Lindsay Shepherd and the Problem of Group Polarization

Whenever you get a group of people together who share certain basic assumptions, there’s a natural tendency for the group to gravitate toward the most uncompromising positions. Social psychologists call this tendency group polarization. It explains why Trump’s victory came as such as surprise to the kind of people who listen to NPR, watch CNN, and read the New York Times; just as it explains why the Bush Administration invaded Iraq without an exit strategy. At a certain point, the neoconservative ideologues running the show, people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, stopped inviting people who disagreed with their assumptions, people like Colin Powell, to the planning meetings.

Group polarization also explains the breathtaking stupidity of Lindsay Shepherd’s inquisitors at Wilfred Laurier University. These people speak, as someone rightly observed on Twitter, “like people who are used to standing up in front of a class and talking for a long time without being challenged or interrupted.” Surrounding yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear is toxic. Sweet as it sometimes sounds, the siren song of the safe space must be resisted, lest ye be shipwrecked on the rocky coast of the Isle of Impotentia.

There’s no harm in group polarization if you’re just having fun or brainstorming. But if you actually want to change the world, if you actually want to communicate and be relevant, it’s a tendency that must be actively resisted. In The Righteous Mind (2013), psychologist Jonathan Haidt maintains that the best way to resist group polarization is to actively cultivate viewpoint diversity. Talk to people who you disagree with on a regular basis. You don’t have to agree with them. But you should at least listen to them. Bite your lip if you have to. Be respectful. Be charitable. And—for God’s sake!—avoid conversation killers like: You’re a racist! You’re a libtard SJW! You’re a Randroid! You’re a feminazi! You’re a regressive leftist! You’re a rape apologist! You’re antisemitic! You’re Islamophobic! You’re a de facto defender of white supremacy! As the Lindsay Shepherd fiasco makes clear, shouting people down, silencing them, resorting to name-calling prematurely (e.g., You’re transphobic!)—these things just alienate people.

If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality, and a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested, a Lindsay Shepherd is a middle-of-the-road moderate who’s been called a white supremacist by a thousand strangers on Twitter. Just as the violent suppression of the labor movement pushed a lot of good people into the communist camp in the 20th century, I fear that the outrageous attacks on nonconformists like Jordan Peterson and Lindsay Shepherd may radicalize a lot of middle-of-the-road moderates. As Malcolm Gladwell makes clear in David and Goliath (2014), when you crack down on terrorism by demonizing an entire community, you invariably end up strengthening support for the terrorists; and when you crack down on the civil rights movement in a draconian fashion, you invariably end up strengthening support for the civil rights movement. What’s happening on the left at the moment is striking similar. Demonize everyone who seems to disagree with you and you’ll invariably end up strengthening support for those who actually disagree with you.

Telling people off and preaching to the choir can be fun. But it’s a dangerous kind of fun. Because you get intellectually lazy. Because you start speaking in a specialized jargon that no one outside of your safe space can understand. Because you develop a contempt for everyone outside of your élite group of cool kids that frequently leads you to dehumanize those who disagree with you. Live in your little bubble long enough, and you’ll become downright delusional, like that ill-clad emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen tale.

This is especially true if you and your little possé of likeminded homies become powerful (e.g., by winning an election, taking over a department, capturing an important institution, etc.). As Aaron Haspel rightly observes in Everything (2015): “The less you are contradicted, the stupider you become. The more powerful you become, the less you are contradicted.” Wanna change the world? Stop preaching to the 20% who agree with you and arguing with the 20% who disagree with you; focus, instead, on the 60% who aren’t sure.

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

8 thoughts on “Lindsay Shepherd and the Problem of Group Polarization

  1. I wonder if a more profound problem is the economic one. Aldous Huxley, 1958…
    “By means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature.. The underlying substance will be a new kind of totalitarianism. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial… Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.”

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  2. As for turning “Marxist” into a negative epitaph, consider this: Karl Marx devotes part of Das Kapital to the discussion of how Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland, before finally driving some 15,000 crofters off her estates in the 19th century, took the best top-soils from their land to deposit in her own gardens near her residence. “This person, well instructed in economy, resolved to turn the whole country into a sheep-walk. From 1814 to 1820, 15,000 inhabitants were systematically rooted out. Their villages were destroyed and burnt, and all their fields turned into pasturage.” (Marx, Das Kapital Volume 1, 1962 ed.(1867) pp 757 ff)

    Also.. who would be in a position to have a meeting of the minds with the kind of mentality described here? Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
    “I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.”,+ Democracy+in+America&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjiiqDUiMbW AhUU1WMKHeBcCacQ6AEIK DAA#v=onepage&q=Alexis%20de%20Tocqueville%2C%20Democracy%20in%20America&f=false
    See page 338

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  3. Condemning those who are different is one way people bond – and in our present society, there is also, alas, a lot of notoriety – and often money – to be gained by creating controversy that damns certain groups. To universally condemn either the University administrators or the graduate student in this case is dangerous.. it leads to scapegoating and much harm. It is, as John’s essay suggests, mentally easy and simpler than actually getting to the bottom of opposing ideas through lengthy conversation.

    Daniel Kahneman’s insight into the lower energy costs of “fast thinking” rather than engaging in data collection and the testing of hypotheses (slow thinking) suggest that people have evolved to react quickly to immediate problems on the basis of a kind of received wisdom lodged in collectively believed aphorisms and plausible just- so stories. It takes far less mental energy to initially place causality in the realm of the social and even the “superstitious”, rather than to engage in the harder work of finding it in the mundane analysis of the material world.

    Fast thinking is, moreover, often biased by a superficial correlational bias, which misconstrues causality; it may even be based on magical thinking. Cargo cults, ruinous property destruction, acts of mass suicide, and deliberate and horrific massacres, as described by Samuel Hearn between Dene and Inuit in the Canadian Arctic, were all based on magical thinking.

    Scapegoating, witch burning, mob lynching, massacres, genocide, war: all are heavy and bitter lessons about a dark and frightening side of human nature. We need to learn more about ideologically motivated evil: about how people can be motivated by absolute conviction that whole ethnic or religious minorities, or whole classes of people must be suppressed or even killed in order to restore order and prosperity.

    This is such a widespread phenomenon that just contemplating a list of groups and organizations that have at various times been targeted by national governments, mobs, and/or conspiracy theories is tantamount to recent world history: at various times members of all of the following have been persecuted: various religious groups (“Pagans” and “witches”, Jews, Muslims, Catholics) various political groups (Jacobians, Communists, Al Quaeda, ISIS, “infidels”, IRA, FLQ) and even some economically labeled categories (aristocrats, landowners, capitalists, “banksters”, “libtards”and “welfare queens”). In most cases attempts were made to rally support to defeat or even to annihilate people in the denigrated category: for the “good” of the nation, the fruition of a divine plan, preservation of a superior race, or redress of some supernatural imbalance. Conspiracy ideation can clearly take hold of individuals as well as groups; terrorism often begins with the conscription by conversion of one person at a time, through networks.

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