Note: This post is tailored to Americans. Deal with it, rest of the world!
I was watching one of those debate/news shows a few days back and I noticed something weird about the host’s stand on Hillary Clinton. The guest at the time had been fairly decidedly anti-Clinton, thinking she lacks key qualifications and moral values to be President. But while the host made it obvious he remains uninspired by the Democratic hopeful, he still thinks it’s stupid to be so against Clinton because she is the best, and most realistic, alternative this country has right now. In other words, he is anti-anti-Clinton. That means he would vote for her, and he would defend it in a shouting match, but he’d never say he is for her. That wouldn’t be fitting of the kind of person he wants to be. But is that any different than actually being pro-Hillary?
Who cares if you broadcast her PR material on your Twitter or not, as long as you vote for Hillary it’s all the same, right? Maybe it is a meaningless distinction, but when you think about it, the reasons why he supports her kind of makes who he is, at least to millions of viewers. He’s not just any other voter, he’s a cable host. Why he votes matters much more than how the ballot reads. His occupation necessitates constantly explaining the complicated reasons why he believes what he believes. And besides keeping his ratings up, it’s also crucial for his status off camera. Among other cable hosts, for cred with his staff, his coolness among his friends and friends of friends, and in order to pique the interest of the people he wants to sleep with. His detailed reasoning for picking sides in various issues signals his intelligence, creativity, credibility, popularity and earning potential. So maybe the statisticians only care about how he and his viewers vote in polls, but the viewers care more about the reasons why he chose his side.
But isn’t that true of everyone’s ‘viewers’ to some extent? If we look, there is ample evidence of this behavior whenever reputation and group membership are at stake. We all need social circles (online ones count), without which our mental well-being suffers and our lives lose meaning. And social circles have a way of internally maintaining a sort of orthodoxy that defines the ingroup. That orthodoxy usually involves a set of acceptable views one is allowed to have and must preserve in order to remain in good standing with the group. Often these views follow from the group’s interests, such as pet owners concerned about animal rights, or a collegiate organization standing in support of Palestinian issues. The strictness of these rules obviously varies from group to group depending on how important loyalty is to their dynamic, but I think you will find this organization arises naturally whether you look across wide groups like political parties and academic institutions, or across narrow groups like real life friends or a niche online community. The details that you provide tell them what they need to know in order to determine your ethics, level of commitment, sophistication and rank within the group as well.
Soviet clockwork foxes
Over a decade ago, I remember having a discussion with a friend regarding a notable Soviet-era genetic experiment, the domestication of the wild fox. I had just read of it and was in shock that such an experiment existed, so I was excitedly relaying the reported findings. To the best of my recollection, I explained how Lyudmila Trut is the scientist in charge of a selective breeding program that started in the late 1950s with the aims of testing hypotheses regarding the historical domestication of the dog… and possibly to create adorable house foxes. The main finding was that by simply selecting for behavior — specifically docility — almost all of the familiar behavioral and morphological features followed suit: short legs, droopy tail, whining, barking, cuteness and affection. This has all sorts of explanatory potential and my friend was excited to hear this part of the story. It was when I mentioned that the experimenters had also produced a population of hyper-aggressive foxes by reversing the selection criterion that my friend became visibly disturbed. Yeah, how horrible, I thought. The aggressive foxes must have had an awful existence being locked up in close proximity to the rest of the aggressive subpopulation. But that was not the source of the growing discomfort between us.
My friend got defensive, now questioning the methodology of the whole experiment. I was repeatedly asked for details about the setup that I couldn’t recall. But I tried to be assuring; this experiment really did occur and there was a video. If you watch it, you can clearly see the tame foxes are tame, and the hostile foxes are hostile. But it wasn’t disbelief in the observations, it was flat out refusal that trait was genetic. How strange to be against the most easily defensible claim of this nearly 50 year old experiment, I thought. After a lengthy discussion, I finally settled around the source of my friend’s hastily crafted disbelief. If we believe aggression is genetically determined in foxes, then it means that we believe that genetics determines aggression in humans, which leads to all sorts of unsavory racial theories and whatnot, which inevitably result in a loss of reputation for progressivism and society gradually accepting fascism. Oh dear, and I thought we had been talking about foxes!
Surely I should acknowledge that risk, my friend demanded. What could I say, it had not been at the forefront of my mind and I couldn’t make myself worry about it. I entertained it as a possibility — that some people would make fantastical claims of the sort — but I expressed my faith that the sober among us would expose the brittle chain of reasoning and win the ideological battle (if there ever was one). I guess I never felt uncomfortable with the marginal ambiguity the Soviet fox domestication experiment introduced into political philosophy. Besides, what an intellectually dishonest reason to reject an otherwise compelling and limited observation. But my friend was adamant. We had to oblige a moral duty to cast doubt on this experiment, one we both had just recently discovered existed. We had to prepare a defense against our enemies who would obviously use it as ammo, and denial was the best defense that could be assembled in a short amount of time.
When a new issue arises, groups must quickly determine whether to love or hate it
If this dynamic can arise in one-on-one’s, then it certainly can in a crowd as well. When I watched Hannibal Buress do his bit on Bill Cosby at the Lincoln Theater in DC, I didn’t think much of it besides that it was another great joke that evening. Buress managed to connect a hook on someone who had been taking jabs at young people, especially young black people, for his entire career. The audience was enjoying Cosby’s comeuppance, even if it meant making light of alleged rape. Laughing seemed to be justified because it was for a good cause, or at least it felt good. I wasn’t surprised by the facts of the joke either, I remembered having heard the rape allegations back in 2005. Sitting in the theater I was reminded that of all people, Cosby is currently only one of two people allowed to eat for free at Ben’s Chili Bowl, which is right next door. It was going to be really awkward when the audience filters out and walks by the huge mural or sees the proclamatory sign in the restaurant.
And I did not expect the joke to become the revelation it did because the allegations were old news, but in retrospect it should have been obvious. Buress’ fans are young, hip, wonkish and unmistakably left-leaning. In other words, incredibly anti-rape. (Obviously not that that’s a bad thing, just that the rest of society isn’t.) And coincidentally, Cosby’s public persona is the antithesis to the rest of their social priorities. His moralizing is horribly outdated and his views (probably incidentally) support the reactionary elements of old, white America. And the timing couldn’t have been better for the uproar. With social media instead of traditional media at the helm of trend setting, all you needed to do was light the fire among the young and watch this thing burn. And burn it did — because rape is horrible, and (just a little bit) because Bill Cosby is allied with the conservatives. So I thought I could predict the next tinder pile that would likely catch a spark from all this furor. I was certain Roman Polanski would be in the news again shortly.
But I was wrong again, this time nothing happened. I thought the similarities between their allegations were too big to be ignored: the narcotics, false trust of an icon, rape, hush money and settlement. And all amplified by the celebrity intrigue. Except those factors were not what the Cosby viralism was about. It was never about the crime, it’s all about how badly Cosby was hated by his detractors. It was a strategic play against the nuisance he represents. And Polanski, though still sought by the feds, is no enemy of the type of people offended by Cosby. So why would they care about his case?
What I am trying to say is that we tend to feel first and justify afterwards with any convenient arguments. This is nothing new, some describe this phenomenon as tribalism, mood affiliation or other post hoc concepts. Even the smartest among us seem to operate in this way, they just have a knack for devising more sophisticated arguments. Like everyone else, loyalty to social cliques cannot be ignored. Smart people still need the approval of their peer group to be happy. They won’t abandon their cohort and make their work and social life suck to hold onto just any belief. How much is it worth arguing against your friends about the minimum wage? Next weekend’s activities and maybe your chance with that hottie? Unless you’re an economist, probably not.
Not to mention everyone relies on others to inform them on issues they haven’t a clue about. How much research has the average freshman done on global warming? How about on the history of modern conflicts? Not that much, and the temptation to go with the prevailing opinions of the tribe is large when there is a social reward for compliance. Changes in tribe affiliation do happen, but often this is not a result of insight alone, rather some exogenous social pressure. Drop those same uninformed students into the workforce, and they adapt their weakly held beliefs to match those of their new social environments.
The enemy of your enemy is your friend
These loyalties and hatreds are common to almost every group, but the composite of many groups results in some really strange alliances. I was on a Wall Street firm’s trading floor the day Eliot Spitzer’s sex scandal hit the news. Some knew him as the Governor of New York but to others, especially among trading firms, he was the Supreme Commissar of Punishing Wall Street. On this trading floor, that was definitely the feeling. Ostensibly uber-libertarian alpha male types, the traders were absolutely giddy upon hearing the news that Spitzer was being busted for contractual sex. These were gentlemen that in all other occasions would scoff at the suggestion that prostitution should be a punishable offense, defending their mathematically proven anti-governmentalism against your feeble-brained moralism. Every single day except this day. On this day, they would happily side with the supporters of the ancient moralistic law that had Spitzer hanging in the balance. If it were a pugilistic public figure they supported being ensnared in a prostitution trap, they would fight the very notion that prostitution is a crime. But for the glee of witnessing Spitzer’s power over them vanish, they were willing to have him judged according to a code with which they had serious grievances. Of course you could never mistake the city traders with moralists of upstate New York, they had totally distinct preferences in nearly everything. The only thing that united them was their common enemy. The black swan event I witnessed on that day in March 2008 was eclipsed by another one that happened in the markets later that year, but I will never forget the sound of that boastful laughter.
You do not expect the regulation of Wall Street to be ultimately determined by scandals and the popularity of leading figures, but this definitely was a point scored for the Anti-Regulation Team and a point lost to the Regulation Team. These teams seem more or less evenly matched, but sometimes that isn’t the case. For example, take Fred Phelps and his infamous anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. His loyal congregation has decided to do something remarkably foolish… if they were indeed trying to score points for the Anti-Gay Team. They protest homosexuality in a way that incurs the ire of US war veterans. Think about how deep the support networks run for both of those groups. LGBT members are allied with liberals, urbanites, the youth and the highly educated. War veterans have direct connections to conservatives, patriots and anyone sympathetic to the military. Between the two, that’s nearly everyone in America. These blocs are so big that the intersection of the two itself has millions of members. By attacking homosexuals and their sympathizers the way they did, the WBC got surrounded on the other side by the team that supports veterans. With those two huge, influential forces bearing down on this very small congregation, the WBC has materially lost the fight so utterly. Those WBC members will never get any status in society other than infamy. They will be locked out of jobs and will never form personal relationships with the outside, unless they renounce their church completely. And points against the WBC are so easy to score. No one — liberal or conservative, urban or rural, gay or straight, military or nonmilitary — is going to raise objection if you broadcast a strictly anti-WBC message.
It is that need to muster support to silence and defeat the proximate enemy that makes us often disregard with whom we unintentionally ally. Only when the group cheerleaders start broadcasting do the lines become clear. We see it all the time with newsworthy tragedies. Just this week, Paris was attacked by what was likely an anti-Western, Islamic terror network. Immediately the French flags and Eiffel Towers started going up in solidarity all over American social media. But look at some of the groups coming out in support of the French: American conservatives, military proponents, Islamophobes, the anti-immigration crowd. The types of people that, in previous instances, would usually bash the French and their social system with every other sentence and who would be embarrassed to be seen near a tricouleur. I doubt many of them know or care how Parisians feel about the issues they so ardently champion. But regardless of this wide gulf, they bind themselves to Paris. More specifically to the newly formed French priorities concerning national security and immigration.
And in reaction you see the enemies of these American groups questioning their motives. The social justice types ask, why didn’t you say anything about recent attacks in Beirut and Baghdad? Is it only Western lives that matter? But many among this defensive crowd were the same people who argued convincingly that the “all lives matter” mantra, however valid, is actually an insensitive attempt to dilute a tragedy that you don’t want to get attention. Besides, many of them did not broadcast their solidarity with Beirut before Paris stole the media spotlight. While usually claiming the media attention on the public vigils and sobbing victims is warranted because deadly violence never justifiable, now they find themselves downplaying their go-to defense of an often histrionic style of mourning. They feel threatened by a backlash against their interests, enough that they resort to the same tactics they call ‘shameless’ when their enemies do unto them. And in yet another tragedy, the rhetoric around the crime becomes meaningless other than to lend support to stances we would defend without context.
The players want as many cheerleaders as they can get
I am simplifying quite a bit. Of course the Wall Street traders can offer a compelling reason that having a laugh at Spitzer is well deserved schadenfreude, as Spitzer had held them to arbitrary ethical standards and then found himself being judged by other arbitrary ethical standards. I’m not saying that they haven’t made a fair point. Actually, I don’t wish to judge its validity at all. All I am saying is any apparent ‘consensus’ that seemed to have been built around the trader’s worldview was incidentally also built upon the support of people who cheered Spitzer’s downfall but who don’t think the standards are arbitrary. The result: the traders’ status is elevated by a populist groundswell… which is something that doesn’t happen very frequently.
Likewise the detractors of the Paris tragedy can always fall back on many other stronger positions. They may claim this attack — however bad we think it is — is ultimately going to lead to much worse bloodshed by playing right into the hands of the terrorists and xenophobes who want to expand the war and block immigration. Let’s not lend it too much legitimacy as a casus belli. And that is a convincing point to be made, but again, this post isn’t about that. Instead, recognize in making these points they lose some of the middle ground. Not everyone sympathetic to social justice is memorializing Paris because of inherently racist understanding of the world; Paris is also just a better connected city. Global urbanites live in, work in or travel to Paris (or know someone who does) far more regularly than either Beirut or Baghdad. People don’t like it when they’re forced to pick between a social cause and their emotional attachments to a familiar and central place. So the attacks in Paris put these social justice groups in an awkward position where they must broadcast their core message of equality to stay relevant, even if it means losing some marginally attached supporter. This time the forces just don’t align in their favor.
As I said, I don’t want this post to be about identifying instances of hypocrisy. Every sufficiently complex system exhibits hypocrisy. You can find it in the words and actions of every person, group and country. Digging for hypocrisy boring because it is everywhere.
No, the point I want to make is that there is a natural structure to the way people pick sides on issues. And it seems to work on every level of social organization. And it seems to prefer the emergence of two teams, which are massive alliances that act together to achieve narrowly defined common goals.
The roots of unity
Almost every battle and war in human history has been waged as a two-sided conflict. At any given time there are two opposing armies, countries or coalitions fighting each other. Though there might be exceptions, we take it for granted that this most exacting of human endeavors always seems to have this remarkable consistency. What invisible hand forces us to engage in hostilities in such a structured way?
I think it has to do with our degrees of separation. It seems intuitive that the proximate and visible enemies always take the priority. Indeed, you soon will be actively fighting them if you aren’t already! If you were Germany in WW2 and are surrounded by the Western allies and the Soviet Union, then you’d find someone, anyone, in the Far East who was antagonistic with at least one of those two blocs. Similarly, if you were France, Britain or America and need someone to soak up German-inflicted damage, then you’d stifle your reservations and reach out to the Soviet Union. These alliances needed coordination among dozens of countries and hundreds of millions of individuals. In peacetime, it is incredibly difficult to negotiate a compromise that results in true cooperation (ahem.. WTO, TPP/TIPP). But under duress, the calculus is simple: who am I fighting and who is fighting them? The game becomes extremely short lived and high stakes. If we win, we gain everything. If we lose, we lose everything. So we need the numbers, and we need them quick.
And contrary to the name, civil society is always under duress. We see slippery slopes everywhere, and justifiably so. This month it’s scoring points on immigration, next year it’s winning the election! The game is on, so we can’t let up. We often seek long running opinion polls to observe how populations drift over time. But this analysis can only go so far. Statistics offers a good way at quantifying the degree to which people and ideas are linked, but it’s shockingly poor at determining the underlying structure of how and why they are connected. Yet predicting how existing interest groups will react to new developments doesn’t seem completely random either. Liberals and conservatives act and react predictably. Intuitively, we kind of anticipate what they will do or say when faced with particular developments.
At the micro level things are also extremely intense. Having your worldview challenged causes you psychological stress. But perceptions can change the course of history, and you’ll be proven right and duly rewarded if the rest of the world starts to see it your way. And the sad truth is that if you’re not making friends, you’re losing friends. So you pick a side to stay relevant, and you score points by displaying leadership and loyalty. Otherwise you’re not useful and get cut out of other people’s lives. But yet, things aren’t that dire usually. Learning how your friends interpret the news isn’t so hard. And keeping your social circles happy isn’t entirely a guessing game. Just don’t piss off any friend, and do piss off the people we all hate from time to time.
Dichotomous teams from in periods of dire immediacy. When a big fight is coming up, rapid cooperation analogous to what happens in war happens in civil society. Alliances form in unexpected ways to quickly get the job done. But how do you go from an infinitude of reasons for aligning or not aligning to some sort of predictable binary structure? Imagine a layer cake, with alternating layers of cake and frosting. Even if the other layers of cake are a different color, they are all still cake. Same goes for the layers of frosting. If your connections represent your animosities, one or odd degrees of separation always define your enemies, and two or even degrees of separation always define allies.
Quotient sets are mathematician’s ways of taking a complex of set of objects and grouping them along one important property. Imagine someone is planning a lunch out for Japanese food with her co-workers. She wants everyone to enjoy themselves and hates to be rushed, so she decides to invite only those of them that really like Japanese. Being somewhat mechanistic, she opens up the employee directory in a spreadsheet and enter either a 1, 2 or 3 next to each person’s name — 1 meaning they don’t like Japanese and 3 meaning they really like Japanese — planning to invite only the 3’s. In that example, the original set is the full directory, and the quotient sets are the new teams she formed: the 1’s, 2’s and 3’s. All the complexity of their infinite being is neglected — for instance, the deep reasons and history of liking or disliking styles of food — and the only thing that matters is the degree to which they like Japanese food. They may be beautiful angels in their mothers’ eyes, but they are just a number to her right now.
We could extend the mathematical nomenclature to say, an invitee to the lunch is a member of Team 3 modulo their preference for Japanese food. We could also say something like, every American is either Pro or Anti modulo immigration. Dear reader, which team are you on? Pro or Anti? Your reasons will differ from others on your team based on your race, sex, education, socioeconomic status, and a number of other important factors, but when push comes to shove you belong to one of the two teams nonetheless.
At first pass, this kind of organization may seem too complicated to be real. Yes, the overall structure can be very complicated, but notice that it does not require top level organization. If individuals follow simple rules to align with the enemies of their enemies, it should emerge naturally. In fact, I’d argue you can find it in most website comment sections and social media posts. There doesn’t need to be a high level conspiracy or organized brigading for victims to claim they are being attacked by a huge, invisible force of users. With sufficient participation, factions inevitably recognize the conversation is being steered either in a favorable or unfavorable direction. Threads exhibit a multitude of arguments and psychologies, but ultimately the combative comments will claimed by one of two teams, usually representing an alliance of users that are for or against a central theme. The most reasonable and broadly applicable comments will be the most popular, but they will be supported by a invisible layer cake of users.
For instance take the topic of religion, which in American politics usually involves a battle between two teams that I will call the Atheists and Theists. (Very broadly though because members of Team Atheist may not be actual atheists and the members of Team Theist aren’t necessarily theists. More on that later.) No matter the specifics of the news, the existence of god will be discussed. But not for the sake of theology and to expand our understanding of what godliness is and how it affects our human experience… no, this is a popularity contest. It’s common to find a highly promoted comment that sounds something like, “I don’t know which religion is right, but I do know that history gives examples of successful nations that governed as if they were blind to religious matters, and examples of unsuccessful nations that governed with their hand in religious matters.” With enough supporting examples or the right context, this statement is undoubtedly one of Team Atheists most popular. It’s also not too edgy, so it can be broadly appreciated. But for better or worse, it rests upon a pyramid of users that also post and support less savory comments like: “The Bible is fake, I can prove it,” and “I think a country with mild Christian values can work, but I support secularization because Muslims values shouldn’t be trusted at all,” and “Damn religion, you scary.” All those people are on the same team. Indeed, that’s why it may seem like they are all the same person or part of the same organized brigade.
Likewise reasonable comments from the other side, such as, “You can be secular without being hostile to religion,” are often supported by users with less compelling beliefs. Other examples from Team Theist may include: “Militant atheism is just a witch hunt by another name,” and “You’re not secular, you’re just hate ethnic minorities,” and “Christian people made this country and gave you the freedom to think whatever you want.” You could easily suppose there are users that support neither team — and there are — but the social reward of broadcasting their moderate opinions are minimal. Riskless opinions lack boldness and do not display loyalty. It pays immediate social dividends to pick a side, even just slightly, so most people do.
However if you think about it, there are only three pure theological positions anyone can have: (0) there are zero gods, (1) there is at least one god, (2) true agnosticism. (I am not a theologian so I don’t know if that is absolutely true, but I posit any other positions, if they exist, are too esoteric to feature in the debate.) If you put everyone in the world by themselves in an empty room and ask them honestly whether they are a 0, 1 or 2, I would think most of the intellectual firepower in the world today falls into Camp 2. How many honest people have spent the time and effort to become truly certain about divinity? Yes, there is a sizable fraction of people who have experienced their god in their lives, or have reasons other than social pressures to be in Camp 1. But I think this is a relatively small fraction of the total. That is to say, most of the people who claim to be religious are probably not absolutely so. Then there are people bold enough to proclaim with certainty that there are no gods who fall into Camp 0. This camp is rarer still, I suspect.
Of course, camps 0, 1 and 2 are crude boundaries. There is tremendous diversity inside each one, I admit freely. But regardless, if this is the true distribution of theological opinions — comprising of three camps (and perhaps more) — it’s a bit strange to claim there are only two teams, no? And even more strange is for the teams to be determined by their sympathies either to atheists or theists arguments, when I claim most people are agnostic. Yes strange indeed, but I stand by it.
So now we get to the heart of the post — the numerous cliques, factions and individuals represent our complex social fabric — the camps represent the context-free, purely philosophical positions an honest person or group can hold — and the teams represent populist leanings towards the boldest dichotomies (in this case between theist and atheist worldviews). But the problem is that the camps don’t matter to anyone other than disciplined intellectuals — only the binary teams get popular recognition! The diversity of opinions within the groups get divided out by the issue under discussion, resulting in two teams. The mechanisms that allow this to happen are social rewards and the layer cake structure of antagonistic relations. Every person or group just needs to figure out their immediate enemies and then seek out those that harm them. It’s a simple but effective method to fighting impromptu battles by incentivizing people socially.
For example, a person with strong nationalistic feelings for a country that strictly limits religious expression, say the PRC, will naturally have a bias to be in Team Atheist. The reasoning is: I like the PRC and get rewarded promoting it, and various theist groups attack the PRC for its militant atheist policies, so I will support the atheists that de-legitimize these critical groups. In another example, a person who enjoys being a member of a diverse professional group which includes practicing Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc. is naturally going to be inclined to support Team Theist. Though perhaps not religious myself, offending my friends would harm me personally because an important part of my life would be ruined, so I will side with those that preach accommodation of all beliefs. If those examples refer to the same person, a mini mental crisis may ensue.
But relationships and worldviews are fluid, and sometimes we find ourselves shopping for new cliques to join. We’ve all encountered the annoyingly smug commenter online. Even if we agree with their position, their tone is just so disgusting it would be embarrassing to side with them over the nice people they are attacking. We would rather fight alongside the misinformed than side with these assholes. No doubt, this pattern happens too. The system is constantly in flux. Opinions change, new players get born and old ones die, but the game is slow to evolve. Statistics track the evolution of religiosity over time, but they are silent on the tempest that propels these changes.
When a Christian meets a stranger and thinks, “I hope that person is Christian,” I doubt in most cases they are making a statement about theological orthodoxy or seeking that person in the afterlife. Often it arises as desire to share a brief experience amicably with another person, like a long plane trip or a Thanksgiving dinner. Definitely something earthly and something immediate. When a proud Democrat posts something inflammatory on social media, there are many reasons, but one is always to rally the troops. They are looking for the same thing the Christian is, the “Amen!” The intra-team loyalty is strong, and cheerleading in an echo chamber makes us feel good. At least it makes us more willing to continue the fight for our team.