Tribalism In The Internet Age of Politics

By David Metcalfe

October 2, 2018

A House Divided

A typical American family sits down at the dinner table and mom starts talking about her day, but is suddenly interrupted, “WRONG!!!” yells dad. She tries to start talking again, “WRONG!!!” yells dad. Mom calls dad an immature bully. Dad calls mom a lying crook. They force the kids to take sides. Two kids take mom’s side, and dad calls them “very weak” and “dishonest”. Two kids take dad’s side, and mom calls them “deplorable”. The other kid takes neither side, and they both hate that kid.

When dad hangs out with his friends, he constantly talks about how much he hates mom. He says that everything she says is a lie, that she steals money, and she should go to prison. He constantly brings up the time that she purchased things behind his back and was later found out. His friends all agree, and cheer him on.

When mom hangs out with her friends, she constantly talks about how much she hates dad. She says he is racist, misogynistic, stupid, and is ruining the children with his attitude. She constantly brings up the times he hit on other women, refused to pay the pool cleaner, and his sketchy financial statements. Her friends all agree, and cheer her on.

Inevitably, there is a divorce. Out of the five kids, only 3 show up to testify in court. Two kids are on dad’s side, and they talk about how terrible mom is. One kid is on mom’s side, and talks about how terrible dad is. The evidence is weighted. Dad gets the house, custody of all five kids, and all the money. Mom has to move away, and gets no further say in the kids lives.

In the following months, the kids who supported mom grow in their immense disdain for dad. They throw tantrums, wreck stuff, and complain constantly. The kid who showed up to testify in court is angry at the kid who didn’t show up, “Don’t you realize the only reason dad got custody is because you didn’t testify!?” They go to social services and complain that dad got custody illegally, and an investigation ensues. Social services doesn’t find enough evidence to relinquish dad’s custody, but one of the kids seems to constantly think that they’re about to get rid of him.

The kids who supported dad are happy they won. Dad rewards them and tells them how awesome they are. He encourages them to ridicule their siblings for not supporting him. At the dinner table every evening, he rants for hours about how smart he is, how great of a dad he is, and how amazing the family is doing now that mom is gone. The kids praise him and feed his ego.

Would anyone want to grow up in an environment like that? Of course not! And yet, this is the political environment we have created over the last few years.

Political leaders are a lot like parents. They provide leadership and guidance but are still subject to the law. They have disagreements with each other and have to find ways of settling them. Sometimes their citizens get mad at them, and they have to maintain a good relationship while doing what is best for the their citizens. And just as a family in turmoil has severely negative consequences for its children, so too does a contentious political situation.

Family counselors employ certain strategies to reduce conflict. suggests these 7 tips for struggling couples:

  1. Explore your hopes, expectations and relationship concerns
  2. Understand each other better
  3. Find effective ways to communication with each other
  4. Explain why there are differences of opinion & what to do about them
  5. Learn problem solving strategies
  6. Learn how to move on from marital disappointments and anger
  7. Understand the possible implications of a breakup

What if we were to make use of this advice in our political discourse?

Online Radicalization of Discourse

Never has America had such extreme polarization of views. We’re losing the ability to communicate and empathize with each other. We care more about winning than being right.

The internet age is no doubt a major factor in catalyzing this. In a normal community, you interact with the people around you. Even in the most unified areas of America, you will always find people with a variety of views. You will be forced to interact and co-operate with them on a regular basis. The internet changes that.

With online communities, you can avoid interacting with people of different views. You can join a Reddit or Tumblr forum where everyone believes that the earth is flat, or that the government is trying to eliminate white people. While in a normal community you would be discouraged and forced to temper your views, an online community can give you unlimited and total support. You’ll become more confident. And excessive confidence in a minority view based on misrepresented facts is what creates extremism. Any online or in-person interactions that come about with differing views then become hostile and accusatory. Even mainstream views can become more extreme and, although not as crazy, still create the same hostile discourse and “us” vs. “them” mentality.

Twitter is a hotbed of political discourse and thought formation. But it’s hardly an effective way of communicating with one another in a meaningful way on complex issues. Can you imagine if a couple went to a counseling session and they could only communicate their problems in 280 characters or less? Twitter is too often a series of gut reactions, unhindered collective passions, and witch hunts. Empathy is developed in understanding the humanity of others. Twitter removes the humanity; turning everyone into a bunch of words with which to agree or disagree.

The climate of fake news is getting worse. While news used to be done by professionals and required extensive financial support, staffing, and government standards, we now have thousands of “news” outlets run by some random guy in his basement. Many are done in groups of people who all share the same extreme views and work together to misrepresent reality.

We have a variety of media bias fact check websites, but there are three main problems: first, many people do not care about what the actual facts are; they just like to hear what they want to hear. Second, many people do not want the effort of having to check a news source every time they read an article (often they are too lazy to even read the entire article, but not too lazy to create an entire worldview around it). Third, many of the media bias fact check sites are themselves biased! They rate sources they don’t like as “extreme” and “false”, and ones they do like as “moderate” and “accurate”, so many people do not trust them.

We Can Do Better

Differing views and the internet are not inherently bad things. They are actually very valuable things, with the potential to do a lot of good.

In many nations throughout history and in our current time, having a different view than what is considered “mainstream” is illegal, and will get you thrown in prison or killed. Guaranteeing everyone the freedom to believe what they want is fundamental to the betterment of ourselves and society. But with freedom comes responsibility. Responsibility to protect minority views while still upholding truth and the core values of the constitution. Responsibility to allow alternative news but to criticize it effectively in an honest pursuit of truth. Responsibility to limit free speech when that very freedom is infringing on the freedom of others.

The internet is a form of free speech expression that has exploded in recent years. It gives us access to incredible amounts of information, and gives anyone a voice, regardless of wealth, status, race, gender, etc. But these unfiltered, free for all forums of discourse have the potential to bring out the worst in humanity. They can create extreme communities, diminish the capacity for human empathy, and over simplify complex topics into gut reactions and collective passions. These form tribalism: an excessive devotion to a certain group, where reason is cast aside in support of subordination to an ideology. We’ve seen this more than ever in the last two years with those who side for or against Trump.

America’s very conception was a result of enlightenment thinking, where reason, evidence, and individual rights were paramount, and allegiance to the state was not in upholding a particular person or group, but in upholding core values of equality, freedom, and justice. Tribalism is a regression from this, and is only going to continue creating division and hatred.

What Americans need, now more than ever, is a re-dedication to these founding principles. We are all in this together, and fighting each other with dirty attacks and purposeful misinformation will not accomplish the greater good for either side. Mom and dad need to find a way of getting along, despite their differences, for the good of the children. We can work to accomplish this in politics the same way you can in a marriage. We need to understand, empathize, and effectively communicate with one another. While many politicians currently encourage a stupid, reactionary, tribal form of political discourse, we, as both liberals and conservatives, carry the responsibility to improve the quality of discourse on our own. It is a government of the people, and if we demand a higher quality of discourse going forward, we can avoid the regression track we are currently on.

Let’s keep the American family together.


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