Friday, October 24, 2014

The Internet & Lynch Mob Politics

© Charles D. Hayes

A great strength of the Internet is its ability to bring people together, and this, ironically is also a great weakness— a weakness that is dangerous if not commonly understood. By enabling identity-based ideology to trump geography, the Internet is the perfect device for the retribalization of the world. Bear with me as I explain.

In the 1960s, when I was a police officer in Texas, I was involved in a disturbance in the West Dallas Projects that escalated into a riot. The experience was unforgettable, and I think about it often, especially when I consider the notion of ideological amplification. This is the academic term for what happens when likeminded people come together politically and venture further in the ideological direction in which they were headed than they would have if left on their own.

Elsewhere I have written extensively about the subject of ideological amplification because I find the phenomenon not only fascinating but also critical to understanding politics and political polarization in particular. A riot is ideological amplification on steroids, on fast-forward and out-of-control, when the actions of one individual spur others to up the ante, until a simple gathering of people morphs into an emotional cyclone and the minds of the individuals involved are lost to the mob. The ensuing insanity trumps any chance of returning to reason as a means of calming people down and restoring order without force.

In the incident in Dallas, a small child was seriously injured when her parents were simply driving through the neighborhood and a bottle came through their car window. It hit their daughter in the head, blinding her.

My point here is to show that our tribal propensity to toughen our political stance as a means of bringing our group closer together presents a clear and present danger to society if we remain blind to this ubiquitous behavior and how easily it gets out of hand. The danger in ideology run amok is that groups of people become so emotionally aggressive in their limited world view that any and all information that doesn’t affirm and support their view is taken as a threat. Thus, the truth of the matter at hand is deemed much less important than whose side one is on. In time, groups become bonded and fully vested in sustaining and maintaining a state of ignorance while arrogance intensifies the discourse.

Just think about the intellectual price to be paid when any group of citizens assumes that they have a vested interest in protecting themselves from learning things that they would simply prefer not to know because they are fearful of enlarging their worldview. In such instances, identity becomes not only a barrier against learning, it also takes an aggressive posture, overly sensitive to taking exception to the acts of people whose beliefs about the world clash with theirs. On the one hand, the Internet is a powerful tool for learning, but it is equally powerful for leaning—political leaning and ethnocentric hostility.

Internet email is an incredible means of staying in touch and sharing information, yet it also represents a raging river of contempt with a constant stream of out-group ridicule intended to bring in-groups closer together. Social media offer the same opportunities with graphics. I think an appropriate new word for what happens in cyberspace might be twittercule as a means of expressing ridicule in 140 characters or less. 

Ridiculing the opposition may bring a group closer together, but, more often than not, it also represents a missed opportunity for broadening one’s knowledge and understanding in a manner that might foster common ground, offering a win to all concerned. What’s more likely, as already noted, is that shared derision will inspire increased levels of contempt, as little acts of disrespect lead to greater and greater acts of aggression that, if pressed far enough, will result in physical violence.     

One of the most destructive aspects of political polarization is the temptation to guess the motivation of one’s opposition and to make such outlandish statements as “liberals never met a tax they didn’t like,” or “conservatives never met a war they didn’t like,” etc. Both the Left and Right are guilty, and all of us cross the line occasionally. This kind of dogma is precisely the kind of information that in-groups share to further alienate out-groups.

There is, however, an avalanche of research data that makes it clear that most of us don’t have a clue as to the nature of our own motivation, let alone anyone else’s. If this revelation is news to you and if you’ve never made a serious attempt to gain insight using what has been learned in the past couple of decades about how our minds work, then it is highly likely that you are as easily manipulated politically as if you were a string-bound puppet.

If we don’t know why we do the things we do, then we don’t know what prompts us to do as we do, and thus we can’t guard against being manipulated by people who are better acquainted with the research than we are.

Recent studies in psychology and neuroscience challenge conventional wisdom about our understanding of the functioning of what we call character. We assume ourselves to be consistent with regard to how we will act in particular circumstances, based on the persons we believe ourselves to be. But extensive psychological research reveals that changing the context of the circumstances we find ourselves in can dramatically alter how we will respond and that our actions, while predictable, will not be consistent with the way we would have thought we would act.

If we’re given a number, for example, and then asked to offer an estimate for an unrelated problem requiring a number for an answer, we are very likely to be influenced by the number first given that had nothing to do with question at hand. If we’re reminded of our mortality and then asked a question requiring judgment, our response will likely be much harsher than it would have been if we had not been reminded of our own death.

The number of instances in which our response to circumstance can be altered by changing the context is mindboggling and equally disturbing because it leaves us open to manipulation to sales and political strategies that we are unaware of. 

Now for the hard part. What complicates and exacerbates our ability to achieve consensus is the natural difference in the degree to which liberals and conservatives are open to experience, in the way they relate to change and novelty, and in their relationship with and to authority.         

Research in moral psychology shows that conservatives are more tribalistic than liberals, less open to new experience and change, and more apt to revere and respect authority. Conservatives often think liberals are disrespectful to authority, while liberals view conservatives as being too submissive and too eager to conform. Some liberals are not only open to change, they actually prefer a kaleidoscopic reorganization of ideas because of the endorphin rush it provides, while conservatives find this baffling and unnerving. Even so, both liberal and conservative approaches to governance are absolutely necessary for the democratic process to work, because venturing too far in either direction is a recipe for disaster.  

In a nutshell, if we don’t appreciate the full spectrum of human disposition as being necessary to form an equitable and respectful society, then it is likely that, although the Internet and social media can be used as constructive tools, they will also be used just as often as weapons.

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