Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The tragedy of one-dimensional thinking

Snowflake! Racist! Fascist! Cry-bully! Punch a fascist! Our political culture is hardening people into teams, while what passes for debate mainly involves hurling insults at the other side. Moderate, thoughtful people who can bridge the divide are disappearing just as they're needed most. Where have they gone? And how do we get them back?

It's not just that people lean towards one political side over another, that's not new. The change I see is that joining a team increasingly means total submission to its world view - people embrace an absurd kind of cabinet collective responsibility for literally millions of people who're notionally on their side. Admitting the other side might have a point is an act of treachery; daring to query your own side now makes you the enemy. This is the way of social media, where messages contain more tribal psychology than political discussion.

If you try to hold your ground in the middle, you may find yourself friendless and taking abuse from both sides. This is how the moderates, the bridge-builders, the peacemakers we need to return civility are driven out of the picture. It happens because the team players are trapped in a one-dimensional view of politics. Let me illustrate.

I mean, I know he's a moderate, but he is actually reading over the other guy's shoulder.
A range of views, from strongly against -5, through "meh" 0, to strongly for 5.

Pick any political hot topic. Let's say that views range from 5 (strongly in favour) to -5 (strongly against) with 0 in the middle. People lean one way or the other, but most are towards the middle. So the middle, holding a superiority of both numbers and common sense, should dominate the debate, right? Wrong.

The extremists, Flag Man and Placard Boy in red, are in a minority but they dominate because they're fired up to put in the hours to get their message out. Worse, TV and radio programmes endlessly invite them in because they're guaranteed to shout at each other. Apparently this makes good telly. Plus, having two opposing extremists allows the media to say it's balanced.

But it gets worse, because when most of what you hear is the noise from the extremists, they will polarise the whole debate and drive everyone out of the middle. Here's why. Although in reality people hold a range of views on the topic, it only looks like this if you can step back from the debate and get some perspective.  So I can see that, and you can see that. For the people trapped in the argument, they are stuck in the 1-dimensional world represented by the black line.

This is how the same debate looks to Flag Man:

If you are Flag Man standing at one extreme of the debate, everyone appears to be in a single group, united against you, siding with Placard Boy. He can't really distinguish between Mr Shrug who largely agrees with him but quibbles on some details, at -2, and Newspaper Reader who tends to disagree but will concede a few points, at 2. Trapped in his one-dimensional view, Flag Man at -5 sees all the blue moderates not as a range but as a group. And they seem to be in the same group as Placard Boy. Meanwhile, Placard Boy has an equal and opposite view.

So between them, Flag Man and Placard Boy will berate, insult, cajole and harass everyone in the middle until they either join a team or walk away. At least by joining a team, you halve the level of abuse. Worse, people on the extremes have an endless supply of simple, plausible arguments - they are in favour of all the good things, and against all the bad things. They can shout their simple message over and over, put it on T-shirts, mugs, memes, you name it. By contrast, showing that not all the good ideas are on one side, that things are a bit more complicated than that, is both more intellectually challenging and less appealing to your audience. The fact that it happens to be true, unfortunately, doesn't make it more persuasive.

By this process, the reasonable people in the middle are being driven away, especially on social media but increasingly in real life, too, and the population is sorting itself into two angry, deeply tribal, opposing teams.

So that's where so many moderates have gone - they've found themselves drawn into picking a team, perhaps against their better judgement, or else they've become fed up of all the idiots on both extremes raining abuse on them, and gone off to do something else. They find it easier not to say anything. And who can blame them? Unfortunately, we really need those people to stand up against the tribalists.

So this is the call to arms for everyone who finds themselves thinking "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that". Don't allow the time-rich anger-hamsters to silence you. Accept that their angry tribalism is caused by their one-dimensional thinking, wear their insults as a badge of honour, and get out there knowing that despite their media omni-presence, we out-number them. Things usually are a bit more complicated than that, and a healthy society needs people to debate civilly. Once people start dehumanising those who disagree then justifying violence, you know we're a long way down the wrong road.

Ghandi was respected for his dignified resolve to stand his ground, stay true to himself and not be bullied into either extreme. As role models go, you could do a lot worse.

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