Are We Becoming More Polarized or More Tolerant?

By Graham Peterson

Andrew Sullivan has a nice discussion of liberal discourse at The Dish.  He’s troubled by the way that the media and activists swallowed without question the latest campus rape hysteria, cooked up by Jackie.  But then he points out that the right also swallows without question its own hysterical narratives, and shames public dissent (see Benghazi, the Dixie Chicks, etc.).

Everyone would like to protect members of their group from being attacked, especially if they believe they are under consistent attack.  Both feminist women and police officers operate under that beliefs, so both take limited physical violence against their populations and connect it to much more prevalent negative attitudes toward themselves.

This has the advantage of upping the urgency of their concerns with their audience.  More adherents to their beliefs imply greater confidence that their beliefs are correct.  It’s a win situation.

So when we can’t find evidence that cops get shot constantly (because they don’t), or that rape is common (because it’s not), we resort to blaming culture for deviant cases.

Thus police are blaming anti-brutality protesters because Ismaaiyl Brinsely just murdered two cops —  just like feminists blamed “misogyny extremists” when Elliot Rodgers murdered two women.

Pronouncements on The Other Team’s Culture are prejudiced and unhelpful.  Values and their expression exist on a continuum, surely, and rape is connected to rape jokes just like cop killing is connected to police protests.  But turning every tragedy into an opportunity to scream at half of the nation doesn’t get us anywhere.

Andrew Sullivan thinks that the screaming indicates we’re becoming more polarized, holing ourselves into corners and content with our ideological narcissism as long as we stack up “likes.”  I disagree.

It is possible that the amount of discourse has actually increased, while the average quality of it has (temporarily) decreased.  The price of discourse has fallen.  It’s cheap to argue with strangers on the internet; you don’t lose babysitters and best friends like you would in traditional social spaces.  And when the cost of something falls, you get more of it.

As the marginal arguer logs on, she betrays her inelegance and meager practice.  He screams loudly, commits logical fallacies, and when lots of him appear in a rush, it looks like people are getting worse at arguing.  But which people?  You cannot compare public discourse in 1970 to public discourse in 2014 because a ton more of the public is talking.

There is a similar issue in economics.  Intuitively, we take Wal Mart as evidence that average quality of goods has plummeted.  “Look at these flimsy toasters they sell nowadays.”  True.  In the first act, new competitors often bring a lower quality good to people who wanted a toaster but could not afford the nice one.  But in the second act, in the long run, that competition inspires greater quality across toasters.

People are not getting dumber and less tolerant, and democracy is not in decline.  The number of people thinking and commenting and engaging has exploded, and most of the newbies are atrocious at it.  I sure was.  If you add a bunch of short people to a room that was full of tall people, average height drops.  But height drops as an artifact of statistical observation, not because nutrition is in decline.

So let’s keep being tolerant and talking.  And let’s not dismiss swaths of the polity, economy, races, genders, and so on because of their culture.  It’s a sophisticated argument for category prejudice.

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