It has become common knowledge and accepted wisdom that we are living in an era of polarized stupid. As a social scientist and educator, I am aghast at what passes for smarts in some corners of the electorate — conservatives primarily, but we do have SOME knee-jerk fuck-the-man burn-it-down types on the left. The questions are these:
- Can these polarized opposites ever be brought back together again so that we can govern ourselves from the democratic heart, which is compromise?
- Why the fuck is black-and-white polarized political stupidity so easy to fucking do?
I read extensively, and I am struck how no one in the mainstream media is talking about in-groups and out-groups and groupthink. While the Social Identity Theory is quite old, see Tajfel (1979), it is not only a very insightful way of looking at our contemporary politics, it has the added benefit of allowing us to predict the near political future… and it is fucking bleak. But, there are techniques and recommendations that can help us not only talk, but bridge the divide.
Knowledge is one factor that defines an in-group. Knowledge is social in that we do not arrive at the things we know individually. We find our knowledge socially, i.e. interacting with others and through media. While we may reflect upon and think about topics, we often end up (a) discussing our ideas with others and transforming them by mixing our ideas with those of others (a good reason to write something in the comments); and (b) accepting the ideas of authorities as being true (please, don’t accept my ideas as being true, though; use the comments to dissent and offer counter-arguments).
When we agree with the ideas of others, we begin to form in-groups with them. For example, think of abortion. Calm down, please! We can think of abortion without becoming sputtering hate-filled rage monsters, can’t we? Okay, maybe not. But, those who identify as being anti-choice form one distinct in-group while those who support a woman’s right to choose form another distinct in-group. There is very little ground left for ambivalent feelings toward abortion.
Funnily enough, those who agree on abortion also agree on a slew of other political and social topics helping us form in-groups with those people. The notion that in-groups produce feelings of solidarity, community, and exclusivity means that our identity is often caught up in our in-group identification. This was one of Tajfel’s major points about in-groups, our self-esteem is linked to the esteem of the in-group.
When our identity is wrapped up with political views, we get to a place where we cannot reject a political view without first rejecting ourselves. WTF? You don’t say! That’s right. If you see your identity as liberal or conservative, then being asked to reject a political view means altering one of your core identities. This makes changing political beliefs very very difficult.
Notice how this in-group/out-group thing lends itself to racism, misogyny, and oppression! Gee, imagine that. Wonder why I think it describes our politics so well? Because conservatives feel that the liberal point-of-view is so bankrupt as to not be worthy of compromise! And, compromise is the heart of democracy! Christ, when you have a party that is willing to shut the government down and default on our debt because they won’t compromise — Ted Cruz the punch punch punchiest face in all the wold the face that mothers love to punch the most declared that victory was easy, refuse to compromise! Okay, off the soapbox, back to the post.
Tajfel also stated that one way the in-group enhances its esteem and, therefore, the esteem of its members was by belittling the out-group. The in-group relies on stereotypes to conceptualize the out-group members. Stereotypes in and of themselves are not necessarily bad. They are a convenient intellectual shorthand to help alleviate our limited ability to reason. They become bad when we cannot or will not see individuals but will only see our stereotype of the group we perceive that person of belonging to.
Liberals are as guilty of this as conservatives. Viewing conservatives as being redneck, hillbilly, hayseeds is stereotyping. Seeing liberals as godless heathens bent on destroying America and persecuting Christians is also stereotyping. They sharpen our differences making the two groups more distinct. They enhance our self-esteem. And they make compromise increasingly difficult.
fMRI & the Default Mode Network
A study recently published in the scientific journal, Nature, concerning the intractableness of political thought suggested that political beliefs form a core part of our identity. Neuroscientists at USC‘s Brain and Creativity Institute and Department of Psychology — what do scientists know anyway? My opinion is as good as their informed points-of-view, right? — took 40 some odd self-professed hardcore liberals and stuck them in an fMRI machine so they could image their brains as they thought about different things like Einstein was way great and Selling aborted baby parts is good.
What they found was that when liberals were contemplating Einstein the bored parts of the brain were activated. But, when they were contemplating selling aborted baby parts (you know that is made up, right? (a) No one, not even Planned Parenthood, sold aborted baby parts for fun and profit, and (b) the researchers didn’t actually ask about it, but they did ask about abortion) a part of the brain known as the default mode network lit up.
The authors defined the default mode network (DMN) as a set of interconnected structures associated with self-representation and disengagement from the external world. Or as grad student and blogger extraordinaire, Adrian, over at Mood Tornado, put it: DMN is one of many resting state networks in the brain. That is, it’s a network of connected brain areas that is active while you are at rest — or not doing anything. The DMN is basically your running internal dialogue — your thoughts, specifically thoughts related to yourself. The DMN performs self-referential processing as well, helping you evaluate things around you in terms of yourself.
The DMN has been linked to our self-concept and when deeply contemplating deep thoughts like Jack Handy did.
The researchers then offered up challenges to these beliefs and asked the participants to rate how strongly they believed the original statement after reading some factually accurate challenges and some factually inaccurate challenges. For the banal statements, the beliefs of the participants softened after reading challenges, like Einstein was really Hitler. But, for the political statements, the strength of the beliefs either remained the same or strengthened after reading statements like, Selling aborted baby parts is the devil.
This led the heathen researchers out in evil California to conclude that all conservatives is stupid and should be put to… no, no, no. It led them to conclude that when considering important political beliefs people engaged the same part of the brain they engaged when representing themselves to themselves or their self-concept, how they saw themselves. Asking them to reconsider their strongly-held core political beliefs was to ask them to image an alternate universe of themselves like Evil Spock only less cool.
In addition to the DMN, when strongly-held core political beliefs were challenged two parts of the brain were activated: the amygdala and the insular cortex. The amygdala is responsible for producing emotions, especially negative emotions like fear and anger. The insular cortex is responsible for monitoring bodily responses to see if the body is getting excited when faced with specific stimuli and then maybe the brain should get excited, too. These are parts of the brain that become active when we feel threatened or anxious suggesting that when strongly-held core political beliefs are challenged, we feel threatened and enter into fight or flight type behavior.
This study, while limited to a small number of participants (40) and only one type of participant (liberal), suggests that there is good reason why we don’t change our political minds and when confronted with contradictory evidence, factual or otherwise, we resist it.
This study also suggests that once in-group and out-group thinking gets started, we can kiss all hopes of changing each other’s minds good-bye!
F’r fuck’s sake! That sure is depressing. We should all commit suicide right now, right? Because there is no hope of changing any of this shit, right? Well, no. Let’s all take a look at what can be done about changing people’s mind when they believe fucked up stupid shit like your favorite drunk uncle does.
Reaching Your Drunk Uncle
Start with the idea that the arguments you find convincing probably won’t be convincing to your favorite drunk uncle. There is a reason why being exposed to another hysterical hyperventilating claim that Clinton slept through the Benghazi attack after telling the military to stand down and convincing the Islamic terrorists to murder her friend, Ambassador Stevens, won’t convince you that she is worse than the Pussy Grabber. And that the Pussy Grabber having confessed to committing sexual assault and lying 30 or more times a day and defrauding small sub-contractors and hiring undocumented workers and conning people out of their money with Trump U ain’t going to convince them that the Pussy Grabber ain’t going to make America great, but is going to line the Pussy Grabber’s pockets with as much lucre as he can pump out of the presidency.
You know your drunk uncle’s arguments and he knows yours. Y’all just don’t weight them the same. But, we all think that if the other side just understood our argument better, they would agree with us, so we tend to repeat ourselves ad infinitum and get absolutely no where but red faced, spittle flecked, and burst aneurysms.
Try appealing to the argument that makes sense to them, Yes Clinton is the evil undead that we all dread, but she doesn’t believe that Ted Cruz’s dry-drunk daddy helped assassinate JFK and go off on Twitter rants because someone said his goddamn hands were small. In fact, this argument was working until James Comey turned it on its head with his notification of the Republican committee chairs of the FBI’s desire to check out more Clinton emails on Huma Abedin’s computer which mysteriously got leaked to the press.
Then try using your favorite drunk uncle’s moral arguments. So, instead of insisting that the Pussy Grabber is a philandering conman, try appealing to some of the core conservative values, loyalty, moral purity, and respect for authority. While, this technique isn’t likely to result in a full change of heart, it has been shown to soften stances on issues enough to open some space to consider the your argument.
Another technique that has been scientifically demonstrated as effective is deep canvassing. Essentially it is a discussion initiated by using open-ended questions and listening — I know, crazy, right? — to the answers and asking follow-up questions. You don’t start with, Esplain to me, esay, how you could vote for the Pussy Grabber? You begin by asking a more innocuous less inflammatory less threatening question. What qualities do you think make for a good president? Or What are some reasons that people want to serve in elected office? And, in the course of the discussion — you are not trying to tell him your side of the story — but to listen to his and encourage him to explain it more fully and deeply. Then you begin to ease into Do you think a confessed rapist could make a good president?
In deep canvassing your are trying to get your drunk uncle to actively process the information so that he comes to the conclusion himself and not because your are screaming statistics and other facts at him.
Deep canvassing dovetails with the last technique: storytelling. We evolved to be storytellers, so we learn best when listening to and telling stories. Stories engage us at an emotional level. They develop relationship through reciprocal revelations of our deeper more hidden selves. So, instead of screaming, The Pussy Grabber is a fascist in the pocket of Putin! at your drunk uncle, begin by telling him about your friend at school and slip into it that this friend is a Dreamer and fears deportation under the Pussy Grabber.
By now we’ve all had experiences with relatives, friends, Facebookers, and other trolling dipshits about the political divide de jour. Tell us about it in the comments. If you’ve had some success convincing someone from the other side or want to try out some of these techniques and report back, please use the comments for that as well.