May 15, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

I don’t know about you, but two things have been particularly troubling to me of late.

First, there’s the ongoing uncertainty of when and how life returns to normal. Maybe the previous normal will never return and some new iteration of normality lies up ahead. Exactly what that looks like is anyone’s guess right now and living in this perpetual wait-and-see mode is taking its toll on most of us.

The second thing that troubles me—probably more than the first, actually—is the manner in which some people choose to reduce their uncertainty-discomfort. I’m referring specifically here to tribalism.

Inside a tribe, the discomfort of ambiguity is replaced by dogmatic certainty. Tribes offer explanations for that which seems unexplainable, making tribal members feel more secure. Tribes are us-versus-them virtual communities offering mutual validation and strength in numbers. Tribal members are convinced they’re right and everyone else is just stupid—or evil.

I could go on and on, but the main thing that troubles me about all this is the inevitable polarization that tribalism brings. “When the audience encourages and media outlets deliver polarization,” wrote Auburn University journalism professor John Carvalho, “it’s tougher to come up with solutions that will have to be compromises.”

Clear-headed and life-saving solutions are needed now more than ever, but we’re not likely to find them in the no man’s land between tribal enemies.

Three years ago, I wrote something about national polarization which seems more relevant now than when I first wrote it. Here’s an excerpt of that post:

***

First, increased polarization results, in part, from people yelling instead of talking.

There’s an old joke about an insecure preacher who doubted his pulpit persuasion abilities. One Sunday morning, he was delivering a message he had given once before when he spotted a note scribbled to himself in the margin of his sermon outline. It said, “Weak point, yell louder.”

From today’s noisy political pulpits, politicians and pundits seem to be yelling louder. The problem is that people tend to listen less when speakers scream more.  Furiously attempting to score points, political opponents fail to make their points because their listeners stop listening long before the points are made.

During Johnny Carson’s reign as king of late-night television, he reprised a number of recurring characters.  There was crotchety old Aunt Blabby who contentiously sparred with Ed McMahon. There was Art Fern, the sleazy host of “Tea Time Movie.” And, of course, his most memorable character was Carnac the Magnificent, the turban-wearing shyster who divined answers to questions before they were asked. And then . . . there was Floyd R. Turbo, American.

Floyd R. Turbo was a dim-witted bumpkin, a local yokel wearing one of those Elmer Fudd hunter’s caps who was given equal time to share his opinions on the town’s TV station. He was inarticulate, unsophisticated and, well, stupid. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Carson said, “He’s (Turbo) the epitome of the redneck ignoramus.”

Floyd once declared, “I’m against birth control. Think of it this way, if we have birth control, where will all the people come from to fight the population explosion?

There are a lot of Floyd R. Turbo’s out there today. They’re yelling their points but is anyone listening?

Second, yes, some people are listening. But the only ones listening are those who already agree.

Many people retreat into their groupthink enclaves where everyone thinks alike. They aggregate their social media feeds in such a way that everything they read confirms their previously-held conclusions.

You’ve probably heard that old story about the man who went to see his doctor.

What brings you in today?” the physician inquired.

I’m dead,” the patient answered self-assuredly.

I’m sorry, what? You’re clearly not dead. You’re sitting there upright, talking to me and breathing. Dead people can’t do such things.”

You’re wrong, doc, I’m dead. And nothing you say or do will convince me otherwise.”

Having now concluded his patient needed psychiatric services, the doctor thought, “I want to find out just how firmly entrenched this psychosis is.

He had his patient do jumping jacks which dead people can’t do. He took his temperature—98.6 degrees—which dead people don’t have. He had him blow up a balloon which dead people can’t do because they have no breath. But nothing dislodged the delusion, the patient shooting down every attempt the doctor made to prove his aliveness.

The physician had one more idea. “Would you agree that dead men don’t bleed?” “Well,” said the man, “I suppose not. They don’t bleed because the heart’s not pumping to push out the blood. Nope, dead men don’t bleed. They definitely don’t bleed.

Seizing the moment, the doctor swabbed the man’s finger with alcohol, pricked it, and it bled. “Now, what do you say?” the doctor asked, confident he’d finally cracked his patient’s delusional shell.

Well, I’ll be a son of a gun,” the man exclaimed. “What do you know about that? Dead men DO bleed.”

With disturbing regularity, the meaning of facts is being altered to fit people’s predetermined conclusions.

Third, tribe trumps truth.

For many people, allegiance to tribe takes precedence over allegiance to truth. If the facts at hand reflect negatively on the conclusions of their chosen tribe, they’ll conveniently overlook those facts. And then accuse the other tribe of factual indifference.

In the words of those famous philosophers, The Doobie Brothers: “What a fool believes he sees, no wise man has the power to reason away.

***

What I wrote three years ago seems to be currently relevant. Much is changing. But I suppose people’s tendency to yearn for tribal certainties will never change.

Stay safe. And just to be clear, dead men don’t bleed.

Till next week.

5 replies
  1. Adele
    Adele says:

    This is a very wise and relevant post.
    I can’t believe how many people expect answers when there are none.
    I get that they are anxious and can not sit with uncertainty.

    At some point however, I would think they’d feel foolish for expecting an answer.

    I suppose as usual my expectations are too high because instead it feeds on itself drawing similarly anxious people into their group.

    These people seem to actually believe they are pointing out the others‘ ignorance and not their own lack for even asking the question.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I share your concern about tribalism.
    But David Brooks’ editorial Thursday (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/14/opinion/coronavirus-us.html) opens up a perspective that tribalism may be declining (or muted) under the Covid-19 crisis. He distinguishes between online life and real life.
    “In the first place, online life is very political. People see the world through political categories, make points that will affirm their political identities.
    “Second, online life gives you the impression that America is bitterly divided. . . . Online is the place where partisans go to be partisan.
    “But in real life, America is less divided than it was before the pandemic. In a Washington Post/Ipsos survey, only 16 percent of Americans say their state isn’t opening up fast enough. Three-quarters say we need to keep slowing the disease even if it means keeping businesses closed. . . .
    “Americans in red and blue states are staying home at nearly exactly the same rates. There is little correlation between whether a state is red or blue and how it is doing in fighting the disease.
    ****** [emphasis mine]******* “. . . the share of Americans who feel they live in a divided society has fallen from 87 percent to 48 percent. Eighty-two percent now say we have more that unites us than divides us.
    “Third, people online have very certain and dogmatic opinions about what we should do now. . . . In real life, people are less dogmatic and more uncertain. . . . Online, humility is rare.”

    Now, I’m more of an Eyeore, but maybe this very direct, indismissible virus is not subject to spin & propaganda. Maybe it will force people to seek for truthful & caring leadership (e.g. Fauci, Dr. Amy Acton, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/05/opinion/coronavirus-ohio-amy-acton.html).

    Reply
    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      That’s a very hopeful perspective offered by Brooks and I hope his assessment is correct. Thanks for sharing that. But from a personal, relational perspective, it seems things are becoming more tribal as time goes, not less. Maybe that will change.

      Reply
  3. Chris
    Chris says:

    I enjoyed your Drama Observer email from last Friday. The tribalism you referenced (leading to “confirmation bias”) is so strong these days and continues to lead back to political camps along which so many are divided in these times. Something that has been on my mind concerns “the next foot to drop,” specially, “the cure” vs. “the cause.” For some time I have been asking, “where is the modeling with respect to the devastation that follows from the financial ramifications from responding to modeling that led to imposed, self-isolation?” I feel the amount of information available at our finger tips, some accurate/some not, also plays a role. I would be interested to hear your thoughts

    Reply
    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thanks for your comments. I’d like to respond but I’m not sure what you’re asking. If you could clarify your question, I’ll get back to you.

      Reply

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