March 22, 2019

Dear Drama Observers,

I just started a newly-released book that I can’t wait to finish. It’s called Love Your Enemies and was written by Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and soon-to-be Harvard faculty member. The Amazon promotional page for his book, in part, says the following:

To get ahead today, you have to be a jerk, right?

Divisive politicians. Screaming heads on television. Angry campus activists. Twitter trolls. Today in America, there is an “outrage industrial complex” that prospers by setting American against American.

Meanwhile, one in six Americans have stopped talking to close friends and family members over politics. Millions are organizing their social lives and curating their news and information to avoid hearing viewpoints differing from their own. Ideological polarization is at higher levels than at any time since the Civil War.

America has developed a “culture of contempt”—a habit of seeing people who disagree with us not as merely incorrect or misguided, but as worthless. Maybe you dislike it—more than nine out of ten Americans say they are tired of how divided we have become as a country. But hey, either you play along, or you’ll be left behind, right?

Wrong.

As most of you know, I’ve been banging my spoon on my highchair about this for years. That is, we can disagree with each other but still get along. Demonizing the “other side” comes naturally. Getting along despite differences takes work.

With that in mind, here’s something I posted almost two years ago that seems even more relevant now than it did when I wrote it:

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For the last two weeks—and longer than that, actually—we’ve watched social media opponents duke it out while fist-pumping followers egg them on. One side delivers a zinger which triggers the other side’s retaliatory zinger. Like teenage girls at a Beatles concert, the followers on both sides squeal with glee every time a punch is landed.

This all leaves me feeling a little queasy—similar to the sense one gets after a Jerry Springer episode, a dog fight, or a professional wrestling match in which brawlers hit each other over the heads with folding chairs. But these days, that’s what passes for “debates.” Reasoned arguments have been replaced with snarky invective. Opponents seem less interested in persuasion and more interested in point-scoring.

But is that effective? Have you ever changed your view after being personally attacked? Do insults sent your way soften your heart or stiffen your resolve? Have you ever reconsidered your position after an opponent calls you a derogatory name? If your opponent trashes you, are you then prone to say, “Maybe I should rethink my ideas?”

When demonizing an opponent becomes more important than persuading an opponent, people naturally retreat into groupthink echo chambers where their views are safely affirmed. Choirs are being preached to but outsiders aren’t coming to join. Positions are evaluated, not for their logical consistency, but for their crowd-arousing potential. “The quality of an idea,” wrote journalist Bret Stephens this week, “could be tested not by its ability to withstand scrutiny from experts, but by the willingness of people to swallow it.”

We’ve discussed this phenomenon before in previous Drama Reviews—the concept of tribalism. Tribalism means that allegiance to my “tribe” takes precedence over allegiance to truth. If my tribe believes it, it must be true. Tribal individuals are less prone to critically evaluate ideas and are more prone to uphold the ideas of the tribe. Want to know what to believe? Here’s the tribal guide—it’s all right there.

Moreover, the ideas of the “other” tribe are not worthy of consideration. Those ideas are dangerous so don’t waste your time engaging with them. And their members are dangerous. They are not to be persuaded, but defeated.

For our purposes here, I’m going to refer to normally-wired people as “thinking people.” That is, they can think for themselves. They’re not inordinately dependent on others to do their thinking for them. They’re not particularly threatened by opposing ideas because they’re secure in their beliefs. They know what they believe and why they believe it.

But then there are “tribal people” who forfeit independent thought for the groupthink of the tribe. They’re threatened by opposing ideas because the ideas they hold are second-hand to themselves. They know what they believe but can’t quite defend why they believe it.

Here are some differences between thinking people and tribal people.

Thinking people are able to:

  • Argue persuasively
  • Contend without being contentious
  • Make judgments without being judgmental
  • Oppose without being obnoxious

Tribal people, on the other hand:

  • Preach to their choirs
  • Conflate contentiousness and righteousness
  • Regard judgmentalism as virtuous
  • Take pride in being obnoxious

Let’s make an application to our current political climate. A thinking liberal can get along with a thinking conservative because neither is personally threatened by opposing ideas. But a tribal liberal and a tribal conservative can never get along because each sees the other as an existential threat.

Till next week.

2 replies
  1. Dottie Freckman, LCSW
    Dottie Freckman, LCSW says:

    I agree with your comments re. respectful disagreement. It is not the current president’s ideas that make me irate, even though I disagree, it is his behavior. You know the laundry list of dispicable behavior of the so-called leader of the free world. When is righteous indignation appropriate if not now?

    Reply

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