It should come as no surprise, then, that this kind of extreme ideological self-segregation creates such a toxic environment for inter-group discourse. When people are only interested in hearing information that reinforces what they already believe, all there’s room for is intra-group discourse. Not only do ideological partisans not understand what the other side really stands for, they don’t even want to understand; they would rather signal to fellow members of their group how virtuous can be by publicly rejecting the enemy’s lies. As Alexander writes:
Imagine if you actually tried to do a really good job arguing with a Klansman. You read some KKK literature to try to find out where he’s coming from. Then you try to get into his mind, think like him, and maybe try to incrementally convince him that a few of his less tenable points were wrong to begin with.
It might look something like “You know how in 1967, Grand Wizard Jones declared that all minorities were stupid? Doesn’t that conflict with the existence of various minority doctors and lawyers and scientists? Do you think maybe that, even if some minorities are stupid, there might be others who are actually just as smart as white people?”
This wouldn’t signal to your friends that you were going above and beyond in your efforts to argue against the Klansman. It would signal that you were sympathetic, that you could see where he was coming from, that maybe you’re racist yourself.
On the other hand, the dumber and louder and more strident an argument you make, the more it signals how much you hate him and how little you respect him.
You’re probably well-acquainted with this if you spend a lot of time on social media sites or watch a lot of cable news shows. The standard approach nowadays is to spend as little time as possible addressing your opponent’s actual ideas and arguments, and as much time as possible expressing how much contempt you have for them – mocking them for every faux pas, denouncing them for every perceived misdeed (bonus points if you can use the word “sickening” or “disgusting”), and just generally spitting on them at every opportunity. There isn’t any actual conversation involved; it’s just competitive sneering. The more you can put their side down, the more it feels like you’re pushing your side up, as Yudkowsky puts it; by looking down on others, you’re elevating yourself. Balioc refers to this phenomenon as “ritualized performative hate,” a phrasing that I think sums it up pretty well.
It’s not just a signaling thing, though. As Alexander points out, there’s also a certain tactical rationale for being able to dismiss your opponents as “too wrong to even be worth talking to” (similar to what we were talking about before with trying to intentionally lump your opponents together with more radical extremists in order to marginalize them):
Social shaming […] isn’t an argument. It’s a demand for listeners to place someone outside the boundary of people who deserve to be heard; to classify them as so repugnant that arguing with them is only dignifying them. If it works, supporting one side of an argument imposes so much reputational cost that only a few weirdos dare to do it, it sinks outside the Overton Window, and the other side wins by default.
“I can’t believe it’s 2018 and we’re still letting transphobes on this forum.”
“Just another purple-haired SJW snowflake who thinks all disagreement is oppression.”
“Really, do conservatives have any consistent beliefs other than hating black people and wanting the poor to starve?”
“I see we’ve got a Silicon Valley techbro STEMlord autist here.”
Nobody expects this to convince anyone. That’s why I don’t like the term “ad hominem”, which implies that shamers are idiots who are too stupid to realize that calling someone names doesn’t refute their point. That’s not the problem. People who use this strategy know exactly what they’re doing and are often quite successful. The goal is not to convince their opponents, or even to hurt their opponent’s feelings, but to demonstrate social norms to bystanders. If you condescendingly advise people that ad hominem isn’t logically valid, you’re missing the point.
Sometimes the shaming works on a society-wide level. More often, it’s an attempt to claim a certain space, kind of like the intellectual equivalent of a gang sign. If the Jets can graffiti “FUCK THE SHARKS” on a certain bridge, but the Sharks can’t get away with graffiting “NO ACTUALLY FUCK THE JETS” on the same bridge, then almost by definition that bridge is in the Jets’ territory. This is part of the process that creates polarization and echo chambers. If you see an attempt at social shaming and feel triggered, that’s the second-best result from the perspective of the person who put it up. The best result is that you never went into that space at all. This isn’t just about keeping conservatives out of socialist spaces. It’s also about defining what kind of socialist the socialist space is for, and what kind of ideas good socialists are or aren’t allowed to hold.
I think easily 90% of online discussion is of this form right now, including some long and carefully-written thinkpieces with lots of citations. The point isn’t that it literally uses the word “fuck”, the point is that the active ingredient isn’t persuasiveness, it’s the ability to make some people feel like they’re suffering social costs for their opinion. Even really good arguments that are persuasive can be used this way if someone links them on Facebook with “This is why I keep saying Democrats are dumb” underneath it.
When this strategy is in full swing, as Alexander’s Klansman analogy illustrates, it can feel like a perfectly good substitute for – or even a superior alternative to – ever having to consider opposing ideas on their actual merits. It’s not particularly uncommon to encounter people who refuse to even think about opposing ideas for long enough to come up with legitimate rebuttals against them – because why would they need to, when they can just relentlessly shame and mock their opponents into submission instead? If you’re able to get your opponents’ views banned, or marginalize them to such an extent that no one is willing to entertain them anymore, then there’s no need to actually refute them – or so the thinking goes. You can just use condescending derision in place of argument. The odd result of this tactic, though, is that when you challenge its practitioners on their own ideas, they can’t even mount a reasonable defense of them, because they’ve never considered it necessary. Fredrik deBoer describes occasions when he’s encountered such behavior himself:
[These] people […] won’t attempt to answer [hard] questions [that challenge their view]. My experience suggests instead that they will roll their eyes, dismiss them, and act as though the answers to them are settled and obvious, even though different people within that group so often answer them in flatly contradictory ways. That’s because there’s no there there.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that when you see these kinds of attempts to marginalize opposing views, they don’t always take the form of someone angrily demanding that their enemies’ evil ideas be banned outright, or indignantly huffing and puffing with righteous fury until they’re red in the face. Most ideologues recognize that trying to delegitimize opposing ideas by painting them as evil is an uphill battle; so a lot of times their preferred approach will instead be to try to delegitimize them through methods like sarcasm and ridicule. They won’t try to convince you their opponents are evil; they’ll try to convince you they’re laughably stupid.
Alexander gives a few examples:
A Christian-turned-atheist once described an “apologetics” group at his old church. The pastor would bring in a simplified straw-man version of a common atheist argument, they’d take turns mocking it (“Oh my god, he said that monkeys can give birth to humans! That’s hilarious!”) and then they’d all have a good laugh together. Later, when they met an actual atheist who was trying to explain evolution to them, they wouldn’t sit and evaluate it dispassionately. They’d pattern-match back to the ridiculous argument they heard at church, and instead of listening they’d be thinking “Hahaha, atheists really are that hilariously stupid!”
Of course, it’s not only Christians who do that. I hear atheists repeat the old “I believe the Bible because God said it was true. We know He said it was true because it’s in the Bible. And I believe the Bible because God said it is true” line constantly and grin as if they’ve said something knee-slappingly funny. I’ve never in my entire life heard a Christian use this reasoning. I have heard Christians use the “truth-telling thing” argument sometimes (we should believe the Bible because the Bible is correct about many things that can be proven independently, this vouches for the veracity of the whole book, and therefore we should believe it even when it can’t be independently proven) many times. If you’re familiar enough with the atheist version, and uncharitable enough to Christians, you will pattern-match, miss the subtle difference, and be thinking “Hahaha, Christians really are as hilariously stupid as all my atheist friends say!”
Sometimes even the straw-man argument is unnecessary. All you need to do is get in a group and make the other side’s argument a figure of fun.
There are lots of good arguments against libertarianism. I have collected some of them into a very long document which remains the most popular thing I’ve ever written. But when I hear liberals discuss libertarianism, they very often head in the same direction. They make a silly face and say “Durned guv’mint needs to stay off my land!” And then all the other liberals who are with them laugh uproariously. And then when a real libertarian shows up and makes a real libertarian argument, a liberal will adopt his posture, try to mimic his tone of voice, and say “Durned guv’ment needs to stay off my land! Hahaha!” And all the other liberals will think “Hahaha, libertarians really are that stupid!”
These are only a few examples; nowadays, this kind of thing is everywhere. Part of the reason why it’s become so popular, I suppose, is the fact that satirical TV shows and wisecracking internet pundits have had so much success using it. Who wouldn’t want to emulate the way shows like The Daily Show and South Park so masterfully take down their targets, or the way the most popular Twitter personalities so brilliantly skewer theirs? But the fact that so many people follow this line of thinking means that everywhere you look now, the go-to method for handling people you disagree with is just to laugh at everything they say – as if the idea of someone disagreeing with your ideology is something you just find hilarious for some reason. It doesn’t matter whether what they’re saying is actually funny in any way, of course; if someone actually disagreed with you because they really were significantly less intelligent, you probably wouldn’t find that funny at all. Laughing at someone less intelligent than you and calling them stupid is the kind of thing a bully would do. But the point isn’t whether you actually think they’re stupid; your laughter and mockery is simply intended to portray them that way. Your goal is to signal that your opinions are so overwhelmingly obvious that anyone who disagrees must be an utter buffoon and therefore worthy of ridicule. If you can do that, then you don’t have to go to all the work of actually reviewing the evidence, explaining your justifications, and winning the argument on the merits. You just win by creating the false impression that the issue is already settled.
It’s a bit like how certain animals puff themselves up to make themselves look bigger and deter predators. They may not actually be able to win in a fight, but if they can make themselves look like they would, then that can save them from having to ever do any actual fighting in the first place. This is why you see this kind of tactic used even in contexts where the people using it don’t have any good basis whatsoever for feeling smugly superior – the fact that they don’t have a particularly compelling case is precisely why they need to try and win the argument through mockery and derision instead. If you ever get a chance to poke your head into a flat-earth forum or a conspiracy theorist website or some other ultra-fringe corner of the internet (and I highly recommend doing so just so you can see what I’m talking about for yourself), you’ll find that the commenters there always display just as much casual certainty in their beliefs – and just as much snide incredulity that anyone could be idiotic enough to believe otherwise – as any other opinionated community. The concept of ideological humility – of being open to the possibility that you might be wrong and desiring to change your beliefs if so – is passé in these kinds of echo chambers. Whether we’re talking about fringe conspiracy theories or mainstream religious, political, and scientific debates, the general attitude seems to be that the best way to communicate is through scoffing at the other side. And the people who are best at it – the most obnoxious trolls and the most spiteful pundits – are the ones who are the most celebrated by their own side.
This is another aspect of the whole public mockery mindset that’s worth highlighting. There’s this widespread trend nowadays, where any time some public figure makes a big show of treating those who disagree with them with sarcastic contempt, their fans don’t think any less of them for it – in fact, they act like it’s a great thing and cheer them on. Whether it’s a political provocateur like Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos, a regular celebrity like Nicki Minaj or Steve Jobs, or even a fictional character like Dr. House from House or Rick from Rick and Morty, the more unrepentantly dickish remarks these people make to those around them – the more straight-up mean they are – the more their fans applaud them for it. If you’ve even seen someone tweet something like “Oh my God they just don’t give a fuck, hahaha I love it,” you know what I mean. “Not giving a fuck,” “not caring who you upset” – these kinds of things aren’t considered character flaws, or signs that someone is just being an asshole; they’re considered positive features. And the same attitude applies to ideological discussions between regular people as well. It can sometimes be hard to initiate an earnest, respectful discussion with someone you disagree with, because for a lot of people, the only reason to want to debate someone you disagree with in the first place is that you get to enjoy beating and humiliating them. Civil discourse isn’t fun; sticking it to those pinheads on the other side is fun.
We all know what it’s like to get caught up in this kind of mentality. Let’s face it – if you’ve ever gotten into an argument over an issue you felt strongly about (especially online), you know how good it can feel to “own” your opponent and demonstrate your superiority over them. When you see some bozo on the internet arrogantly spouting nonsense and you decide to roll up your sleeves and put them in their place, it doesn’t feel like you’re picking on them or being belligerent (especially considering that your side is the persecuted underdog). When you nail them with that perfect comeback, rendering them unable to even sputter a feeble defense, and leaving onlookers in awe at how masterfully you’ve shut them down, it just feels delicious. (Never mind that this isn’t how these things typically go, of course – usually the other person just fires back a retort of their own and mentally congratulates themselves for owning you – but no matter.) You aren’t really concerned with trying to sit down with your opponent and patiently work through a difficult conversation in order to get down to the fundamental source of your disagreement and perhaps reach a common understanding; you’re just enjoying the satisfaction of taking down an idiot who deserves to be taken down.
Needless to say, though, when you’re so reckless in your disregard for other people that you stop “giving a fuck” whether you’re doing more harm than good, the unsurprising result is that, well, you tend to do more harm than good. Recent history is full of stories of people having their lives ruined by mobs of keyboard vigilantes who saw an opportunity to engage in a little recreational outrage and didn’t really care whether they might be getting something wrong or piling on more than the person deserved. From the perspective of each individual in one of these mobs, it probably didn’t feel like what they were doing was a big deal; they might not have even felt like they were part of a mob at all. They were just one person having a bit of fun on their social media account – just letting off a little steam towards something that annoyed them – so how could they be blamed for the cumulative effect of thousands of other people simultaneously doing the same thing? And in a sense, they’re right – each individual person’s contribution to the overall mob effect tends to be fairly minimal in most of these cases. If anyone who made some misstep in public only had to face the disapproval of one anonymous stranger, it probably wouldn’t be that big a deal. But of course, the nature of group signaling and tribalism ensure that these kinds of things are never limited to just one person; and the way that social media technology is designed to maximize sharing and reposting only amplifies these effects. The process of identifying someone for derision and then heaping scorn onto them is a group activity – they call it “dogpiling” for a reason – and the more people are involved, the more severe the effect is. No one has to feel guilty for their own individual contribution, because there are so many other people in the mob that it wouldn’t make any difference if they declined to participate. But you know how the old saying goes: No individual raindrop ever feels responsible for the flood.
I think this collective perception, this feeling of not having any real, tangible connection with the consequences of your beliefs, plays a big part in explaining the lack of seriousness with which so many people approach these ideological debates. There’s this sense that although the issues being discussed may be big ones, the stakes aren’t actually real for the people discussing them; it’s like they’re just gambling with play money. If you actually took one of these knee-jerk “don’t give a fuck” types and put them in a situation where the individual stakes for them really were especially high, then it might be a different story. If, for example, they woke up one morning to find that they’d been made President of the United States, and suddenly they were in charge of making all the big decisions that affected the lives of millions of people, it’s likely that (in most cases) they’d instantly become a lot less flippant and sloppy with their reasoning, and would adopt a much more cautious, circumspect approach, taking measures to consult with all the most respected experts and trying to figure out what the right answers really were before making any public statements or decisions. Or to take another hypothetical, if you took someone who loved getting into religious arguments and you put them in a situation where they were suddenly faced with a medical diagnosis that they only had one week left to live, odds are they’d instantly become a lot less glib and dismissive toward people whose belief in an afterlife (or lack thereof) differed from their own. But because people so seldom find themselves in situations where their personal stakes really are that high, most of them don’t mind indulging in a little bit of biased reasoning in order to preserve their beliefs and win their arguments. There’s just not enough of a real penalty for being wrong. As Brennan writes in his discussion of voting behavior:
In our day-to-day lives, we tend to get punished for being epistemically irrational. If you think looks are all that matters in a mate, you’ll have a string of bad relationships. A person who indulges the belief that buying penny stocks is key to financial success will lose money. The Christian Scientist who indulges the belief that pneumonia can be cured by prayer might watch their children die. And so on. So reality tends to discipline us into thinking more rationally about these things.
Unfortunately, in politics, our individual political influence is so low that we can afford to indulge biases and irrational political beliefs. It takes time and effort to overcome our biases. Yet most citizens don’t invest the effort to be rational about politics because rationality doesn’t pay.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Marxist economic theory is false. Imagine that electing a Marxist candidate would be an absolute disaster – it would destroy the economy, and lead to wide-spread death and suffering. But now suppose Mark believes Marxism on epistemically irrational grounds – he has no evidence for it, but it caters to his preexisting biases and dispositions. Suppose Mark slightly enjoys being Marxist; he values being Marxist at, say, five dollars. Mark would be willing to overcome his biases and change his mind, but only if being Marxist started to cost him more than five dollars. Now suppose that Mark gets an opportunity to vote for the disastrous Marxist candidate or a decent run-of-the-mill Democrat. While it’s a disaster for Mark if the Marxist wins, it’s not a disaster for him to vote Marxist. Since Mark’s vote counts for so little, the expected negative results of voting for the Marxist are infinitesimal, just as the expected value of voting Democrat is infinitesimal. Mark might as well continue to be and vote Marxist.
The problem, again, is that what goes for Mark goes for us all. Few of us have any incentive to process political information in a rational way.
Sometimes during experimental studies in the lab, [Jennifer] Jerit says, researchers have been able to fight against motivated reasoning by priming people to focus on accuracy in whatever task is at hand, but it’s unclear how to translate that to the real world, where people wear information like team jerseys. Especially because a lot of false political beliefs have to do with issues that don’t really affect people’s day-to-day lives.
“Most people have no reason to have a position on climate change aside from expression of their identity,” Kahan says. “Their personal behavior isn’t going to affect the risk that they face. They don’t matter enough as a voter to determine the outcome on policies or anything like this. These are just badges of membership in these groups, and that’s how most people process the information.”
The part about people wearing ideologies like team jerseys is especially relevant when it comes to the mockery-and-sarcasm crowd – because for a lot of them, the whole thing is really just a kind of game. They aren’t engaging in ideological debates in order to explore nuances, harmonize disparate ideas, and uncover truth – they’re not even particularly concerned with changing their opponents’ minds – they’re just doing it because arguing and shit-talking are fun. Mudslinging is cathartic. The way they handle these issues isn’t actually going to change anything one way or another anyway – it’s not like they’re the ones who are actually sitting in the Oval Office – so why not just cut loose and throw self-restraint to the wind?
In short, then, the problems caused by behaviors like motivated reasoning, tribalism, and signaling can come from two different directions. On the one hand, there are the warriors – people who are deeply passionate about the issues and take them very seriously, but who, as a result of this passion, end up taking themselves far too seriously as well. They adopt a crusader mentality, they refuse to cede an inch of ground to their enemies lest they lose face, and so forth. (These are the soldiers in Galef’s “soldier vs. scout” dichotomy.) On the other hand, there are the gleeful cynics – people who don’t take themselves as seriously, but who don’t take the issues particularly seriously either. To them, everything is just a joke or a game. (If we wanted to expand Galef’s theme to include a third category, we might call them the jesters or something.)
Both of these groups – the warriors and the cynics – are prone to things like condescension and dismissiveness toward their opponents’ views. They’re also prone to making a lot of noise and dominating the vast majority of public discourse. Lost amidst all the noise produced by these factions, though, are the people who take the issues seriously, but who don’t take themselves so seriously that they’re afraid to ever be wrong or lose face. It’s possible to recognize the importance of big ideas and actively engage with them, yet still retain a sense of humility in doing so. But unfortunately, that kind of mindset is too hard to find these days – and our ability to collectively progress toward truth suffers as a result.
The cynics may be right that one person’s individual behavior doesn’t usually affect very much on its own. But the thing is, attitudes and behaviors never remain confined to one person – they’re contagious. Every social norm, good or bad, starts with one person or group deciding to conduct themselves in a certain way, and spreads from there. And when more and more groups and individuals decide that they’d rather score superficial debate points by dunking on their opponents than turn those opponents into allies and make real progress on their stated goals, then the most tactful way to describe it is “counterproductive.”