The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Centrifuge Spins

In a fascinating treatise of what he calls the "Age of Outrage", Jonathan Haidt writes:
When we look back at the ways our ancestors lived, there’s no getting around it: we are tribal primates. We are exquisitely designed and adapted by evolution for life in small societies with intense, animistic religion and violent intergroup conflict over territory. We love tribal living so much that we invented sports, fraternities, street gangs, fan clubs, and tattoos. Tribalism is in our hearts and minds. We’ll never stamp it out entirely, but we can minimize its effects because we are a behaviorally flexible species. We can live in many different ways, from egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups of 50 individuals to feudal hierarchies binding together millions. And in the last two centuries, a lot of us have lived in large, multi-ethnic secular liberal democracies. So clearly that is possible. But how much margin of error do we have in such societies?

Here is the fine-tuned liberal democracy hypothesis: as tribal primates, human beings are unsuited for life in large, diverse secular democracies, unless you get certain settings finely adjusted to make possible the development of stable political life. This seems to be what the Founding Fathers believed. Jefferson, Madison, and the rest of those eighteenth-century deists clearly did think that designing a constitution was like designing a giant clock, a clock that might run forever if they chose the right springs and gears.

Thankfully, our Founders were good psychologists. They knew that we are not angels; they knew that we are tribal creatures. As Madison wrote in Federalist 10: “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” Our Founders were also good historians; they were well aware of Plato’s belief that democracy is the second worst form of government because it inevitably decays into tyranny. Madison wrote in Federalist 10 about pure or direct democracies, which he said are quickly consumed by the passions of the majority: “such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention . . . and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

So what did the Founders do? They built in safeguards against runaway factionalism, such as the division of powers among the three branches, and an elaborate series of checks and balances.
Checks and balances are a wonderful thing. It's what makes the government so slow and deliberate; it's what spawns opposition to existing leadership; it's what fosters alternative political philosophies and policies; it's what has made the American experiment so unbelievably successful. But when the "fine tuning" of checks and balances goes awry, bad things begin to happen. Political opposition morphs into #resistance—nothing can be bi-partisan, nothing the majority party does can be accepted. And anything goes—dishonesty and demonization in the name of #resistance are not only okay, they are a badge of honor.

That's what's happening right now. Checks and balances has devolved into rabid tribalism that has been magnified by the disappointment and anger that occurred when an presidential election that was supposed to be a slam dunk became a startling upset.

Just when you think the left's hysteria over the election of Donald Trump can't get any worse, it gets worse. In my last post, I noted that the outright hysteria over the FCC ruling to eliminate the so-called "net neutrality" regulations imposed in 2015 by Barack Obama was "the end of the internet" or "the end of democracy" or "allowing big corporations to censor what we see on the Web." Funny how the Internet worked just fine before 2015, didn't it? But no matter, the evil Donald Trump is involved, so ... hysteria. Or maybe it's the crazy talk that a tax reform package that doubles the standard deduction for the 70 percent of middle class people (that's around 85 million taxpayers) who take the standard deduction will somehow increase their taxes. Tribalism = dishonesty in this case.

Wikipedia defines mass hysteria as:
In sociology and psychology, mass hysteria (also known as collective hysteria, group hysteria, or collective obsessional behavior) is a phenomenon that transmits collective illusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumors and fear (memory acknowledgement).
Hmmm... "collective illusions of threats" seems to be operative across the board. Removing two year old regulations = destruction of the Internet! Lowering the standard deduction = raising taxes! Illusions? You make the call. It's almost as if hate and fear are driving the illusion—that one tribe is literally hallucinating and as a consequence, sees the world through a very distorted lens.

But why? Is it really because Hillary Clinton lost? Is it really because Donald Trump is evil incarnate? Haidt continues:
Why do we hate and fear each other so much more than we used to as recently as the early 1990s? The political scientist Sam Abrams and I wrote an essay in 2015, listing ten causes. I won’t describe them all, but I’ll give you a unifying idea, another metaphor from physics: keep your eye on the balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces. Imagine three kids making a human chain with their arms, and one kid has his free hand wrapped around a pole. The kids start running around in a circle, around the pole, faster and faster. The centrifugal force increases. That’s the force pulling outward as the human centrifuge speeds up. But at the same time, the kids strengthen their grip. That’s the centripetal force, pulling them inward along the chain of their arms. Eventually the centrifugal force exceeds the centripetal force and their hands slip. The chain breaks. This, I believe, is what is happening to our country.
Haidt goes on to identify a number of causes. Among them is a media that no longer even tries to be an objective referee, but instead, advocates for one side over the other; the inherent conflict between the tribalism that is part of human nature and the thrust toward a multicultural and diverse society; a GOP that for the first time in modern memory is willing to assert itself and push back against the combined influence of the left and their media allies; the emphasis on identify politics as a mechanism for dividing society into tribes within tribes and redefining both "oppression" and "privilege" in the bargain.

And as the centrifuge spins, hysteria amplifies.