Originally published at: Truth, Polarization, and the Nature of Our Beliefs – Quillette
Like other Americans, I’m depressed by the growing level of political partisanship. There seem to be a lot more people with extreme beliefs yelling at us. The ends of the belief spectrum are engorged, the center hollowed out. It’s frequently alleged that extremists don’t care about truth, that they don’t even believe there’s a distinction…
Originally published at: Truth, Polarization, and the Nature of Our Beliefs – Quillette
Such an excellent essay deserves at least thanks. Indeed, such is the polarization that the fundamentalists on both sides refuse to even admit that there could be middle ground. If you are not with us, you are with the terrorists.
Any time I hear/read someone called an ‘extremist’ I think to myself, “why didn’t you just call them a ‘doo-doo head’ instead?” All a name-caller is really saying is that they don’t agree with the doo-doo head. And, name-calling is juvenile.
I wonder if Mr. Darmstadter would consider as “extremist” one who calls for locking down a country for more than a year to slow the spread of a virus? Or who insists on mandatory mask wearing? Or who calls for social distancing of six feet? Or a business owner who installs plexiglass barriers to shield employees? All all extreme measures for which there is questionable need and little scientific basis.
I wonder, too, who are the doo-doo heads with whom Mr. Darmstadter disagrees? Climate-change ‘deniers’? Believers in Jesus Christ?
Names serve a function. The term “extremist” is not an insult. It is a description of a large variety of those on both the Woke and Base extremes. They are unwilling to tolerate discussion. They use moral bullying to force others to change their beliefs. And they attempt to cancel those with whom they disagree.
In fact, it’s the Woke that are the extremists.
Your nom-de-poste of Javert is appropriate. Rather than determining truth, you seem to be simply there to hound others. Work on your thought processes, Messier Javert.
Since you serve up fact-free diktat in place of truth, you appear to be on the anti-mask anti-vax extremist group. There are reasons for the barriers. Just ones you fail to understand.
The article recommends aligning one’s beliefs with the mainstream as opposed to extremists, who are described as follows: “They refuse to engage with people who disagree with them, to admit that they could be wrong.”
This advice may seem confusing and contradictory at a time when it is the mainstream that suppresses and cancels dissent on various topics in order to prevent its preferred narratives from being challenged.
Or would this mean that the mainstream itself has been taken over by extremists? And if so, would thinking for yourself be a viable alternative?
Perhaps. He spends a certain amount of ink describing how we all tend to defer to experts in many things, and in a complex world this is as it must be. And he does acknowledge that occasionally an expert can be wrong, for example, the doctor may mis-prescribe. But he seems to say that in choosing our beliefs, we find safety in numbers. And this is true,we do find ‘belief communities’ in which we mostly believe in the same core principles, but can explore around the edges. The writer asserts
While groupthink can be problematic, it’s more often a strength.
The question for us, though, has to be, “Is it? When is it?” In Peirce’s pragmatic framework, in which “A thing is what it does”, there is not an objective measure of ‘truth’ of an assertion, only the measure of how it makes us act. This seems to lead to us forming associations based on the fact that we act and react in the same ways. Ad then the one who doesn’t “go along to get along” might be labeled an extremist.
I thought this was generally a good article, and a helpful reminder of of Peirce’s pragmatism works, but the work ‘extremist’ seemed to play too easily.
This was a great essay. Well argued and well thought out right up until the closing straight, and then this:
"Many Americans have been upset by events over the last few decades: The United States has turned out to be less white, less Christian, less prosperous, more promiscuous, and less the world-leader than they had anticipated. Candidate Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” capitalized on these thwarted expectations.
Many who had looked forward to a more comforting country didn’t just feel that their future had been lost: Rather, they believed it had been stolen by a sinister cabal. Assuming psychological explanations for uncoordinated and distressing events left many people feeling betrayed and receptive to conspiracy theories."
It’s simply not true. Otherwise, why did so many Americans who voted for Obama then swing to Trump (and were also more closely aligned with Bernie, with the swing votes that mattered)- whilst in areas like finance, professional management and the corporations all swing strongly towards Hilary? I take your point about globalisation in general- it has been an absolute boon for the Developing World, raising over a billion people out of absolute poverty.
But if you are in one of the post industrial societies of the West, and happen to be in the bottom 60% of the economic spectrum, then it has been an absolute disaster. Cheaper goods don’t do you much good if your wages are shit, your job is precarious or you have difficulty even finding one. And rather than doing anything to reverse the ever more precarious straights of the blue collar class, the duopoly of corporate Democrats and the GOP have not only done nothing to reverse it, but have, in many cases, been its paid agents.
Trump was not the disease, he was the symptom of the fact that vast swathes of the Midwest, the Rustbelt and other parts of non-coastal America have become hollowed out wastelands, in terms of economic opportunity. And if you have the ingroup wiring which is a function of family environment (particularly parental education) and socio-economics, then it’s not so much that you don’t want to move to one of the 20 American cities which have captured 50% of all new American jobs- it’s that you can’t, because leaving your community, your sick mother and your dad’s grave is tantamount to asking a fish to walk on land.
It’s why illegal immigration is such a hot button issue. In many areas, people have seen the communities they loved displaced- and unlike cosmopolitan liberals like you and I, there brain (nurture) wiring is such that no amount of education or experience will ever make them comforting with their culturally overwritten world. It’s only a matter of race at the extreme- as Steven Pinker would claim to 5% to 10% of Americans who are still racist according to implicit bias- and two-thirds of whom are over 65.
For the rest of the ingrained socially conservative (many of whom used to vote Democrat) it’s all about culture. This is why my fellow countrymen wanted to stop the influx of white Eastern Europeans- despite the fact that Brits and Eastern Europeans have always got along (it’s the heavy drinking). Above all, its about the desire to preserve the culture they knew in their youth, although in some areas- such as gay marriage- all but the evangelicals few and the elderly have shifted their views to a kinder and more compassionate ethos.
When Trump was elected, Niall Ferguson gave a talk for Google Zeitgeist on the topic of America’s history of populism. It had happened three times before. Each time two factors were necessary. The first was a rate of foreign-born citizens higher than 14%. The second was a major economic downturn. It’s economic scarcity which wakes the populist giant from its slumber, and in the past more conventional politicians were only able to defang the populist demagogue by curtailing immigration.
Of course, we now know that it doesn’t have to be so binary. Australia proves that very high immigration is possible provided we protect the blue collar jobs and trade professional occupations which many Americans (who didn’t have the advantages to do well at school) are forced to rely upon. The Australian rate of foreign-born citizenship is around 30% and they don’t experience anywhere near the level of friction found in most of the rest of the Anglosphere. Why? Because even if we send around 50% of our population to university, we know that their will always be a huge number of high knowledge or highly technical occupations which our children don’t want to get trained in. And the great thing about higher income, market dominant migration is that it tends to integrate into existing wealthy communities- instead of self-segregating and displacing existing communities as the incoming poor are always wont to do.
It was desperation pure and simple, which drove so many into the arms of Trump. Culture played a role, but race was less of factor- which was why we saw white older males shift towards Biden and Latinos, African American younger men and Muslims all shift towards Trump. At a surface level, there was always the occasional nasty slur for the media to report upon- but the real reason why no one guessed that is was all so much more to do with economics and basic needs is because a forty-plus man is not going to admit that he feels economically threatened by a wave of twentysomething kids, even to himself…
This comment and others, are all available to view and comment on Substack:
Thank you for this article. In one go, you have redeemed the entire field of philosophy — at least for me. I can no longer, in good faith, affirm to myself that philosophical writing is incomprehensible, pointless, useless. This article is the opposite of all that. It’s like Gian-Carlo Rota (a favourite mathemtician philosopher) said: it’s not that philosophy is worthless, it’s just that it is very hard to do it well. This article is in the “well done” category. I now have the mental framework to structure many of the experiences that have befallen me and my beliefs over the past few years. Thank you.
This is a common trope. I call it the Both Sides Fallacy. The author asks Why are you angry? I am angry about a toxic racist ideology being forced on children. It is called Critical Race Theory. The author seems to suggest this puts me in the opposite extreme, bizarrely. It does not. I merely oppose. I am not a Christian. I have not the foggiest idea what “conspiracy theory” I am supposed to be buying into because I oppose Biden’s hateful racist dogmas.
As for the right-wing extremists. Where are they? Oh, is this the phantom groups like “Q” and “Boogaloo” and “Proud Boys”? These are all inventions of CNN and the media. I have never seen “Q” (whatever that is) covered any time on Fox News or any conservative media. In other words, to the extent it does exist no one in power or with influence is pushing it anywhere. Biden really is pushing CRT. The media really is pushing Woke politics, as is the Democrat leadership.
The Both Sides Fallacy is lazy, and quite lame. I should also mention it is cowardly, because it elevates the truly bad part of our politics by equating it with all the rest. I firmly disagree. We all have a moral duty to oppose Woke politics. It is not “extreme” to oppose Woke.
While generally an essay full of logical points, “the devil is in the details”, as it always is:
When you run into one of life’s many perplexities, you’ll want to take your advice from someone familiar with that type of problem – a physician to mend your broken arm, an auto mechanic to make your car go, a local resident to point you toward Elm Street.
Correction: “[Y]ou’ll want to take your advice from someone  familiar with that type of problem [i.e. competent], and  whom you can trust to fix it for you [i.e. morally good / not corrupt].” Otherwise, if you can easily/safely/commonly ignore , you likely live in upper / upper-middle-class LaLaland.
Example: I’m not a climate scientist, so I lack first-hand acquaintance with the evidence for climate change. … But as more and more of the sources I trusted were won over to the climate-change view, I came around. Not because I reviewed their evidence, but because I trusted their expertise.
Exactly. You decided to trust it. But in so doing, you hopefully realized you still don’t know whether it is true or not.*
Since we don’t know how to satisfy all our wants, we’re better off living in a belief community that can generate diverse beliefs that are constantly questioned and tested. It’s the kind of community that makes extremists uncomfortable.
It’s not the extremists’ outlandish views that are the problem—it’s not unusual for people to cluster around opposing theories—but the extremists’ refusal to engage with the rest of the belief community.
Agreed. So I trust you will apply this principle to those uncomfortable extremists that sit among the powers that be – that is, those exercising censorship, who, as you point out, “refus[e] to engage with the rest of the belief community.”
But how do we explain the anger that can accompany polarization?"
Here’s a clue: See “Correction: …” above.
But at some point a person’s beliefs may take them far from the mainstream. Flat-Earthers, anti-vaxxers, holocaust deniers, and conspiracy theorists of various stripes have drifted into the stagnant backwaters of the belief community. / People prone to conspiracy theories often see important events as not just happening, but as the outcomes of conscious plans.
The term “conspiracy theorists” should be laughed out of “enlightened” society. Conspiracies – meaning (per Wikipedia) “a secret plan or agreement between persons … for an unlawful or harmful purpose … especially with political motivation, while keeping their agreement secret from the public or from other people affected by it” – are all but inevitable at the tops of nearly all hierarchies. Theorizing about them, of course by using evidence and rationality, is something all critical-thinking citizens in a democracy should be doing. All the time.
[A] The United States has turned out to be less white, less Christian, less prosperous, more promiscuous, and less the world-leader than they had anticipated.
[B] Many who had looked forward to a more comforting country didn’t just feel that their future had been lost: Rather, they believed it had been stolen by a sinister cabal.
Pardon my French, but WTF does [A] have to do with [B]? Is this connection your own “conspiracy theory”? Are there no minorities who believe they have had their futures stolen? Seems to me plenty are angry these days!
Anger helps explain why extremists isolate themselves from mainstream beliefs: They feel that mainstream believers are immoral."
No, today’s so-called “extremists” are your ordinary people who recognize have been hoodwinked and shafted for a longer time than they can tolerate. That’s it. That’s the whole explanation. That’s why they’re angry. If you think it has something to do with all their various downstream “conspiracy” theories about reality, you’re very mistaken.
Globalization isn’t going away
Is it made by humans? Well, then, it’s possible for it to go away! In the ways that matter for its discontents – regardless of your TINA gaslighting.
When I read this essay, I thought about cat videos. One thing the pandemic created, besides outright hostility on Quillette Forum, was a genre of cat video that I did find amusing. These videos all had the same general formula. A narrow hallway would be filled with randomly placed, gravitationally challenged items, with the amount of, and placement of, would make it impossible for the most nimble human to walk that hallway without turning into Godzilla. Enter kitty, who when called from the other end of the hallway, walks without any seeming effort, through these intentional hazards without touching a one. Likewise, enter the author, who nimbly and skillfully walks through the philosophy of belief, without one time touching on the most common and historical structure of philosophy: Faith.
It’s beyond ironic that the author quotes Ezra Klein about groupthink. Klein was the founder of a semi-covert internet-based discussion group called JournoList, made up of around 400 left-wing journalists, academics and such. Klein shut JournoList down when it’s conversations were made public, revealing embarrassing statements hostile to conservatives. Per Wikipedia:
Responding to the Jeremiah Wright controversy surrounding Obama’s campaign, one JournoList contributor, Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent, stated “If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us. Instead, take one of them – Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares – and call them racists”. Chris Hayes of The Nation was requesting ideas from other journalists for best ways to criticize Sarah Palin in an email thread.
Ackerman was also quoted as saying, “find a right winger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously, I mean this rhetorically.” According to media scholar Jim A. Kuypers, the hatred of conservatives was strong on the list. Sarah Spitz, an NPR affiliate producer, had written that she would “laugh loudly like a maniac and watch his eyes bug out”, if she would witness Rush Limbaugh having a heart attack.
Conservatives were convinced that Klien’s JournoList was formed to coordinate messaging, so that multiple sources would report similarly. So when it comes to groupthink, Ezra’s yer man.
The author does not, in fact, argue that opposition to CRT (or other manifestations of Wokeism) necessarily entails extremism. He’s merely making the obvious point that extremists exist on both sides of the political spectrum and will use whatever power they have at their disposal to bully and silence dissenting voices.
Of course, this is not what the author means by “conspiracy theories.” He’s referring to “grand” (as opposed to contained) conspiracy theories that are self-evidently implausible, e.g. the 9/11 Truth movement, Flat Earthers, Qanon, etc.
The focus of the essay is epistemology, not philosophy of religion. Faith would only be relevant to the discussion if it was taking place within a community of faith with shared religious commitments.
So you’re defining Klein’s entire journalistic career by his involvement in a listserv 15 years ago? And you’re attributing the views of another journalist to him? That seems uncharitable in the extreme.
I completely agree, but that “community of Faith” that you are referring too is Western Civilization, with the same religious morality as a commitment (social contract). In a philosophical and historical context, religion, and mainly Christianity takes center stage. Every philosophical argument from every philosopher for the last 2000 years was in response to or in opposition of Christianity. You can’t separate it from any philosophical argument as much as your atheist angst would want too. Faith is the structure of belief, that’s why I thought it was incredulous of the author to talk about one without the other. Just because your atheist professor told you that philosophy is separate from God, doesn’t mean it’s true.
I provided examples of statements made on his platform by others that were embarrassing enough that they caused him to shut it down, but only after they were made public. I did not attribute those views to him.
I didn’t define his career. I said it was ironic that he was quoted regarding groupthink, given JournoList’s use as a means of organizing what I consider to be groupthink. Or probably more accurately, groupresponse.
This is an obvious exaggeration. The historical influence of the Christian worldview (along with Greek and Roman ideas) is undeniable, but contemporary philosophy is predominantly secular. Outside of Christian philosophers and specialists in the philosophy of religion, religious concepts are absent from these conversations.
That’s a rather idiosyncratic definition of “faith.” Please elaborate.
Sounds like you might be a fan of God’s Not Dead. People who believe in God can certainly engage in philosophy and make arguments on the basis of their commitments, but the same is true of people who lack belief in God or gods. Philosophy is not intrinsically theistic or atheistic.
There is no “secular philosophy” Big Bang Theory (I’m using your term, even though I think it is an oxymoron). Philosophy didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s not like you had in the philosophical universe, floating particles of humanism, atoms of materialism, colliding with photons of narcissism, and BANG!!, you have Foucault in the 70’s. Every generation stands on the shoulders of previous generations to attempt to see a little higher, even Foucault, who could be considered almost an antithesis to Christian thought, was only providing an alternative to the philosophical structures that preceded him in Western Civilization. These structures are undeniably sourced in Christian Faith. My statement was not at all exaggerated.
This was all my original point. Why does modern philosophy reject its origins? Why do you have to dance around religion when you discuss belief? Do you think philosophy is more pure without religion? I would think that “secular philosophy” would be very boring if you ignore the most powerful influence on it over the last 2000 years.
It appears the modern philosophy departments have become the plot of “The Quiet Place 3”. You must remain deathly quiet in all philosophy classes, and never speak the name of God or religion, or immediately your head will be eaten by some invisible beast?
Just as a man cannot change his mind without being accused of being a hypocrite. One cannot grow beyond ones origins without being accused of “rejecting” them.
I would submit “Why does modern philosophy reject its origins?” sounds profound, but doesn’t actually mean anything. If a concept is correct, one should be able to be describe why it is correct without demanding that it is correct because of its seniority.
That might be true, I have no way of knowing. I suspect you are right though.
However I do believe that if you want to throw your hat into the ring and discuss “what is right” and “what is wrong” you should be prepared to defend your position without resorting to “because God said so”.
If you feel that is unfair, just imagine being told you are wrong because some other person’s Gods says you are. Then you might begin to see the problem.
Well universalism is a uniquely Judeo-Christian concept and accounts for the reason why only Western culture is universalist. Also, Blackstone’s formulation is a direct cut-and-paste of the ethics found in the Old Testament. Finally, Christianity’s fingerprints can be found throughout our culture, in terms of guilt and forgiveness versus the honour-shame dynamic found in most cultures. The concept of paying one’s debt to society, the idea of rehabilitation and the fact that we are considerably less likely to commit suicide when we shame ourselves can all be laid at the foot of Christianity’s core tenet of repentance and forgiveness. One only has to look at the draconian sentences doled for relatively minor offences in other parts of world to see that this is the case.
I don’t think that seniority means nothing, it certainly means something when it comes to career, but I agree that it holds no bearing on how correct an idea is. I wasn’t making a seniority argument though. I speak of origins in a genetic sense. If you were to give modern philosophy a DNA test, you would find Christianity is a major percentage of its structure. My question is why this is presented as negative.
Well anyone who would discuss a philosophical idea in a philosophy department, and simply say “because God says so”, doesn’t belong there. There are volumes and volumes of Christian philosophy that dig much deeper then “because God said so”. I guess no one knows that though, because anyone that brings it up, get their heads got bitten off.