiring them to remain professional in their coverage (i.e. to uphold norms of accuracy and objectivity and equanimity) – now everyone has a platform to weigh in and give their opinion, and those professional standards have accordingly been crowded out in favor of unconstrained hot takes, overreactions, and exaggerations from anyone and everyone willing to fire them off. It’s one thing to have a situation in which the news is mostly covered by level-headed journalists, with only a few scattered demagogues like Rush Limbaugh chiming in from the periphery; but it’s another thing altogether to have a situation in which not only do those demagogues have their own platforms, but every single one of their millions of listeners does as well. It shouldn’t exactly be surprising that adding millions of angry Rush Limbaugh fans to the conversation might make the general tone more toxic overall (especially if you’re adding millions of equally angry Limbaugh-hating liberals to the conversation at the same time). Of course, for the most part, it’s a good thing that more people can now participate – I’m inclined to think that despite everything, the internet and social media have tended to make the smartest and most understanding people even smarter and more understanding – but the flip side of this is that there’s now also a lot more misinformation and flat-out nastiness drowning out the high-quality content for those who aren’t discerning enough to filter it out.
And this gets at another important point about the internet that’s fairly new and unique: The typical constraints on page space and airtime that exist in traditional media are essentially nonexistent online, which means that conversations can basically be dominated by whoever’s willing to put in the time to dominate them. If there’s a certain subset of people with a particular personality type – i.e. those “keyboard warrior” types who spend all their free time online and are unusually forceful and persistent in asserting their opinions at every possible opportunity because they lack the standard social skills and etiquette to exercise any kind of restraint – then those are the people who will ultimately make up the majority of every conversation. (Case in point: NPR recently removed the comment sections from their website after realizing that the majority of comments were being posted by a small handful of users posting hundreds of times a month.) Zach Weinersmith’s comic strip below does a good job illustrating how these kinds of hyper-vocal extremists can dominate the discourse simply by being more aggressive than everyone else in making themselves heard:
Of course, as distressing as it is that the extremists have taken over the public conversation so dramatically in recent years, this comic strip also serves as a valuable reminder that just because the discourse has gotten so much more unhinged lately doesn’t necessarily mean that the population as a whole has become irredeemably extreme; it may just be that we’re hearing more from the extremists now than we were before. This is something that’s probably worth bearing in mind if you find yourself getting too worked up about how insane the online world seems to have gotten nowadays.
And while we’re on the subject, another factor to keep in mind when evaluating the quality of modern online discourse is that a lot of times, the people dominating a particular conversation might be, say, 14 years old – but because the anonymity of the internet hides their identity, nobody ever actually realizes that they’re 14 years old. It can be easy to forget about demographics when you’re arguing with anonymous strangers online, after all; but young people are disproportionately represented on the internet and social media, so as more and more of our discourse shifts to those platforms, you should expect that more and more of the people you’re debating with will belong to that younger demographic (as well as other demographics that have historically been excluded from the mainstream conversation but can now chime in more freely, like people with severe mental illnesses). If you find yourself getting frustrated with someone who’s acting childish and immature toward you in an online debate, it’s probably worth considering that they may, in fact, still be a literal child (or someone with an equivalent level of mental/emotional development). Likewise for a lot of the college students whose radical activism has been making headlines and rubbing a lot of people the wrong way lately; it’s true that many of them appear to lack emotional maturity, but that’s because they’re still maturing – most of them are just a year or two removed from still legally being children. This isn’t to say that you should discount their opinions just because of their age, of course; after all, one of the most important political activists of our time, Malala Yousafzai, was 15 when her activism made her a global icon – and history is full of other young people leading the charge on major social changes (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group of college students that helped shape the civil rights movement, is another good example). But it’s at least something to bear in mind when trying to understand where some of these more extreme views are coming from. For a lot of these young people, they’re at a point in their lives where they’re just realizing for the first time how important certain social justice issues are, so there’s more of a feeling of urgency towards these issues than you find in most adults. The more they learn about these issues, the more eager they are to speak out on them – and to be sure, their eagerness can often be a crucial catalyst for producing real social change, particularly in cases when the older generations are too set in their ways to take the initiative themselves. But sometimes, due to a lack of experience, young activists can come out swinging a bit too zealously, and it’s only after a period of trial and error that they adjust down to a more reasonable level of outrage and theatricality. This is a learning process that almost everybody has to go through at some point (Who didn’t have some kind of radical phase during their youth that they later outgrew?), but in the meantime you have to be willing to allow for a bit more extremism and heterodoxy than usual when it comes to student politics; that kind of thing just comes with the territory of being young and full of passion. You don’t have to agree with it, of course, but you should understand where it’s coming from and expect to see more of it in contexts like college campuses and on certain websites with disproportionately young user bases (Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, etc.). On that same note, when you’re browsing these sites, you should bear in mind that because a lot of the people you’re interacting with are probably a lot younger than you’re imagining them, it’s worth resisting the urge to take your own social cues from whatever immature behavior they might display. Thinking that everybody you’re interacting with is a grown adult can mislead you into thinking that certain childish behaviors are standard and expected – that this must just be how everyone interacts now – when in fact they’re only a product of young people acting their age. I think this is an underappreciated part of the reason why online discourse tends to have such an adolescent tone; the tone is largely being set by adolescents. And older people are unwittingly following their lead – so by thinking that this adolescent tone is the new normal, it becomes the new normal. But this isn’t how it has to be.
Speaking of which, you should also bear in mind that a lot of the more inflammatory stuff you see online is just teenagers trolling for fun – i.e. being deliberately provocative just to see if they can get a rise out of people. In contrast to the subset of young people who take their causes very seriously and will often get incensed when they don’t think others are taking them seriously enough, there’s another subset of young people (sort of an exaggerated version of the “jesters” mentioned earlier) who pride themselves on never getting offended by anything, and who frankly find the whole concept of getting “offended” ridiculous – so for them, there’s nothing more hilarious than to trigger a hysterical pearl-clutching hissy fit by whichever group they find the most overreactive (whether that be conservative religious “fundies” getting offended by casual profanity/nudity/etc. or liberal “social justice warriors” getting offended by casual racism/sexism/homophobia/etc.). To some extent, this kind of boundary-pushing is pretty standard behavior for young people; I’m sure you can remember various occasions as a teenager when you and your friends competed to see who could tell the most offensive jokes or pull off the most outrageous pranks. And as we’ve seen, there are obviously also plenty of adults who never really outgrow that adolescent mentality. Having said that though, again, you shouldn’t completely discount these people just because they’re acting immaturely; even if they’re making a mockery of a topic you take seriously, that doesn’t mean that you should jump down their throats or try to destroy them. I suspect there are a surprisingly large number of people online who are currently hardcore ideologues, but who originally started off just as casual trolls and only came to genuinely identify with the things they were saying after repeated clashes with the other side. You can imagine, for instance, some young kid going online and posting blatantly fascist opinions in an attempt to wind people up; at first it’s all in good fun – “Haha, I can’t believe how seriously people are taking this stuff; I sure am making them look ridiculous with all these hysterical reactions they’re having.” But gradually, as he receives more and more extreme backlash against his trolling, his amusement starts to turn into genuine incredulity at how vindictive his dupes can be – “Jesus, these people really are crazy; I really can’t believe how seriously they’re taking this. I’m just making jokes, for God’s sake; why are being they so oversensitive?” As he finds himself getting drawn into actual debates with some of them, he starts pushing back against them for real, not necessarily because he actually believes what he’s saying (yet), but more just out of sheer annoyance with how legitimately unreasonable and ridiculous they’re being. The more of these exchanges he has, though, the more serious he gets – until eventually, he finds himself looking up fascist talking points not because he’s just flippantly trying to troll people anymore, but because he’s actually trying to win arguments. And the people he starts looking to for support – the only people who understand what he’s experiencing – are other fascists, who radicalize him even further until ultimately he ends up fully committed to the cause.
Alexander describes how this can feel for the person experiencing it:
[If you’re criticizing popular opinions, you’ll find that] the good, righteous people [you’re arguing against] are not used to being argued against. [Even if you’re just joking around to begin with,] they round you off to a Bad, Unrighteous Person. It is unpleasant. And when this has happened enough, you start viewing the Good Righteous People as your enemies. You start feeling like even when they haven’t said anything too objectionable yet, it’s just a matter of time. You live in fear of waking up every day, seeing a smug self-congratulatory image macro about how stupid everyone who opposes [their ideology] is on your Facebook feed, and having the whole thing start over again.
And once you view the Good Righteous People as your enemies, you start viewing the Bad Unrighteous people as a sort of friend. Bad, unrighteous friends. But at least they sometimes stand up for you when no one else will.
And then you start to become Bad and Unrighteous yourself.
On a less extreme scale, Andrew Marantz describes how a similar experience turned one activist, Cassandra Fairbanks, from a classic left-winger into a full-fledged Trump diehard:
For the first half of 2016, she supported Bernie Sanders; when he dropped out, she was conflicted. “I couldn’t possibly support Hillary, I knew that,” she said. She considered Jill Stein, but concluded that Stein didn’t have enough charisma to win. (“No one wants to elect their weird yoga teacher who smells like cat urine.”) So she turned to Trump. “I was still working for these sites that were saying terrible things about him, but when I listened for myself I thought, His message makes sense.” She appreciated Trump’s opposition to political correctness, and his willingness, after the Orlando shootings, to focus on terrorism instead of on gun control. “I started saying a few pro-Trump things on Twitter, and people absolutely lost their shit,” she said. “I got called a literal Nazi so many times, I eventually went, Fuck it, I’ll just go all in.” She now writes for Sputnik, a news site funded by the Russian government.
The point is, even if your opponents act in a way that’s completely out of line, that doesn’t mean that your response should be to sink to that level yourself; someone who’s not actually that much of an enemy might very well become one if you push them far enough. Even if it’s true that a large proportion of the people taking part in these culture wars are just immature teenagers and internet trolls whose extremism should be taken with a grain of salt, it still doesn’t mean that the effects of this toxic discourse should just be ignored, or that all the ugliness should be allowed to persist, or that you should indulge in it yourself. Trying to do better in this one area may be the most important thing we can do to enable ourselves to deal with every other important issue more effectively, so it’s undoubtedly worth making the effort. Complaining about how terribly everyone is acting is easy – but as the old saying goes, “it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
So now let’s shift gears, and talk about how to improve the situation.