Part of the reason why things have recently turned so dramatically in this direction, I think, is that the way we consume and communicate information has itself changed so dramatically. The emergence of new forms of media – specifically cable news, the internet, and social media – has made it easier than ever for people’s opinions to become polarized; and as more and more people have started getting their information from these sources, many of them have become more and more convinced that there’s no longer any room for constructive debate, because they no longer believe that any of the issues they really care about are actually debatable at all. They’ve become convinced that their side is the only side, and that no legitimate alternative could even exist, much less be worth debating. And so the norms of public debate have unsurprisingly suffered as a result.
That isn’t to say that polarization never existed before cable news came along, of course, or that no one was ever insulated from differing opinions before the invention of the internet. In fact, in some ways, the opposite was true. If you were a typical American living before the age of modern media, most of the people you exchanged religious ideas with were probably just the people who went to the same church as you. Most of the political discussion you heard probably just came from sources like your dad ranting at the dinner table, or your local newspaper talking about the need to preserve the values of the local community. If you were a typical small-town factory worker, you might have only encountered a big-city liberal once in a blue moon; if you were a secular-minded urban professional, you might have only spent any extended time with evangelical conservatives at the occasional family reunion; and so on. In most cases, it would have been pretty standard for everyone you discussed politics or religion with to be more or less on the same page as you. And so most of the time you expressed an opinion on one of these topics, you probably wouldn’t have gotten much pushback on it; the people you were talking with probably would have just nodded along in agreement, and that would have been the end of it. Sure, you might have occasionally encountered somebody who really did disagree with you; but these occasions would have been rare enough that you wouldn’t really have taken them all that seriously and could just have blown them off as aberrations. The “kitchen table conversations” I mentioned a moment ago, even if they involved some disagreements, would have felt fairly innocuous and low-stakes. Maybe, on a purely logical level, you’d have understood from reading the newspapers that there were millions of strange people out there whose views really did differ dramatically from your own – “the communists” or “the religious fundamentalists” or what have you – but without ever really interacting with them on a consistent basis, “the other side” would have felt like more of an abstraction, a distant enemy that you could wage ideological warfare against without ever having to actually come face-to-face with them. For the most part, you’d have been relatively insulated in your ideological bubble.
Once the internet came along, then, you’d think that this dynamic might have improved. All of a sudden, you were taking all these different populations from all these different walks of life, and putting them together in the same space – so that instead of just hearing one perspective, they could now hear every worldview under the sun, from those they already agreed with to those that flatly contradicted everything they’d been brought up to believe. Optimistically, you’d think that the different sides might have embraced the chance to compare their ideas and learn from each other. And it’s true that some people, to their great credit, actually have made the most of the internet’s potential in this way; they’ve seized this opportunity to learn more about opposing views, and are accordingly gaining a more accurate understanding of the world, filling in blind spots that they didn’t even realize they had before, and growing in their ability to engage constructively with those who disagree with them. Unfortunately though, most people’s preferred method of using the internet (and other modern forms of media like cable news) has been to do the exact opposite. Instead of using these outlets to expose themselves to different perspectives, their natural inclination has been to gravitate toward sources of information that seem the most sensible to them in light of what they already believe – i.e. sources that affirm whatever ideas and biases they already hold. This tendency is perfectly understandable, of course; it seems entirely rational that people should naturally gravitate more toward the sources of information that make the most sense to them. But the ultimate effect of this behavior is that it tends to be self-reinforcing: The more someone consumes a particular source of information affirming their already-held beliefs, the more it cements their conviction that those beliefs are obviously true, and the more it convinces them that a source of information can only be considered reliable if it aligns with those beliefs – which naturally causes them to gravitate toward such biased sources even more strongly, which reinforces their beliefs even further, and so on in a perpetual positive feedback loop. The end result is that people get more deeply immersed in their ideological bubbles than ever – with the liberals customizing their information feeds to give them a constant stream of information aligned with the liberal worldview, the conservatives customizing their feeds to give them a constant stream of information aligned with the conservative worldview, the religious people giving themselves a uniformly religious feed, the nonreligious people giving themselves a uniformly nonreligious feed, and so on. Mind you, that’s not to say that they’re just totally insulating themselves and cutting themselves off from the other side – on the contrary, thanks to the constant flow of information they’re now receiving, they’re seeing more of the other side than ever – but they’re making it so they see only the negative parts. They’re consuming more stories and articles than ever before about how their side is fighting the good fight while the other side is maniacally standing in the way at every turn for no reason other than sheer stupidity and/or evil. And because their ideological opponents have also gotten so polarized in this way themselves, it makes it so that on the occasions when they do get a chance to directly interact with those opponents (by showing up in the same public social media thread or getting curious enough to venture into the other side’s bubble and check out some discussion threads there or whatever), they’ll typically only encounter the most aggressively irrational and tribalistic of them – since those are the ones who will tend to be the most vocal and the most eager to grandstand to their own base with over-the-top ideological stances and assertions of out-group contempt – providing themselves with still more confirmatory evidence that the other side must just be a bunch of lunatics. (The way Twitter is designed makes it especially conducive to these kinds of jarring collisions between otherwise-segregated subcultures; see Tanner Greer’s insightful post on the subject here.) The more confirmatory evidence they encounter, the more certain they become that they’re really onto something with their own beliefs. They have to be right, because just look at how insane and awful the people who disagree with them are.
And to be clear, these different groups (for the most part) aren’t just brainwashing themselves with phony propaganda and made-up anecdotes. If all the stories they were consuming were totally fabricated, that would make matters a good bit simpler – because it would be possible to falsify the stories, discredit the sources, and move on (at least in theory). But things are more complicated than that. The real problem is confirmation bias – the subconscious tendency we all have to only listen to information that supports our beliefs, while ignoring information that challenges it. As commenter bcglorf explains:
You can get an Alt-Right website that does nothing but post 100% accurate, verified true stories. You can even have them stick to the facts and stay away from any editorialising within their reporting. If they then proceed to exclusively and only report stories about violent crime by non-white or non-Christian minorities, they would have loads of content from across the country to publish every day.
Alexander elaborates with an analogy:
Given the recent discussion of media bias here, I wanted to bring up Alyssa Vance’s “Chinese robber fallacy”, which she describes as:
..where you use a generic problem to attack a specific person or group, even though other groups have the problem just as much (or even more so).
For example, if you don’t like Chinese people, you can find some story of a Chinese person robbing someone, and claim that means there’s a big social problem with Chinese people being robbers.
I originally didn’t find this too interesting. It sounds like the same idea as plain old stereotyping, something we think about often and are carefully warned to avoid.
But after re-reading the post, I think the argument is more complex. There are over a billion Chinese people. If even one in a thousand is a robber, you can provide one million examples of Chinese robbers to appease the doubters. Most people think of stereotyping as “Here’s one example I heard of where the out-group does something bad,” and then you correct it with “But we can’t generalize about an entire group just from one example!” It’s less obvious that you may be able to provide literally one million examples of your false stereotype and still have it be a false stereotype. If you spend twelve hours a day on the task and can describe one crime every ten seconds, you can spend four months doing nothing but providing examples of burglarous Chinese – and still have absolutely no point.
If we’re really concerned about media bias, we need to think about Chinese Robber Fallacy as one of the media’s strongest weapons. There are lots of people – 300 million in America alone. No matter what point the media wants to make, there will be hundreds of salient examples. No matter how low-probability their outcome of interest is, they will never have to stop covering it if they don’t want to.
In a country of 300 million people, every single day there is going to be an example of something hideously biased against every single group, and proponents of those groups have formed effective machines to publicize the most outrageous examples in order to “confirm” their claims of bravery. I had an interesting discussion on Rebecca Hamilton’s blog about the Stomp Jesus incident. You probably never heard of this, but in the conservative Christian community it was a huge deal; Google gives 20,500 results for the phrase “stomp Jesus” in quotation marks, including up-to-date coverage from a bunch of big conservative blogs, news outlets, and forums. I guarantee that the readers of those blogs and forums are constantly fed salient examples of conservatives being oppressed and persecuted. And I don’t mean “can’t put up ten commandments in school”, I mean armed gay rights activist breaks into Family Research Council headquarters and starts shooting people for opposing homosexuality. Imagine you hear a story in this genre almost every time you open your RSS feed.
(And now consider all the stories you hear every day about violence and harassment against your people in your RSS feed.)
And if there aren’t enough shooters, someone is saying something despicable on Twitter pretty much every minute. The genre of “we know the world is against us because of five cherry-picked quotes from Twitter” is alive, well, and shaping people’s perceptions. Here’s an atheist blog trawling Twitter for horrible comments blaming atheists for terrorism, and here’s an article on the tweets Brad Pitt’s mother got for writing an editorial supporting Romney (including such gems as “Brad Pitt’s mom wrote an anti-gay pro-Romney editorial. Kill the b––.”)
Then we get into more subtle forms of selection bias. Looking at [various articles around the internet], I am totally willing to believe newspapers are more likely to blaspheme Jesus than Mohammed, and also that newspapers are more likely to call a Muslim criminal a “terrorist” than they would a Christian criminal. Depending on your side, you can focus on one or the other of those statements and use it to prove the broader statement that “the media is biased against Christians/Muslims in favor of Muslims/Christians”. Or you can focus on one part of society in particular being against you – for leftists, the corporations; for rightists, the universities – and if you exaggerate their power and use them as a proxy for society then you can say society is against you. Or as a last resort you can focus on only one side of the divide between social and structural power.
It’s not so much a question of whether false information is being perpetuated (although to be sure, this is often a problem in its own right). The big issue here is that certain information is being selectively presented, in a way that supports one side’s narrative, while opposing information is conveniently overlooked or ignored. Audiences may think they’re getting both sides of a story – but what they’re actually seeing is the best of one side and the worst of the other. As the Chinese Robber Fallacy demonstrates, it’s all too easy for anyone who wants to push a particular narrative to comb through Twitter, pick out three or four inflammatory tweets from the dumbest members of their opposing tribe, and then claim that these isolated examples represent the other side in its entirety and therefore constitute proof of its evil. This can seem very compelling to anyone who wants to believe it, because after all, the tweets they’re reading are real. It simply doesn’t occur to them to consider the 99.9% of the story that they might not be seeing. Manson puts it this way:
When all information is freely available at the click of a mouse, our attention naturally nosedives into the sickest and most grotesque we can find. And the sickest and most grotesque similarly finds its way to the top of the nation’s consciousness, dominating our attention and the news cycle, dividing and recruiting us into its ever more polarized camps.
We become only exposed to the most extreme negative aspects of certain groups of people, giving us a skewed view of how other people in the world really think, act, and live. When we are exposed to police, we only see the worst 0.1% of police. When we are exposed to poor African Americans, we’re only exposed to the worst 0.1% of poor African Americans. When we’re exposed to Muslim immigrants, we only hear about the worst 0.1% of Muslim immigrants. When we are exposed to chauvinist, shitty white men, we’re only exposed to the worst 0.1%, and when we’re exposed to angry and entitled social justice warriors, we’re only exposed to the worst 0.1%.
As a result, it feels as though everyone is an angry fucking extremist and is full of hate and violence and the world is coming undone thread by thread, when the truth is that most of the population occupies a silent middle ground and is actually probably not in so much disagreement with one another.
We demonize each other. We judge groups of people by their weakest and most depraved members. And to protect ourselves from the overreaching judgments of others, we consolidate into our own clans and tribes, we take refuge in our own precious identity politics and we buy more and more into a worldview that is disconnected from cold data and hard facts.
Alex Schmidt adds a similar perspective in a podcast discussion with Pargin, Katie Goldin, and Jack O’Brien:
One of the scariest things to me […] is I feel like most people don’t realize that there are entire segments of our population that they only understand through “outrage stories” about something. There are a lot of people who I think only have a concept of feminists and feminism through angry stories about feminism, or about cherry-picked and misleading and overblown examples of someone practicing or promoting the idea of feminism. And then there are probably also people who have only come into contact with evangelical Christians that way, only come into contact with Muslims that way, and that’s incredibly dangerous that that’s how a lot of people understand a lot of other people who they live in the same country as.
If these types of stories are all you ever see, then you might easily wind up thinking that half the people in this country are card-carrying fascists, or card-carrying communists – or just that they’re completely unhinged and incapable of acting rationally. But if you do convince yourself of this, then your response will be accordingly disproportionate – making you an unwitting part of the problem yourself.
That’s one of the most ironic parts of all this; as Manson pointed out earlier, a lot of the outrage coming from each side is just people getting angry at how outraged the other side is. One side will get upset about something like holiday decorations (e.g. the left getting upset at culturally insensitive Halloween costumes, or the right getting upset at Starbucks cups that say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”), and then the other side will get upset about how upset the first side is getting over such a ridiculous issue, and the outrage from each side will just build on itself until everyone is at each other’s throats and they’re all using each other’s hostility as proof of how incapable the other side is of being rational. Even if both sides are originally coming from places of relative reasonableness, the mere perception that there’s so much unreasonableness between them can become a self-fulfilling prophecy by dominating the narrative and hindering their ability to have meaningful conversations about anything else. When everyone is so preoccupied with their “Can you believe what those nuts on the other side said this week?”-type stories, it becomes far more difficult to make any kind of ideological progress, because there’s no room left to talk about the actual ideas.
The podcast conversation continues (somewhat paraphrased for clarity):
GOLDIN: It’s like there’s this culture of outrage that’s based on perceived outrage culture; it’s like an outrage ouroboros. You’ll have the National Review having a list of “the most outrageous times colleges were PC,” but all of the examples are either really overblown, or when you look into them they’re not that bad. So it’s like a snake eating its own tail; it’s one side being outraged at what they think the other side is outraged about, and then it’s just kind of like a self-feeding cycle of anger.
PARGIN: Well, in my whole life, I think for every one time I’ve read an actual trigger warning, I’ve read probably 50,000 jokes and snide comments about how trigger warnings are everywhere. Like, it’s a purely fictional thing that in college, “Well there’s just trigger warnings everywhere, you can’t say anything, you can’t do anything.” They’ve just invented this. And it’s the same thing with, say, veganism. I’ve never in my life – I’ve known a lot of vegetarians, I know several vegans – I’ve never ever run into a pushy vegan in my life. But if you get into a crowd of people on the right talking about vegans, they all have this fantasy that, “Well if you’re ever at a party with a vegan, they’ll throw the meat in the trash and they’ll make everyone stop eating and they’ll just have all these demands.” But I’ve never met that person. I’ve never run into that person in my life. But within that bubble, it’s only outrage stories about some vegan protesting something, or a vegan going to a wedding and demanding to have a separate menu or whatever. It’s like, you build a fake, hateful caricature of the other side. But then conversely, it’s very hard to convince people on the left that they’ve built up that same thing for the right. Because the discussions about how to reform healthcare, for example, when you get down to the level of actual experts, the actual people having to write the policy, the actual people with financial stakes in it, the insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, all the players – there are these really hard choices that people are going to have to try to make, and there’s this crisis that the cost of health care is going up at something like five times the rate of inflation, and simultaneously the country is aging, so people need more and more care, and there’s not enough money to go around. If the costs keep going up, we can’t afford to give everybody the health care they need. On one level, there are people trying to figure out some terrible compromise, or what solution has to be made here. On the other level, there’s just this glib, snide attitude toward anyone who wants to change the rules, that’s just, “Well, you just want to see poor people die. You just want to see sick people die. You’re just heartless.” And it’s like, that’s a cartoon character. The idea that there’s an entire political party that doesn’t feel anything for sick people is absurd. But if you’ve carefully only filtered the most heartless comments, if you’ve carefully only filtered the shrillest of pundits – because I don’t doubt, somewhere right now Rush Limbaugh is probably saying, “Who cares if the poor people die, they’re not doing anything anyway” – if you use that as your representation of the debate that’s being had, you are uninformed. You’re never going to become clear on what the actual issue is, which is that costs are out of control, and no one has any idea of how to fix it in a way that will make everyone happy. But it’s so much easier to engage it as white versus black, good versus evil kind of thing: “We are pure and good because we want to give sick people medicine, and they’re pure black and evil because they want to deprive sick people of medicine.” You’re more ignorant than someone who’s illiterate, who can’t even read about the conflict in the first place, because not only are you uninformed, but you’ve created a cartoon version of the conflict in your mind that has nothing to do with reality.
O’BRIEN: Right, you’re uninformed and extremely confident in the idea that you are informed.
GOLDIN: Especially when you assume that regular people who are Republicans or Democrats want to hurt the majority of people. Like, someone can be wrong, but they’re not stupid or evil necessarily. You can still disagree with how to go about doing something, but the assumption that everyone who voted for Trump is just doing it to hurt liberals is not true at all.
Unfortunately, within this kind of ideological environment, it’s not hard to see how two people with mutually incompatible worldviews could each claim to be 100% certain not only that they’re right and their opponent is wrong, but also that their opponent really is stupid and/or evil as well. If all they ever see is an endless stream of stories showcasing the other side’s wickedness and stupidity, then how could they not come to the conclusion that the other side is utterly bankrupt of good ideas?
The truth is, nobody actually considers themselves to be living in an ideological bubble – they just take it for granted that they’re getting all the objective facts, and hey, it’s not their fault that all the objective facts say that their side is great and the other side is terrible. They might not even consider themselves to belong to a “side” or a “group” at all – their “side” is just “people who know what’s really going on in the world and behave like rational adults,” and the “other side” is just “people who don’t.” As far as they’re concerned, their view of reality is the only one that isn’t biased – and if other people can’t see that, well, that’s their problem.