A feature of the internet has been the growth of networked zealotry; where intensely held attitudes are expressed in overheated rhetoric and ad hominem abuse, not as solitary aberrations (though that also happens), but in self-reinforcing internet coteries.
This has fed off, and possibly intensified, the bitter “culture wars” of the US; the intensification of political rhetoric and a more intense partisanship in politics. The last, particularly in Federal politics, has likely been fed by a change in living arrangements among Senators and Congresspersons whereby they spend much less time socialising with people of the other political Party.
There is some penchant–depending on political preferences–for blaming one side of politics for the culture wars more than the other. Since the phenomena in question occur across the political spectrum, this is not likely to be an analytically fruitful exercise, as distinct from another manifestation of the same patterns.
Drowning not waving
Looking at deeper structural changes, we are living in information-saturated societies. A natural response to such an assault of information is to retreat into simplifying and emotionally satisfying narratives. And what is more simplifying and emotionally satisfying than a Manichean story of good and evil, where you and those who think like you are the “good guys” and them over there are there are the bad guys, who clearly only believe what they do because they are evil, wicked, malicious and stupid (while you and yours believe as you do because you are moral, clever, smart and informed).
The dramatic drop in communication costs, and explosion in ability to connect, that the information technology revolution represents means that the like-minded can associate together far more easily. This can be liberating and reassuring. It can also lead to intensification of beliefs as people reinforce each other and divergent information is excluded or discredited. An ironic effect of massively increased access to information is to make the crippled epistemology (pdf) which is so much a part of zealotry and fanaticism easier to maintain.
The established information institutions have (more than) done their bit to create the basis for these patterns. While critical thinking is allegedly an ideal of post-Enlightenment education (particularly universities), what education systems have generally actually been teaching and practising (particularly universities) has been groupthink. (Scott Sumner, for example, regularly bewails the current groupthink among macroeconomists–all the more remarkable since it fails to conform to previous accepted analysis.)
Moreover, teachers and academics may have been better at teaching the habits of groupthink than their specific groupthinking. Particularly if alienation from the offered groupthink leads, not to open-mindedness, but the search for more congenial groupthink. A sense of status, worthiness and morally-charged meaning are powerful passions; and if the real “lessons” have been that that is what information and analysis is “for”, then people will go off and search for it. And, thanks to the information technology revolution, very easily find it.
Where, in past times, information was filtered through interaction with a diverse local community, now the internet provides congenial filtering and mutual support at one’s fingertips. As transport costs have fallen, local communities themselves become sorting devices, so counteract such trends less than they previously might. Particularly when use of land-rationing to drive up local (housing) land prices adds to the sorting effect. Even within local communities, easy transportation encourages like-minded friendship networks.
The selling of groupthink leading to some frustrated alienation from particular groupthinking has also been a feature of much mainstream media. The issue here is not bias in media, it is biassed media; journalists practising groupthink. Hiring in one’s own image and likeness (something public broadcasters and university departments are particularly prone to) reinforces the effect.
The lazy newspaper monopolies of the US have perhaps been particularly prone to groupthink, whereas the national newspaper market of the UK allows a wider range of choices. In the US, journalistic groupthink has not only led to media operations targeting the alienated (FoxNews, Breitbart), it has also energised the already well-established policy-advocacy industry, some of which very much panders to groupthinking up to and including conspiracy theories; a particularly intense manifestation of emotionally resonant Manichean narrative. After all, if events do not turn out as they are “supposed” to, powerful malign hidden forces are a very emotionally satisfying “explanation”. (The existence of both truthers and birthers point to the not-ideologically specific nature of conspiracy thinking in particular and networked zealotry more generally.)
The internet also allows people to tap into ready-made articulation of their alienation from educational, academic or media groupthink. Or even participate in such articulation themselves. In undermining the role of the traditional information “gate-keepers” by providing alternative information sources, the information super-highway also makes it easier to identify the failings of such “gate-keepers”.
If anything in your own experience reacts against the offered groupthink, then alternative viewpoints are now much easier to find. My own scepticism regarding certainty about anthropogenic effects on climate partly came from how much it reminded me of previous enthusiasm for eugenics (also a cause of the great and the good based on “cutting edge” science) but also going to a Bureau of Meteorology seminar and being horrified at the appalling quality of what was being passed off as climate “modeling”. I was not a great fan of econometrics–being partial to to economist David Clark’s dictum that, if the data is sufficiently tortured, it will confess. (There is also the small matter that a model simply tells you the consequences of your factual and other premises.) But I knew more than enough to realise what was being passed off would have been laughed out of court if someone had been silly enough to offer it as economic modeling (given that it failed to capture what we knew had happened). I gather the quality of climate modeling has improved (it well and truly needed to), but it was not reassuring. Later work by Ian Castles (former ABS Chief Statistician) and David Henderson (former OECD Chief Economist) on problems with (pdf) the economic modeling underlying IPCC estimates just gave further grounds for scepticism about the rampant certainty. (The linked interview includes evidence of groupthink within the IPCC; this paper [pdf] provides a useful discussion of the issue of using market exchange rates or Purchasing Power Parity comparisons.)
But if allegedly scientific questions about climate dynamics become markers of status, of moral and intellectual worthiness–and so gist for networked zealotry–then any hope of civility is lost. But so is any chance of rational debate in any space dominated by such passions. You cannot have a factual debate if disagreement is evil.
The notion that it is all about righteousness also leads into what I call the ‘homeopathic’ approach to intellectual and artistic life, where any failure to follow the correct line then taints everything else you have said or done, because it is now all the product of someone unclean and unrighteous. A particularly nasty instance of this being this attack on Jodie Foster’s life and work because she refused to abandon Mel Gibson, a friend. But your own views don’t give you positive moral standing, don’t display your cognitive worthiness, unless contradictory views do the opposite.
None of which means that zealotry and congenial groupthink shopping is the only option. The internet is also a marvelous tool for genuine enquiry. The wealth of genuine scholarship available at one’s fingertips is immense. But even that can make the search for emotionally reassuring narratives powerful; a way of dealing and sorting and not being overwhelmed.
MODERATOR’S NOTE: This is not a post about global warming, but about debate and zealotry. Given past unhappy experiences with comment threads of doom (which, of course, just illustrate the above), any comment which attempts to turn it into a debate about the extent of anthropogenic climate change will be ruthlessly binned.