Friday, August 23, 2013

Oppressed, Coerced, Barbaric

Tribal politics in the 21st century
As the news from Spokane began dribbling through my newsfeed this morning, I was surprised at how quickly it took a political spin. "Where is the outrage?" one friend asked. "Where are the celebrities, where is the president, and where is Jesse Jackson on this one? This is not the first attack this week or in recent weeks of 'random and unprovoked' violence by black teens on white people." Another wrote, "I wonder if Obama had a son, would he look like these guys?"

My friends see this story as part of a larger context: for them, an individual killing another individual isn't just one data point, it's part of a trend. They see mounting evidence of their hypothesis about what's going on in this country racially and politically. I do the same thing with many news stories, but I didn't with this one — my brain did not contextualize it. It broke my heart, but it didn't make me globally angry. Turns out, my reaction and theirs may both have been predetermined by our political leanings.

When my friend asked, "Where is the outrage?" she meant, "from the left." The right is providing plenty. It's a fair question, though: Why isn't the left reacting to this story the way it did to Trayvon Martin's death? Why does the right seem to find the Spokane story more upsetting? There are a number of potential explanations, virtually all guaranteed to cause further upset. I have one paradigm, however, that should avoid that pitfall.

My husband is a big fan of Russ Roberts' podcast EconTalk*, which I also recommend. In June, Roberts interviewed Arnold Kling, who discussed a new (to us, anyway) theory about how progressives, conservatives, and libertarians look at the world. Each viewpoint becomes an organizing principle of that political tribe. Kling's approach breaks down these "tribal interpretations" into three axes: 

Resonates with libertarians
• Progressives look at issues along an axis of oppressed vs. oppressors

• Conservatives
look at issues along an axis of civilization vs. barbarism

• Libertarians
look at issues along an axis of freedom vs. coercion

Suddenly, the reason my friends were upset made sense to me: they saw the awful story in Spokane as evidence of barbarism vs. civilization. This story was salient to that dichotomy, and triggered their tribe's emotional buttons, leaving them outraged. For me, a progressive, those buttons (there, but much smaller) were not pushed. In contrast, the Trayvon Martin case pushed all my tribal "oppressed vs. oppressors" buttons. It fit a bigger political story for me, became evidence of something pernicious rather than a dismissible anecdote. 

If I can understand that my conservative friends are not wired to see the Martin case the way I do, but feel just as upset about the Spokane case for their own intuitive reasons, I can let go of my vexation. There is a reason why we see things differently, and it's pretty deep-seated — whether we are conservative, progressive, or libertarian tends to be innate, not taught. 

We think of ourselves as reaching all our conclusions after careful thought, or at least based on excellent intuitions: we are progressives because we are smarter and more compassionate than everyone else. We are conservatives because we are smarter and more resolute than everyone else. We consider all sides to an issue and come to a thoughtful synthesis. This is pleasant to believe, but in fact we're mostly going on programming: once you understand the three axes, and you know a person's political affiliation almost guarantees a certain reaction to political events. We are as predictable as the sun. With great effort, we can overcome the programmed responses and entertain alternative viewpoints, but it doesn't even occur to most people to try.

Resonates with progressives

I can't say Kling's thesis makes it more likely I'll have conservative or libertarian reactions to news provocations. But other people's responses, formerly mystifying, make so much more sense now: After the Boston Marathon bombings, my conservative friends wanted a crackdown on immigration. My libertarian friends were appalled that the city was put on lockdown. And my progressive friends were worried that Muslims would become (once again) targets of hate. After the NSA story broke, my conservative friends were defending the program as necessary to national security, my liberal friends were worried innocent people would be rounded up by the meta-data sweep, and my libertarian friends were convinced this was Big Brother made real. 

People are much more politically engaged now than they were even a decade or two ago, but that comes with a downside: we have a harder time getting along with people who don't share our ideologies. I know this is true for me — though I have friends across the religious, political, and economic spectrum, I'm most comfortable with people who are like me. Some friendships have been strained nearly to the breaking point due to political differences. I don't think Kling's paradigm is going to magically make our discourse argument-free, but I do think the more people who understand where "the other side" is coming from, the more peaceful Thanksgiving dinners will be.

*Interesting side note: while my husband is conservative-ish, and I am progressive, we both like EconTalk — and Russ Roberts is a libertarian. Kumbayah, people!


  1. Thought-provoking post. Political polarity engenders movements and all movements go too far. The decision to treat isolated crimes as something separate from government by discussion is an individual adjustment. You have made that adjustment, as your husband has. Whether from lack of learning or misguided longing for factional community, far too many have not.

  2. I agree. Movements (and their accompanying ideologies) provide the energy and passion needed to break out the status quo and make societal changes. Would we have civil rights without the Civil Rights movement? Women's rights, ditto. And so on. But movements have a habit of picking up so much momentum they drive some subset of their adherents right off a cliff.

    I'd like to think I learned to separate the particular from the general, but I do the same thing my friend does—just from the progressive perspective. She refers to the horrific crime that happened in Oklahoma earlier this week, where a few teens shot to death a jogger from Australia. This fit into my general narrative that our American gun culture has run amok. For her, it was evidence that black teens have run amok. But we both have A Big Picture we tend to sort all stories into — the best I can do is try to pull my head out of the sand occasionally and acknowledge that my narrative is not the only one.

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  4. I like Russ Roberts podcast although he is much further to the right than I (to be fair, almost everyone is further to the right than I). I do think that he is reasonably fair and allows people to express their views in a civil way which really is a recipe for success in regard to have ultimate civility.

    I think equality, freedom and egalitarian principles are worth fighting for, although it seems like those beliefs may ultimately lead to my being put in a concentration camp, if things keep progressing as they have been.

    1. Dang, Laoch! And I thought I was having a bad day. :/

      As depressed as I feel working through this story, and the aftermath (and I'm pretty depressed), I am overall optimistic. Optimism is my natural inclination, but it's helped along by thinkers like Steven Pinker, who reminds us that humans are getting better overall — not worse. You just have to take a long view. A long, data-driven view.

  5. The neutrality of the press is disappearing, too. That's not to say that news organizations don't make the effort to remain neutral because I at least want to believe that most journalists have the best intentions to do so. The problem is that there are so many outlets for the spectral extremes that people can quite comfortably limit the news they receive to the viewpoints that jive most closely with their own. Impatience with the other side is all the more difficult when everyone is getting their info from opposite biases.

    1. You have hit the nail on the head, AS! Back in the day we had some unity of opinion because we were literally all hearing the same narrative: only 3 primary news sources and they all said basically the same thing.

  6. "Once you understand the three axes, and you know a person's political affiliation almost guarantees a certain reaction to political events. We are as predictable as the sun."

    This was one of the biggest surprises for me when I moved to this country: the clear-cut division of ideologies. In my country people have ideas that are a lot more blurry, it seems. And people also seem to have an overall pessimistic view of politicians ("They're all the same!") This is why, for me, it's impossible to belong to a political party here. I don't generally have a definite position on every situation (like the ones mentioned above) and I have a cocktail of opinions rather than a definite/rigid perspective in alignment to those who I consider to be like me. In fact if I expected that all my friends would think like me in every aspect, I wouldn't have a single friend left.

    1. "people have ideas that are a lot more blurry, it seems." Ah, that sounds so refreshing! Makes me want to move to Ecuador. :) Out of curiosity, what is the media situation there? How do people get their news?

      "if I expected that all my friends would think like me in every aspect, I wouldn't have a single friend left." I agree. Life in the echo chamber would be awfully lonely.

    2. Politics there are also frustrating but in a different way. Picture this, at some point there were 17 political parties (I don't know how many there are now). Politicians leave their parties to make their own and then fight with their previous colleagues, there's a lot of shameless corruption, the constitution gets changed at whim, the Executive power sometimes rules over the other powers, the media nowadays is under scrutiny and they have to be careful of what they say or they get sued by the president, etc. So it's not better, it's just different. People don't have such definite positions. For example, a person who is a socialist may also be religious or a Catholic could be in favor of gay marriage or abortion, etc.

      As far as the media, the new shows are shorter (like the local news here). There are no news channels that talk all day about the same thing and dissect a situation obsessively, which I like because too much negativity/bad news fuel a lot of anger, bitterness and division, IMO.

    3. As far as how people get their news there. Well, my parents still read the newspaper every day, but I suspect that the younger generations must get their news mostly online. My dad also watches the world news on cable tv from a German station (in Spanish). They summarize world news in three minutes every night. Unfortunately the local news have become very sensationalist so they're not very good sources of information.

  7. What a thought-provoking post... and the comments, too. The idea that reactions to a given situation can be predicted based on political affiliation is a little surprising, and even a bit disheartening. Politics has become stridently partisan and even hate-filled, and if reactions and opinions are predicated by political affiliation, doesn't that kinda stomp on hopes of reconciliation and cooperation between the parties? I sure hope not. Having differing points of view is fine, but this Them vs. Us mind-set is horrifying.

    1. I agree, Susan — it is disheartening. I wish I could say I saw a way out, but I don't. Except to be aware of the polarizing influences and learn to mitigate our own reactions to them. But I think we can see from Washington that there's very little hope of cooperation between our elected leaders on the left and right: voters demand ideological purity, and they get it.


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