A common worldview is one of the most important things that hold a society together. In 2020, Americans have been pulled apart by incompatible perspectives more than ever before. Opinions on Covid-19 are divided by a yawning gulf. We had a presidential election whose outcome many on both sides perceived as existentially important. Traditional media outlets have drifted apart, are focusing more exclusively on their target audiences and continue to diminish in importance relative to social media and independent producers. Americans’ beliefs and values are diverging. We’re less confident that we can cooperate with one another and less open to alternative points of view. Can a country in which people refuse to listen to one another’s perspectives continue to function as a democracy? And can we stop this trend, even if we try?
A whole bevy of psychological mechanisms help us live harmoniously in groups. We love discovering that we have things in common, and we experience distress when people disagree with us. When our beliefs or values are out of alignment with those of others, we strive for realignment through mechanisms that psychologist Fritz Heider describes in his balance theory. We might try to persuade. We might avoid talking about points of contention, or conform just to get along, or eject intractable deviants from the group: anything to achieve consonance.
Because we love agreeing with people, we experience strong ideology and value homophily—that is, we’re attracted to people who think like us. On social media, where we can control our social environment with the touch of a button, we can artificially construct a tightly knit tribe.
But our ability to edit people who think differently from us out of our online reality seems to be transforming our real world expectations. We no longer believe that there’s any value in hearing things we don’t already agree with. And our god-like power to control our online world is causing the skills we would use to achieve balance in real-world groups to atrophy.
There were many ejections of deviants this year. James Bennet, whom the New York Times hired to increase its ideological diversity, was ousted after publishing an op-ed that called the national guard to establish order in US cities after the conflicts that followed the death of George Floyd. “Running this puts Black @nytimes staffers in danger,” Times employees tweeted. Young woke employees characterized the publication of an opinion they disagreed with as a “mistake” or “process failure.” Bari Weiss left the Times the following month, explaining that the paper was failing to resist tribalism and had allowed Twitter to “become its ultimate editor.” That same week, Andrew Sullivan left Vox, lamenting that mainstream media could no longer “host a diversity of opinion” and was putting the “‘moral clarity’ of some self-appointed saints before the goal of objectivity in reporting.” More recently, co-founder Matthew Yglesias left Vox because he felt unable to honestly address the issues of the day given the dominant editorial sensibilities, citing, in part, criticism he received for signing an open letter against cancel culture.
Self-sorting like this breaks our pluralistic society down along ideological lines. It makes us feel less like one cooperating group and more like competing tribes. And what makes things much worse is that when people form homophilic bands their points of view become ever more alike and ever more different from those of everyone else.
In 2007, researchers Cass Sunstein, Reid Hastie and David Schkade convened groups of people to talk about political issues. Each group was asked to discuss their views on global warming, affirmative action, and same-sex unions and to try to arrive at a consensus view. The participants reported their opinions before the discussions began and after they ended.
You might expect that, after group deliberation, group members’ thoughts on any issue would get closer to the group average. For instance, a person who felt very strongly that the US should join a climate treaty might be a little less confident after talking to a group who all felt less strongly than she did, while whoever was least enthusiastic would end up a little more in favor of the idea. By this hypothesis, if the average response of the group was a 7, on a 10 point scale, before the discussion, it would still be 7 after, but the spread of the responses would be reduced. Some 5s would become 6s. Some 9s would become 8s. Opinions would regress to the mean.
But that wasn’t what the researchers found. In fact, the groups became more strongly for or against any proposition as a whole, depending on whether the group was, on average, for or against it at the outset. So if the group opposed same sex unions before the conversation, people would be even more strongly opposed after talking the issue through. If they had been in favor, they’d come away even more strongly in favor. Views tended to become more extreme. People became more polarized.
A society that divides itself into partisan camps will find that their views on every issue will gradually drift further and further apart—or perhaps not so gradually. In the study, people’s views moved significantly during a fifteen-minute discussion. In the real world, people’s thinking on Covid-19 became extremely polarized in a matter of weeks.
Young people, who have grown up in an electronic bubble, where they can control everything that they see and hear, often feel that it isn’t necessary to coexist with ideas they find disagreeable—one of the core requirements of citizenship. Sadly, the world is now adapting to them, rather than the other way around.
The world is not your social media feed. The things that you thumbs-down might disappear from view for a little while, but will come back, bigger and badder than before. If you’re unlucky, the next time you encounter them, you might be hearing them from the lips of a US president.
The new censors relish the idea of deplatforming people, depriving ideas they find repugnant of access to the most popular venues. But if you shut out the views of whole segments of the population, those people are going to stop coming to your platform. By deplatforming them, you’ve lost access to that audience. Controlling the platform gives you the power to reshape your bubble, but it doesn’t give you the power to reshape the world.
The atomization of the information environment has accelerated over the last few years, but it started decades ago. Conservative talk radio and Fox News took off because there was a large audience just waiting to be captured by anyone willing to speak to them in terms that they related to. The left-leaning mainstream media played an important role in creating the Trump voter by excluding certain viewpoints from consideration. That process is accelerating and perhaps unstoppable: the modern media environment naturally enables increasing platform specialization and market segmentation. But we don’t have to exacerbate the breakdown in communication by deliberately shoving people out of our sphere of mutual comprehension.
If we act like one nation, then the psychology of group cohesion will start to work for us rather than against us. If we can tolerate disagreement, we can go back to exchanging ideas with our fellow citizens in such a way that social mechanisms will draw us closer together, rather than pushing us further apart. We need that. Especially among the liberal elites who read publications like the New York Times. How can they lead this country if they don’t even know what’s going on? The answer is, they won’t.