Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Why is society becoming so polarised?

We are currently living in an era of increasing societal polarisation, in which the level of popular angst, outrage, and disagreement over various social issues has reached fever pitch proportions. As has now been widely publicised, in the putative Land Of The Free, free speech has been under assault on college campuses for some time, attracting often violent opposition to guests speakers (Ben Shapiro recently required US$600k of security to be able to speak at Berkeley). Defenders of those speakers argue that freedom of speech is an essential institution that needs to be defended (and if not on college campuses, then where?), and that in many cases those speakers have valuable contributions to offer. Meanwhile, opponents claim that these speakers are actually just smuggling in racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable views and hate speech under the guise of 'free speech'. What on earth is going on?

This trend has affected me personally. I consider myself to be a relatively balanced and open-minded person, but increasingly these days, I find myself in acrimonious disagreement with others (usually online), and seemingly completely unable to reach them through reasoned argument. On many occasions, we seem to be talking completely at cross purposes. This experience has prompted me to reflect on what might be going on, and on what I might be doing wrong.

There are many underlying causes for the increasing disharmony we are witnessing - indoctrination into one narrow set of belief systems (compared to the preferable multi-dimensional thinking I discussed here); emotional investment in the outcome; deep-seated resentment and a sense of victimisation stemming from various sources of actual and perceived unfairness in society; and merely differing core assumptions. However, I have recently discovered another underlying pattern to many of the disagreements, which until recently was not evident to me.

The underlying pattern is that - very often - the core basis for the disagreement is that one party is coming at the problem from the perspective of bigger-picture abstract principle; while the other is coming at it from the perspective of the likely short-term consequences of the application of that principle. Allow me to explain.

The ability to grant primacy to a bigger-picture principle over the near-term consequences of its application is perhaps best exemplified by Evelyn Beatrice Hall's famous quote, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". Here, Hall is demonstrating a profound appreciation for the fact that the importance of free speech extends well beyond current vistas and the topical issue of the day. Even if thwarting free speech would be expedient in the present instance and yield short term gains, those gains would be trivial compared to what could be lost over the long term if the institution of free speech were to be eroded.

Another example is the unjustified criticism criminal defence attorneys often attract. "How can you defend such horrible criminals" is a common refrain. In the short term, in a specific case, a vigorous and well executed defence may indeed result in a criminal 'getting off'. And yet the bigger picture principles at stake are the value of having a fair trial; guarding against the excessive use of state power; and the importance of both sides of the story being able to be presented by skilled advocates before judgement is rendered. These institutions guard against innocent people being wrongly prosecuted, and in the long run, having checks on the excessive use of state power is an incredibly important thing. Criticism of criminal defence attorneys is understandable, but entirely misguided.

Indeed, it can be argued that the fundamental underpinnings of Western institutions - the very foundations of Western prosperity - are undergirded by this very idea: the primacy of general principle over ad hoc application. Even the rule of law is based on this foundation - its application may result in some short term injustices, but over the longer term, the rule of law results in much less unfairness and corruption than one based purely on ad hoc judgements.

By comparison, countries that have fallen into the hands of tyrannical dictators often did so because they prioritised short term expediency over adherence to long term principle. This is the very basis for political demagoguery, and why it is so dangerous. Institutionalised principles are an essential bulwark against demagoguery and tyranny, which is why they must be so steadfastly defended. If but one generation drops the ball, a country can quickly descend into chaos (witness what has happened in the past to Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba, and in eras past, Germany).

An example: A mock debate on Trump's immigration policies

An example of how this fundamental clash of perspective can play out is the fictional discussion below, which centres on the issue of whether the US judiciary ought to have struck down Trump's highly controversial and objectionable immigration ban, that sought to impose blanket travel bans on travellers from a number of Middle-Eastern Islamic nations. Person A is someone coming from the vantage point of arguing the issue from the perspective of general principle, whereas Person B is focused purely on the consequences of an application of those principles in the near term:

A: "Although I disagree with Trump's recent immigration policy, I object to the US courts striking this policy action down. Separation of powers is an important doctrine, and our laws are very clear on this point: immigration policy is exclusively within the purview of the democratically-elected president and the executive, and Trump was operating well within his constitutional rights in seeking to implement such a policy. The erosion of our institutions - particularly the importance of judicial impartiality; the separation of powers; and the importance of keeping politics out of the courts - needs to be vigorously resisted, as it is a dangerous slippery slope".

B:  "But why would you say that? Trump's immigration policy is totally racist and unacceptable in 21st century society. Why would you want to defend Trump's racist policy? Are you some kind of Islamaphobe or something?".

A: "I am not defending the policy. I think the policy itself is deplorable. But Trump was well within his rights to implement such a policy, and the courts have overstepped their constitutional authority in striking the policy down. I see this as a dangerous precedent and believe it represents a creeping erosion in our constitutional norms".

B: "I think you are just saying that because you are a biased pro Trump supporter and Islamaphobe. Why do you think it is ok that we are targeting the whole Muslim population? Do you think all Muslims are terrorists or something? OMG I can't believe you think that - what is wrong with you? You can't tar an entire ethnicity or religion with the same brush you know. Have you ever even been to an Islamic country? Typical white privileged racist nonsense. Go back to Charlottesville".

A: "I'm not being racist. As noted, I do not support the policy itself. I'm not even a Trump supporter. What I am saying is that the judiciary overstepped its authority. The potential consequences of an unelected and democratically unaccountable judiciary unilaterally usurping executive power is something we should be concerned about. Would you feel the same way if the judiciary was striking down a policy you agreed with?". 

B: "Have you ever actually been to an Islamic country?"

A: "I don't see how that is relevant, but no I haven't".

B: "See - you don't even know what you're talking about. What are you some kind of neo white supremacist? Try doing some actual research before you start sprouting off about how it's ok ban Muslims coming to our country. Take your racist remarks elsewhere".

A" "I object to you calling me a racist. I am not a racist and have not said anything racist. As I said from the start, I do not support Trump's policy. I demand you take that accusation back."

B: "This whole time you've been defending Trump. Don't even try to backtrack now. I know a racist when I see one. I'm surprised you can get away with saying this publicly".

As is hopefully evident (which again, is a mock conversation I entirely made up, but is representative of some of the less successful debates I've had with people), there is a fundamental misunderstanding at play here. Party B is preoccupied with the outcome in this particular instance, and views any broader appeal to principle as being little more than perfunctory rationalisations that are a thinly-veiled means of trying to justify the underlying substantive policy, which party B vehemently disagree with at a visceral level. Party A, by comparison, is thinking more abstractly.

Who is in the right? Obviously, in my opinion, Party A. Even if the arguments being made by A merely were expedient rationalisations (which in most cases they are not), that is irrelevant - what matters is the substance of the arguments themselves. But it is very easy to see why Party B may react the way they do if they are unable to understand where A is coming from or the importance of bigger-picture principles. From the perspective of Party B, Party A is trying to justify Trump's extremely objectionable travel ban, and so ergo must hold the same views as Trump.

Educational standards need to improve

There has been a fundamental failure in our education system when large numbers of students are coming out of universities - particularly from the social sciences departments - not only with strident, ideological views (instead of balanced views that are able to bring to bear alternative perspective - see my blog post here), but also with an inability to understand the importance of bigger-picture principles, and an inability to think and debate abstractly. There is a lot of unfairness in society - to be sure - but that sense of unfairness and victimisation cannot be allowed to morph into strident ideological convictions that have no basis in reality.

Indeed, not only are broader principles not being comprehended, but they are the very principles that have given rise to Western prosperity over the past several centuries in the first place - ironically, the very prosperity that is allowing such students the privilege of obtaining a university degree. People fought and died in bygone centuries to have Western institutions implemented, that act as bulwarks against tyranny, but too many people today are taking those accomplishments - and the resultant freedoms and prosperity emanating therefrom - for granted.

Indeed, the situation is arguably very analogous to the old saying that the first generation makes the family fortune; the second generation sustains it; and the third generation loses it. This has been known to occur because by the third generation, the values that underpinned the acquisition of the fortune in the first place - hard work, sacrifice, thrift, perseverance, etc - have been eroded, and subsequent to that, it doesn't take long for the fortune to be squandered. The Roman Empire succumbed to decadence and complacency for the same reason.

Over the past 200 years, the West - uniquely - has managed to buck the global and historical trend of tyranny. It was a rare case where a society was able to place the perspective of Party A over the perspective of Party B, because if Party B becomes the accepted perspective, then a society will quickly succumb to demagoguery, followed swiftly by fascism. Westerners live in prosperity today as a result of the success of past generations in maintaining this situation. It remains to be seen whether the current generation is up to the task of perpetuating the tradition. Unfortunately, some of the signs at the moment are not particularly encouraging in that regard.