What's Tony Thinking

Hope of Overcoming Polarization?


On a walk the other day a friend asked if I thought there was any hope of overcoming our, i.e. American, polarization. I said, “Well, I think about that a lot, and I’m not optimistic . . . at least not in the short term.”

I would add that I think our oft-lamented “polarization” is a term that is a little too antiseptic. Polarization is not always a bad thing. It makes the choices clearer. That said, I think the problem is not just “polarization” but sheer stupidity. As if a “gotcha” on the other side, equals progress. As if, focusing on excesses of those we are convinced are idiots, gets us anywhere.

One of things I tried to do as a pastoral leader was give the bad actors less attention, while giving the good ones more. For teachers, it’s a basic of classroom management. If you give the kids who are screwing around most of your attention, they’ve won. You get more screw-offs. If you focus on, and reward with praise, attention and encouragement, those who are on task, you have a chance.

I guess one way I’d describe our current political/ media situation is that it neglects this basic insight of teaching. classroom management and working with human beings.

Our political media situation is programmed to give most of its, and our attention, to knuckleheads. Consider this, “the 2018 “Hidden Tribes” study, which broke down the American public into seven ideological groups. The one furthest to the right, known as the ‘devoted conservatives,’ comprises only 6 percent of the U.S. population. The group furthest to the left, the ‘progressive activists,’ comprises 8 percent of the population. These two extreme groups not only dominate social media platforms (posting roughly two-thirds of the sum political content), they also happen to be the whitest and richest of the seven groups.”

In the typical church it is easy to fall into the trap of giving most of your (if you are a minister), and most of the congregation’s attention, to the most anxious, least mature, craziest because they make the most noise. They are typically rewarded for their behaviors with lots of attention under the rubric of “Christian love and compassion.” The result is a congregation driven by the least mature, a.k.a. a dysfunctional nut-house.

Along these lines my buddy Rick Floyd said, “If I had Donald Trump in my congregation I would do my best to love him; and I would do my best to see that he never ever got in a leadership position.”

In a recent long-form journalism piece in the Atlantic Jonathan Haidt considers, “Why the Last Ten Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” (I’d give you a link but it’s behind a pay-wall) Haidt argues that this tendency to amplify the nut cases has been multiplied astronomically by social media’s operational strategies. Here’s Haidt:

“Before 2009, Facebook had given users a simple timeline –– a never-ending stream of content generated by their friends and connections, with the newest posts at the top and the oldest ones at the bottom. This was often overwhelming in its volume, but it was an accurate reflection of what others were posting. That began to change in 2009, when Facebook offered users a way to publicly ‘like’ posts with the click of a button. That same year, Twitter introduced something even more powerful: the ‘Retweet’ button, which allowed users to publicly endorse a post while also sharing it with all of their followers. Facebook soon copied that innovation with its own ‘Share’ button, which became available to smartphone users in 2012. “Like” and “Share” buttons quickly became standard features of most other platforms.

“Shortly after its ‘Like’ button began to produce data about what best ‘engaged’ its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a ‘like’ or some other interaction, eventually including the ‘share’ as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions –– especially anger at out-groups –– are the most likely to be shared…

“This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action.

“One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the ‘Retweet’ button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, ‘We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.'”

“The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.”

Is there hope? Short-term, I’m not optimistic. We have devised a technology well-designed to amplify human sinfulness and self-deception. We are in its thrall. We think it our servant. Think again. It is the master. Longer-term, I’m more hopeful. Lies don’t last forever. At some point, people notice that the orgy of outrage and mendacity is a luxury item that we simply can’t, any longer, afford.



Categories: Uncategorized