Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Thin Line of Civilization: More Evidence That the Demons Aren't Very Far from the Surface

In the spring of last year I wrote about a case at Dartmouth College in which a group of students disrupted a presentation to prospective students, in protest over incidents of homophobia, racism, and other similar social ills. 

The story became news not because of the protest itself (these things are not unheard of on college campuses), but because of the backlash that ensued and the college's decision to shut itself down for a day in response. Much of that backlash was viscously, even graphically, threatening, and closing the school seemed to me an appropriately strong response to an outbreak of barbarism online. You can read my original post here.

My conclusion in that piece was that, rather than dismissing the rash of anonymous online threats as "harmless" or "blowing off steam", they are indicative of something important. As much progress as we have made as a species towards something we collectively understand, more or less, as "civilization", we are still not as far from its opposite as we would like to think. Ideas and thoughts walk among us that are decidedly barbaric and which, when considered in the cool light of day, are contemptible. 

One of these is that it is appropriate to use violence against another person simply because you disagree with or dislike them. My conclusion: these "demons" are never very far from the surface, and they bear close watching - especially within our own thoughts, words, and actions.

Today a story came out in the news that illustrates, in a horribly tragic way, the point I was making:
Man Killed in Dispute Over Texting in Theater
Two people, the shooter and the victim, disagreed over the appropriate use of a cell phone for texting in a movie theater (according to some reports, during the previews and therefore before the "main" movie had started). This in itself is not surprising - with new technologies, there are plenty of disagreements over when it is appropriate to use them or not. Most people understand that making noise in a theater is inappropriate; sending texts is, at this point, something of a grey area and certainly something about which reasonable people could disagree.

The shooter also decided that he was sufficiently bothered that he should take steps to alter the victim's behavior - to get him to stop texting. This is somewhat less common, but also at least potentially within reason. The fact that the shooter had been a police officer and was probably used to giving direction to others may have contributed. Again, while this brings the conflict to light it's not outside the bounds of civilization.

At this point, however, things get troublesome. The shooter apparently felt it appropriate not only to try to change the other man's behavior but to escalate the conflict verbally when the victim refused to cooperate. Not getting his way, the shooter decided it was appropriate to get angry and to yell - in the middle of a public theater - at the victim for continuing to text after being told to stop. This is clearly problematic - among private citizens, if you start an angry yelling match every time someone does something that bothers you you're going to be hoarse a lot of the time. 

Once you escalate a conflict, emotion takes over - and that's where you give the demons room. Because it was at that point that the shooter - an ex-cop who presumably had scads of training in the safe and appropriate use of firearms - pulled out his gun and shot and killed the victim. What had started as a disagreement over the social rules of texting in public ended in death.

For all civilized folk, this is a drastic overreaction. Unless the victim had produced a lethal weapon of his own - and there's no indication that he had done so, or even that he was armed - the shooter's action was completely, totally, utterly barbaric. It was far beyond the pale of civilization. I assume the criminal justice system will do its work and, absent some other mitigating evidence, reach the same conclusion.

I've argued repeatedly before: ideas and thoughts are deadly and dangerous things. The presence of weapons - guns in particular - multiplies the danger a thousandfold. In this sense, both the NRA and its critics are right - the NRA because the gun alone is not enough to kill, and the critics because the gun lowers the threshold to, at least in some cases, unacceptably low levels. 

Having written extensively about guns in the past, that's not the point I want to emphasize here. The most important point, in my view, is this: here was a man, apparently living an otherwise normal life in society, harboring a set of ideas that led him in mere seconds to cross the line from civilization to barbarity. Whatever mixture of anger, frustration, and ideas about texting on cell phones had converged in his head were enough to push him over the edge to uncontrolled rage. And because of that mix of ideas, a woman is widowed and a three year old girl has lost her father.

I have seen it suggested (purely in speculation) that there must have been some mental illness involved. That may be true - time will certainly tell. But if so, that illness had apparently gone undetected long enough for the shooter to still be walking around, carrying a weapon and engaging in otherwise normal life. The first time he lashed out will certainly be his last, suggesting that this had not happened before.

The mental illness question aside, the lesson I draw is this: thoughts matter. Anger in particular is dangerous because it's contagious - spend enough time around angry people and you will become angry yourself. Watch enough anger-spewing on television and some of it is bound to rub off. This is why I so despise politicians who play on anger and fear to win votes - I don't care about the particulars of their position so much as I understand the extent to which they are poisoning the well of society. Usually, that poison doesn't lead to death - but how many yelling matches, how many fights, slaps, instances of domestic abuse, have come from that sewage?

This is the reality of our time (and of many times): that though we tout our civilization, we spend too much time polluting it, or partaking in the pollution. It is this reality that the NRA dare not confront - that perhaps we are simply not civilized enough for unfettered access to lethal weapons. If men were angels, James Madison wrote, no government would be necessary - but we clearly are not. The best we can do is to spend as much time as we can cultivating, as Steven Pinker puts it, the better angels of our nature.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Tribalism in Politics is Going Mainstream

I was going to write a blog post about the kerfuffle over the George Washington Bridge and traffic jams apparently caused as some kind of "political payback". What was kindly described as "rough-and-tumble New Jersey politics" by one news outlet is really just an example of one of my favorite themes: the Tribalism of American Politics. Political staffers willing to cause serious problems (even, by some accounts, risk lives) for other people simply to "get back at" someone on the "other team" isn't "rough-and-tumble": it's stupid and barbaric. The difference between them and the interahamwe of Rwanda is simply one of degree, not of kind. While the facts are still emerging, good for Governor Christie for at least firing a couple of them on the spot - though I wonder how damaged their careers really will be.

But just as I was getting ready to go through that scandal, I read this piece from Ezra Klein in the Washington Post:
The depressing psychological theory that explains Washington
At long last, somebody in the mainstream gets what I've been writing about for years. He even uses the term "tribalism"! Yes, the account he gives here is not especially nuanced, but hey, he's a journalist - the main points are right even if this stuff has been around for 20 years or more.

And he's right that it is depressing, at least from a certain point of view. One of our myths about ourselves and our politics is that we have somehow evolved above all of this kind of barbaric your-tribe-vs-my-tribe stuff. But in fact, we haven't. Those of us who study politics have known this for a long time. I tell my students, only half-joking: if I'm not depressing you, I'm not doing my job.

I find the tribal tendencies of politics only partly depressing, however. There is in fact an antidote - it just lies outside the political system itself. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have the answer - indeed, they don't WANT they answer because they profit from the system that tribalism builds. Asking either party to fix American politics is like asking Bernie Madoff to strengthen your finances: the result will be predictable, but it won't be what you want.

The answer, at least psychologically, is a rejection of tribal loyalty. I actually know a goodly number of people who have, without any superhuman effort, achieved this. They can evaluate the ideas and positions of both parties with equal weight, think through their logical costs and consequences, and decide which ones make sense (if any do). They don't think of this process as an explicit rejection of one party or of the system as a whole; they just think of it as thinking.

Those of us in higher education who like to talk about "teaching people how to think critically" - what we do is more important than we know. And I'm not at all convinced that we aren't reasonably good at it - as I've said before, I don't know how many non-tribalists there are in America. It may be that we're the largely silent majority. Sounds like a research project for some up-and-coming grad student.

In the meanwhile: reject the politics of tribe. Think. It's a habit that gets easier with practice.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tribalism and Polarized Politics: Things We Know

There's an excellent article in the Washington Post's "Monkey Cage" blog that is well worth reading for anybody interested in the polarized, tribal politics of the United States. You can find it here, and I encourage you to read it in full.

Here are a few choice pieces that are worth emphasizing:
Based on both qualitative and quantitative evidence, the roots of our current polarization go back almost 40 years to the mid-1970s.
The author points out that this rules out a lot of more modern theories as to why our politics is so dysfunctional - Clinton's impeachment, the 2000 presidential election, the election of Barack Obama. This has been a long time coming, folks, and you have to go back a ways to find the "good old days".

Then there's this doozy:
The evidence points to a major partisan asymmetry in polarization.  Despite the widespread belief that both parties have moved to the extremes, the movement of the Republican Party to the right accounts for most of the divergence between the two parties.
For those that struggle (I count myself among them at times) with the attempt to be "bi-partisan" in our laying of blame, this does not come as a shock. If the question is, why is American politics so viciously polarized, it's hard not to blame the Republican party. Over the past 40 years, Democrats haven't drifted appreciably to the left (a bit, on average, mostly by replacing white Southern Democrats with African-Americans and Latinos from other parts of the country). But the Republican party has run so far to the right that at this point Ronald Reagan would likely lose the primaries for not being conservative enough. Check out the graphs in the article above - this is measurable data, not simply where-you-sit opinion.

There's more:
Features of our electoral system such as political gerrymandering and partisan primaries are not likely to be important causes of polarization.  That the House and Senate have polarized in tandem suggests that partisan districting cannot be a primary cause and researchers have failed to find much of an incremental contribution. 
Gerrymandering of House seats is a popular target. I'm not a fan by any means - I think we should reduce gerrymandering as much as possible. But it turns out not to actually cause the problem of hyper partisanship.

This comes as no surprise:
The combination of high ideological stakes and intense competition for party control of the national government has all but eliminated the incentives for significant bipartisan cooperation on important national problems.  Consequently, polarization has reduced congressional capacity to govern. Of significant concern is the extent to which this reduction in legislative capacity has contributed to a shift in the constitutional balance as it enhanced opportunities for executive and judicial encroachments on legislative prerogatives.
There is an irony here, of course. The folks most likely (at least recently) to howl about excessive executive and judicial power have been conservatives. Yet the tribal politics they have created (see above) creates this problem. They have created their own Frankenstein monster, which of course just feeds back into more take-no-prisoners ideological viewpoints.

But here, in my view, is the most important point:
Voters are primarily changing their issue positions to match the partisanship rather than switching parties. 
This is the true essence of Tribalism. We want to think that American politics is in some sense rational - that voters have ideas about policy preferences, and that they choose their party affiliation based on which party comes closest to those preferences. In fact, the hyper-partisan environment of the last two generations means that things are quite the reverse: people choose a tribe (or are born into one), and then believe what the tribe tells them to believe. Evidence is that this process is largely pushed by political elites, who have every incentive to whip up their followers into a frenzy in order to win elections.

To some, these observations will confirm what they thought was true. Some will refuse to believe any of this, and will immediately cast aspersions on me, the Washington Post, the Monkey Cage, the author of the article, or President Obama for carrying out some vast left-wing conspiracy to brainwash Americans with this thing we call "science". And hopefully, some folks who have been struggling in between the tribes will take note and evaluate. I think there may be a lot more non-tribal Americans than our current measures capture - but that's just a hunch. For those folks, there is still hope. For those who have sold their souls to the tribal system - well, this is what you wanted. Welcome to Partisan Paradise!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Peek at the Inner World of Firearms Fanaticism

This article on this front page of this morning's New York Times caught my eye:
Banished for Questioning the Gospel of Guns
The story is of a firearms journalist who has been effectively banished from the gun-publishing world for writing a column in Guns & Ammo pointing out that all Constitutional rights are restricted under some circumstances. He wrote, classically, that free speech - the right that nearly everybody agrees on - doesn't mean you can yell "fire" in a crowded theater. For writing this he has been fired from Guns & Ammo and essentially declared persona non grata by the industry that publishes on firearms, after a 40+ year career in that business.

The story is an interesting one for what it reveals about the subculture which these publications cater to. Intermedia, the company that owns Guns & Ammo and a number of similar publications, is a private company and has every right to say who can or can't write for them. This is manifestly not a case of this fellow's First Amendment rights being violated. And I suppose the fact that hatred, vitriol, and death threats (yes, there's a deep irony there) poured into his email box after the column was published is not really that surprising.

But the worldview behind the hatred and the firing are interesting - and, from the point of view of a democratic republic built on pluralism, disturbing. The money quote on the Times article is from Richard Venola, a former Guns & Ammo editor:
"We are locked in a struggle with powerful forces in this country who will do anything to destroy the Second Amendment. The time for ceding some rational points is gone."
To borrow a phrase, them's fighin' words. More specifically, they are a declaration of a state of war - a belief that there exists some group (however nebulous) of fellow Americans with whom both compromise and coexistence are impossible. No dialogue, discussion, or illuminating debate can take place. It is simply a zero-sum power struggle. It's them or us. The fact that this is consistent with much of the "self-defense thinking" of this same subculture is no accident - this is a mentality built entirely around existential zero-sum thinking.

This is not the worldview of a citizen in a wealthy, prosperous republic. This is the worldview of a religious fanatic determined at all costs to impose their view upon the rest of the world. And it is, unfortunately, a self-sustaining system: when others point out (as the fired columnist did) that absolutism is not how our system is supposed to work, that is taken as opposition that must be eliminated and proof that they are under existential threat.

The fact that, if magazine readership is a guide, there may be some 400,000 such folks is disturbing. Likely only a fraction of those are true fanatics, the kind willing to threaten violence (or even commit it) in their cause. On the other hand, the fact that even at 400,000 strong they are a tiny minority of the population means that they will not succeed in their quest to dominate the policy landscape on firearms. So there is some comfort in that.

The folks the wrote the Constitution understood, better perhaps than we do, that there would always be fanatical factions willing to stop at nothing to impose their views on the rest of us. And while we may wish that we could all be rational citizens, there will always be those that refuse rationality in the name of dogma. At the least, we can seek to understand them and contain their influence so the rest of us can live in peace.