Demonizing

I used to spend a lot of time on a internet message board focused on politics.  While there were a handful of hardliners on there who generally just repeated the talking points from partisan talk radio, most of the discussion was intelligent and thoughtful.  I learned a lot and it was a good place to have respectful informed conversation (albeit virtual).

Eventually I found it to be taking to much of my time so I stopped visiting and the site later closed down (presumably not because I quit visiting).

After that my primary exposure to political commentary came from facebook.  The quality of the conversations couldn’t have been more different.  There the political comments were almost always mean-spirited and shockingly uninformed.  I saw disturbing sides of people that I hadn’t known existed.  It was an ugly mess. Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a 15 minute conversation with the average voter.  Perhaps now the best argument against it is facebook.

I’m using the past tense because I eventually started blocking anyone who made political posts. For a while I responded to many of them, often with links to Snopes.  It was astonishing to me how willing people are to believe even the most ridiculous accusations, as long as they are directed to the politicians of the “other side.”  I ultimately concluded that it was better to just ignore the stupidity than to discredit it, so I started blocking my “friends” who put up political nonsense. That was a good move.

Because there is so little difference between the political parties on things of substance, like economic and foreign policy, or maybe because understanding those things requires too much effort, political attacks these days seem almost always to be ad hominem and absurd.  For example, according to many of my facebook friends, President Obama was born in Africa, isn’t an American citizen, is secretly a Muslim and is plotting to have the U.N. take away our right to own guns and to outlaw homeschooling.  I just checked a couple of their “timelines” and this kind of stuff is still there, being posted multiple times a day.  Evidently it isn’t enough to just express the opinion that he is wrong about something, instead the accusation is that he is evil and orchestrating some nefarious conspiracy.

I just finished reading a book that discusses how fear can be exploited by political factions and morphed into hatred.  The process involves demonizing and depersonalizing those perceived to be the enemy.  That spirit seems to be alive and well in America.

And while my facebook acquaintances may not be representative of the nation as a whole, just scan through the comments after any story on CNN.com and you’ll see that they certainly aren’t alone.  I imagine it is probably much worse on other news websites.

I try to avoid political discussions these days.  It is exceedingly rare, I think, for anyone’s opinion to be changed by a political argument.  In fact, there is evidence that being presented with contrary facts actually tends to harden the false opinion:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

– See more at: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire/?page=1#sthash.OGBLLZ9q.dpuf

And as the article discusses, those who are passionately incorrect are the persons most likely to vote–an unhealthy combination.

I hope for a day when “the government” is irrelevant.  But in the meantime it’s sad to see so much energy that could be devoted to seeking meaningful change (or to preserving those important things that shouldn’t be changed) expended knocking down straw men and inflaming foolish passions.

 

Advertisements

25 comments on “Demonizing

  1. Jeff says:

    That’s extremely interesting, Bill. For the last few weeks, I’ve been investigating and researching the topic of Buddhist Economics (Schumacher’s book) and finally ended up at a site where one of the principals stated that the first step is to convince people that they have an ideology, which is not easy, since most people think ideology applies to some foreign political system, not their own belief system. If and when that is accomplished, then the next “incredibly difficult” step is to educate people that their ideology is socially constructed, “not natural and ineluctable.” What you’ve touched on in this post is the key, I think, to understanding an awful lot of human history – a history that doesn’t seem likely to change, to our collective detriment. I put up a new post last night about this journey that I’ve been on for the last few weeks. Demonization is just another aspect of tribalism, don’t you agree?

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I enjoyed your post Jeff. As I mentioned to you before I’ve had Small is Beautiful on my must-read list for a long time. I need to move it up to the top of the pile.

      I think a convincing case can be made that the human tendency to fear/hate “the other” is a remnant of tribalism, likely an evolutionary by-product of a time when fear of members of other tribes contributed to survival. Modern day racism, xenophobia, bigotry, etc. are likely just continuations of that. Those who want to cultivate animosity (toward an opposing politician, or another country, for example) do well to tap into that fear/hatred of “the other.” So to intensify the fear/hatred of Mr. Obama, for example, all they need to do is make the claim that he is “not one of us,” (i.e. he’s not an American, not a Christian, not white, etc.).

      Like

      • Jeff says:

        I changed the title of the post to “McMindfulness” and added a sentence to the end to ward off any feelings of despair. My uneducated take on Buddhism is that a core precept of it revolves around the interconnectedness of every living thing – not just humans. When that interconnectedness (the Kingdom of God?) is properly understood, tribalism goes away. Environmental catastrophes also go away, because when one part of an interconnected world suffers, everything else suffers, too. Polar bears starving on tiny ice floes in the Arctic are suffering, just like starving people. What causes that suffering? An unjust economic system. How’s that for a pipe dream?

        Like

  2. DM says:

    I have made the same choices on many of my friend’s face book feeds. also quit listening to talk radio, regular radio, most main stream news and will rarely comment on an internet website where I know I will be subject to random strangers spewing out mean spirited crap. (I’m making an exception here right now) That is a very interesting observation about peoples minds not being changed by contrary facts/rather getting more set in their ways. There are two verses of scripture that guide most of the conversations I have in public : 2 Timothy 2:23 and 1 Thessalonians 4:11,12.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      The passage from 1 Thessalonians is a personal favorite of mine. That letter is the oldest existing Christian document, making Paul’s advice all the more interesting.

      Like

  3. Eumaeus says:

    The more you “stay home” the more “the government” is irrelevant. (I think)

    or to quote our friend, Ben Hewitt, http://benhewitt.net/2013/09/24/number-one/, quoting Elliot Coleman

    “It’s important for democracy to have a certain percentage of people feeding themselves so they can tell government to go f**k off.”

    As for me personally, I think they’re all corrupted by power a la All the Kings Men, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041113/, and I don’t believe a word of what they’re saying like the secretary in Mr Smith Goes to Washington http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031679/

    I’m fully jaded a la This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America’s Gilded Capital Book by Mark Leibovich and don’t know if I’ll ever believe any of it again…

    When I say I can’t believe anymore i’m talking about the system as it is… not T. Jefferson, democracy, etc.

    Like

    • Did you watch this? http://billmoyers.com/segment/mark-leibovich-on-glitz-and-greed-in-washington/ It’s enough to make one weep for our country … for the world …

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I’m with you.

      I’ve shared that quote from Eliot Coleman on here before. It’s so good it merits quoting in full:

      The small organic farm greatly discomforts the corporate/industrial mind because the small organic farm is one of the most relentlessly subversive forces on the planet. Over centuries both the communist and the capitalist systems have tried to destroy small farms because small farmers are a threat to the consolidation of absolute power. Thomas Jefferson said he didn’t think we could have democracy unless at least 20% of the population was self-supporting on small farms so they were independent enough to be able to tell an oppressive government to stuff it.

      It is very difficult to control people who can create products without purchasing inputs from the system, who can market their products directly thus avoiding the involvement of mercenary middlemen, who can butcher animals and preserve foods without reliance on industrial conglomerates, and who can’t be bullied because they can feed their own faces.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. How timely. There’s a post I’d like to write, but I know it likely will incite almost knee-jerk passion — from “both sides” — without consideration for the complexity of what I have to say, the gist of which is that I don’t really have a “side.”

    I think there are many like me, but we’re all afraid of being demonized for failing to take a side or appearing to take the “wrong” side.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I know exactly what you mean. One of the worst things about our polarized society is that expressing an opinion on certain subjects will create an assumption that you also have a bunch of other opinions, that you don’t actually have. And since so many people these days are ready to spew vile at liberals/conservatives/evangelicals/atheists, etc. (depending on which labels they have attached to “the other side”) it’s usually best to try to avoid getting labelled, unless you enjoy arguing and being insulted.

      Like

  5. The saddest part of the demonization is that it alienates us from each other and robs us of our belief that we can each make a difference. I’ve also stopped discussing politics, watching TV, answering polls and avoiding the general horrid negativity. I try my best to credit my friends’ good intentions and realize that they’ve more gullibility than is good for anyone. I still do my research and vote, because despite everything I am still an optimist.

    Like

    • Renee says:

      You are so right in your observations. If only we could put aside ourselves to move ahead with a common and positive goal.

      Like

    • Bill says:

      You make a great point here. I strongly believe that we should assume that however wrong a person’s opinions may seem to us, they are well intentioned (unless the opinion is hateful). Many of my friends who have expressed political opinions that make my skin crawl are genuinely fine, compassionate, good-hearted people. I choose to be an optimist too.

      Like

  6. shoreacres says:

    During the first, fervent wave of “hashtag diplomacy” related to the Boko Haram situation in Nigeria, I found myself pondering a strange reality of internet life. Increasingly, people seem to confuse posting to Twitter or Facebook with “doing something,” much as adorning a car with a colored ribbon or wearing a rubber bracelet is “doing something.”

    There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it tends to provide more emotional satisfaction than concrete results. I’ve wondered about the vehemence of internet exchanges myself, and it seems plausible to me that the same dynamic — i.e., confusing virtual for real, and desiring emotional satisfaction over concrete results — doesn’t play into it all. If PatriotforLife can best LiberalLeaning in an online argument, or AtheistAl reduces BaptistBetty to a frothing mess, nothing changes except one part of the argument feels justified for a while.

    I have some deeply-held faith convictions, and some interesting experiences related to my faith journey, but at this point I can’t imagine posting any of that online. It would be akin to taking one of my life’s treasures, my kitty Dixie Rose, into the center of Houston, throwing her out of the car and leaving. I can imagine what would happen.

    As for politics? There are plenty of times I run into assertions that leave me frothing just a bit. That’s when I quietly leave. I have some pretty firm political convictions, too, but rather than arguing on the internet, I contribute to candidates, read about the issues, attend town hall meetings and vote. I think it’s a better way to #engagewiththerealworld.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      The nature of the internet makes it all worse, I think. We can publish ugly thoughts and comments without having to actually be looking in a person’s face while we do it. I’m reminded of a comic you sent me once, depicting two people arguing on the internet, and then an angel picked one of them up and carried him to the other person so they were face to face. That was the end of the argument.

      I’m also reminded of Wendell Berry’s little poem:

      Better than any argument
      is to rise at dawn
      and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.

      Like

  7. The more time I spend at home, away from the world of consumerism and greed, the happier I am. I fear I will become a recluse, because I don’t see how change is possible. Every opportunity for protest has been squelched and voices silenced. And any voice of reason is preaching to the choir. This statement of yours is chilling in its implications and in its reality: “those who are passionately incorrect are the persons most likely to vote–an unhealthy combination.”

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I am in full agreement with your first sentence. Me too.
      But I’m choosing to believe that change is possible. I call myself an optimist. In this age of negativity I reckon that’s the contrarian way to be. 🙂

      As for the passionately incorrect, I’m reminded of these lines from Yeats’ “The Second Coming”:

      The best lack all conviction, while the worst
      Are full of passionate intensity

      Like

  8. Good Luck Duck says:

    I have begun practicing radical avoidance. I avoid political posts I agree with like I do the ones I don’t. I’m turning my attention only toward that which I want to see more of, and that kind of ignorance works for me.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I agree with you and that’s a great perspective. Give your attention to the things you’d like to see more of. Who wants to see more political mudslinging? Not me!

      Like

  9. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, what a refreshing post and wonderful comments that have followed. I will not argue politics or religion with any one. I will have discussions if they chose to have one but changing some one’s mind on any subject has to come from their logic and not my arguments. If they want information or my opinions that’s one thing but to force them to think like me will never happen. I agree that when people try that method it only entrenches them more in their beliefs whether right or wrong because no one really wants to admit they might be wrong. I personally have changed some opinions and beliefs along my journey of life but it’s come from my own research that’s has been sparked by intelligent conversations.

    You are so correct with your comment about the social media of today. People will say things on the social media that they would never say while face to face. Social media has in some ways brought out the worst side of people. I too have limited my exposure to negative social media. In fact in the 150 or so media friends, none have come from my requests. When some one asks to be a media friend, I research their sites before just accepting the request. I just don’t have time to stew about the crazy political mess the country and really the entire world has created. I have to live in the world and culture of today but I don’t have to live according to the standards the culture puts forth. I too think there is a higher calling in life and will continue to strive to maybe not change the world but just improve my realm of influence around me.

    Have a great non demonizing day.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Thanks Dave. I love your comment. All the comments have been great. I was nervous after posting this. Even talking about talking about politics risks offending/alienating people in this hyper-partisan environment. It’s been nice to see the thoughtful responses and it seems clear that I’m not the only one who has experienced this.

      I’ve changed my opinions and beliefs on a few things over the years, but like you it was never because someone argued me into submission. When I’ve changed it’s been because of getting to know and respect people who I came to respect and value. My care for them (and my appreciation of them) caused me to realize that certain judgments I had made were wrong.

      I’m convinced that we’d have far less acrimony in the world if we knew each other better.

      Like

  10. associatedluke says:

    I’m with you on “Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a 15 minute conversation with the average voter. Perhaps now the best argument against it is facebook.” Most social media. Of course, this is where I find my limits of “feeling informed” as well. The trick is that rare knack to bend the internet toward blessing. I think we can do it. It just takes asking a lot more questions and checking our assumptions more. Great post.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      The internet is definitely a blessing and a curse. The ability to have the most amazing library in history available at you fingertips every day, the ability to carry on real time conversations with friends around the world, the opportunity to have a platform for your own personal publication, etc. It is an awesome and wonderful tool.

      But of course it also facilitates spreading malicious lies, fearmongering, hatemongering, pornography, etc. It can be an ugly and dangerous thing too.

      I agree with you that the internet can be bent toward blessing. I appreciate those who use it that way. I choose to believe that the benefits will outweigh the negatives.

      Like

  11. Beautifully said. The very fact that you composed and posted this says that there is hope! If even one more person pauses to listen and contemplate rather than be reactionary, separatist and otherwise fearful and hate-driven after reading a post like this, the world is so much the better. If each changed approach, in turn, leads to another, why then this old planet might not be doomed by our infestation of it. 😉 You said your piece so well. I’m moved and heartened by it.
    Thank you!
    Kathryn

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Glad you appreciated my thoughts on this. I was reluctant to post it, but I’ve enjoyed all the thoughtful responses. Clearly I’m not the only one unsatisfied with this situation. I like the image of one changed approach inspiring another, in turn inspiring another, and so on, leading ultimately to a better world. I strongly believe that is happening and will continue to happen. Thanks for the encouragement and kind words. 🙂

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s