One of the lingering lines in The Coddling of the American Mind is this bedouin proverb: I against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world. We group by nature.
The word of the year in 2018 may well be: Divided. At least that feels like the most likely candidate. The third untruth in their series of unwise maxims is the untruth of us versus them: life is a battle between good people and evil people. This might be the most easily observable of their three untruths.
The authors make an observation about the shift in group dynamics from identities based on common interests and history to groups based solely on shared animosity. In fact, I might go a step further and argue that the majority of social and political alliances today (at least those getting any kind of national attention) are based on co-belligerence as the strongest factor. Groups are much more likely to band together over shared hatred of a common enemy.
This is a lesson as old as civilization. It is better to unite people around a common ideal, but it is easier to unite them around a common hatred. Look at the last hundred years. There’s a lot of shared hatred going around.
Here’s something interesting about our culture: our discourse is marked by an increasing commitment to political ideology and a decreasing commitment to critical thinking. People are highly committed to positions they know very little about. For all the partisanship and the widespread access to information, there hasn’t been a noticeable rise in thoughtful consideration, nothing close to measured restraint.
If you transported one of the founding fathers to today, I wonder what they would think about social media. I wouldn’t blame them for thinking it would be a social good at first glance. Thomas Jefferson amassed one of the largest libraries in North America. We have a hundred times more books available for free on kindle. But what they might notice is an increase in information hasn’t let to an increase in informed dialogue.
Unfortunately, studies show that being exposed to alternative viewpoints on social media actually further entrenches people in the beliefs they already held. When scientists paid people to follow bots that tweeted articles and opinions from the opposite political party, the data showed that the groups became more polarized, not less.
You’ve probably heard of the group experiments they mention in the book, where people are divided into two groups, overestimators and underestimators, after they guess how many dots are on a page. The groups don’t have anything to do with how they actually guessed. People immediately felt a shared identity with the people in their group. When asked to evaluate the others in the room, people consistently gave higher scores to the people in their own group - even though they had no attachment to these people. Psychologists call this the minimal group paradigm. Even in arbitrary circumstances, people feel the need to identify with a group, and once they do, they develop a fierce loyalty.
How groups work
There’s another trend at work. Groups reward those who reinforce the boundaries of their group. When someone rises up to denounce people outside the group, people in the group rise up to praise that person. We instinctually like people who defend our group identity, the ones who stand on the edge and say the things we would probably never say, but let us know that we’re safely within the confines of the group. There you have American politics in a nutshell.
I’m driven to find Scriptural examples to try to explain this phenomenon, and there’s one I keep coming back to. The Bible is the single greatest source for understanding human nature. In Luke 18, Jesus tells a story of two men who come up to the temple to pray. The first man, a Pharisee, prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The second man knelt down and beat his chest, “Have mercy on me God, a sinner.”
To say that this parable is only about pride is overly simplistic. The Pharisees’ pride is condemnable, but so is his sense of identity. Notice how seamlessly he draws the line between himself and everyone else. Of course, he and God are on one side and everybody else is on the other. But Jesus points out that the Pharisee is not using God’s criteria to look at the world, he’s using his own.
Plummer says, “He glances at God, but focuses on himself,” but it’s even worse than that. He glances at God, then focuses on what everybody else thinks about him. One of the most striking features of this parable is the difference in self-consciousness between the two men. One man is gripped by what others think about him, the other is gripped by what God thinks about him. Never underestimate the role self-consciousness plays in our society, where the fear of being publicly shamed on social media lurks around every corner.
But what does Taylor Swift Think?
If you ever considered yourself a Taylor Swift fan, you’re learning this lesson by the gallon this week. (I for one haven’t liked Taylor since Fearless.) Look what you made her do. After years of avoiding politics, she finally broke the silence and endorsed a completely uncontroversial summary of the Democratic platform and urged her independently minded followers to do the same. Why get political? Probably two reasons; first, the political and the social have irreversibly blended. Taylor Swift isn’t interested in national economic policy - if anything, her capitalistic railroading of Apple several years ago indicates she might be at home in the Republican party - she’s interested in being on the right side of several key social issues, which have become the extent to which a lot of people engage in politics.
Reihan Salam pointed out a second reason in what might be the best read of the week, “Taylor Swift Succumbs to Competitive Wokeness.” Taylor Swift stands to gain bookoo social bucks by pledging herself to woke progressivism. “From a purely commercial perspective, Swift would have been foolish not to have made her political gesture. Otherwise, she would have left herself open to the charge that she does not detest the GOP and all that it represents, which would have posed an unacceptable risk to her standing in the eyes of those she cares to impress.” I agree with Reihan.
Self-conscious pressure drives everyone to make sure the important members of their group know where they stand. This is exactly what the Pharisees did. It’s not that their positions were always wrong. Consider Leon Morris’s comment on this passage, “What the Pharisee said about himself was true. His trouble was not that he was not far enough along the road, but that he was on the wrong road altogether.” The problem isn’t that he believed it was wrong to be an extortioner, an adulterer, or a sinner, the problem was he believed he was nothing like them. And he wanted the world to know where he stood. Things haven’t changed all that much. This is self-conscious Pharisaism: the pressure to make your position clear to your group, whether you believe it or not. You're getting a glimpse of a new religious caste. Get wokeness, and with all thy getting, get grandstanding.
On the other hand, the tax collector is so humble. He beats his chest and cries out to God, confessing his sin. I don’t want to turn this into a social parable and take away from what’s really going on. The message of this story is that those who humble themselves before God will be justified and exalted, and everyone else will not. As Christians, this is our most important duty. This is what ties the story together. If everyone cared more about what God thought than what everyone else around them thought, a lot of our problems would go away.
When it does come to politics, we should feel the pressure to re-examine our line-drawing. America isn’t the elite versus the deplorables or the American patriots versus the socialists. Until we own up to the fact that social media and political maneuvering have cast the country into a starker contrast than really exists, we won’t be able to see that cooperation is still possible.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t genuine disagreement, there is. But there’s more to other people than what you disagree with them about. From a practical standpoint, we need to remember how to think and dialogue again. I’m not advocating that we pretend like we don’t have differences, we need more disagreement and discussion, not less. But do everyone else a favor and stick with the best version of the argument - the steel man. Stop arguing against the poles.
A better explanation
Let’s go back to the social media experiments for a minute. If being exposed to opposing ideas led to further division, it might be that people weren’t basing their opinions on understanding in the first place but on their perceived group identification. This cuts both ways. Several months ago I watched a reporter read Trump lines to Democrats and attribute them to Obama and vice versa. They loved them. It’s more important to know who said it than what was actually said. This is the way you score points in the group.
Every now and then in these moments, I think back to a story I read years ago in The New Yorker about Megan Phelps-Roper, known to most as the girl who left Westboro Baptist Church. As the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the church’s well-known founder, it’s not surprising that she grew up to embrace the radical teachings of the church. She tweeted things about gays and military servicemen that gained her notoriety and protested the town’s public school on her lunch break.
An unexpected Twitter conversation served as the first tug on a thread that ran right through the heart of every commitment she held. David Abitbol was writing for a popular Jewish site and reached out to Phelps-Roper. When she was confronted with the humanity of this other person, she started to soften. She started encountering people outside of her group and empathizing with them, making it harder and harder to say the things she was accustomed to, and finally she began to try to understand the way her new friends thought about the world. She bought the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Judaism.
Soon she developed relationships with many others, talking to them on Twitter and Words with Friends. She eventually left the church. It’s funny, when you read the article, you get the sense that the author thinks Megan Phelps-Roper left the church because other people convinced her that the church was evil, but that’s not what they did. They showed her there were other good people in the world, and only after she realized that did she start to think about what she believed. She didn’t initially change her mind about the doctrine she’d believed her entire life, but she had to come to grips with the fact that the people she was encountering really seemed like they might be good people. That was the breaking point.
Very seldom do people change their minds because people they hate convince them through force of argument. People change their minds because people they love and respect open their minds to new ideas. This is the idea that Lukianoff and Haidt call common humanity politics. It’s a promising alternative to the minimal group paradigm.
I’ll be honest, though, I’m not sure there’s anything propping up a secular vision of human dignity and worth. Social optimists take for granted how much of American culture rests on distinctively Christian anthropology. Of all people, we really believe in human dignity - and even more importantly, human save-ability.
Toward a solution
Subsidiarity is the idea that governing is done best at the most local level possible. There’s an entire slew of conservative writers who have championed subsidiarity in the past few years as an answer to government overreach - see Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West and Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic. As a political principle, I think there’s a lot of political promise in bringing the decision-making back to the local level to the extent that we can. But I think there’s a much more compelling reason for subsidiarity; it’s the best chance we have to solve the social divisions in our country.
As we think back to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, let’s apply that principle. Start with your relationship with God. Get things right there. Don’t think about what anyone else in the world thinks about you, just make sure you’ve humbled yourself and sought God’s Word and approval on your life. Then when you get up from your knees look to those who are the closest. Grow in your relationships with them. Understand those people, disagree with them and immerse yourself in them. Then move out from there. Seek to understand the broader culture you live in. See people, not just their opinions. Always let the time on your knees be home base and you won’t succumb to the pressure to signal your fidelity to the group.
It wasn’t the self-conscious signaler but the God-conscious confessor who went home justified that day.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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