A few weeks ago, I came across a very interesting post about identity and politics by following a link that someone I no longer recall put in a comment. At the top of the post it says “Try to keep this off Reddit and other similar sorts of things.” I assume this is to keep his blog from being inundated with hyperventilating crazy people. I have far too few readers for my drawing attention to the post to be an annoyance, especially since the post was first put up in September of 2014 and currently has 1,170 responses. Also in the little “content warning” at the top of the page he writes, “This isn’t especially original to me and I don’t claim anything more than to be explaining and rewording things I have heard from a bunch of other people.”
I’m going to start by summarizing the post, however I highly recommend anyone interested in the subject go to the original. It is quite long, but well put and I am surely doing it a disservice by shortening it. Then I will add a few notes of my own.
The author of the post is Scott Alexander who writes on his own blog, “Slate Star Codex.” I know next to nothing about him beyond this post, called “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup.”
He begins by noting, via G. K. Chesterton’s The Secret of Father Brown, that, while pardoning sins is virtuous, pardoning sins you don’t really think are sins isn’t, although you might deceive yourself into thinking it is.
To borrow Chesterton’s example, if you think divorce is a-ok, then you don’t get to “forgive” people their divorces, you merely ignore them. Someone who thinks divorce is abhorrent can “forgive” divorce. You can forgive… something you find abhorrent.
…from a utilitarian point of view, you are still doing the correct action of not giving people grief because they’re a divorcee. You can have all the Utility Points you want. All I’m saying is that if you “forgive” something you don’t care about, you don’t earn any Virtue Points.
This is similar, in my mind, to the notion that it’s no virtue to resist sinning if you are not tempted, a commonplace observation.
Alexander goes on to point out that a similar dynamic is at work regarding tolerance. Alexander defines tolerance as “respect and kindness toward members of an outgroup.”
I discussed this essay with someone who did not understand the concept of “outgroup.” This is important because the first comment beneath the post is about how tolerance isn’t a virtue. The commenter seems to be using a different definition of “tolerance.” It should be noted that Alexander is using a specific concept. The terms “in-group” and “out-group” arise from social identity theory. (Alexander is a psychiatrist.) From the website Simply Psychology:
Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s).
…the groups… which people belonged to [are] an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world.
In order to increase our self-image we enhance the status of the group to which we belong. … We can also increase our self-image by discriminating and holding prejudice views against the out group (the group we don’t belong to). …
Therefore, we divided the world into “them” and “us” based through a process of social categorization (i.e. we put people into social groups).
This is known as in-group (us) and out-group (them). Social identity theory states that the in-group will discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image.
The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that group members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image.
“Tolerance” in this case is declining to enhance our own self-image by discriminating against an “out-group.” I apologize if I’m belaboring the point, but since the essay is about how this aspect of social psychology manifests itself in the political realm, it is important to get our terms right. We are talking about in-group and out-group dynamics.
Alexander adds to the concept of out-groups. “I want to avoid a very easy trap,” he says, “which is saying that outgroups are about how different you are, or how hostile you are.”
Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other”.
So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.
This is a little simplistic but I’ll elaborate on that later. Still, the point remains that it is not difference alone that creates an out-group. He also adds that strategic alliances can create unusual in-groups.
In other words, outgroups may be the people who look exactly like you, and scary foreigner types can become the in-group on a moment’s notice when it seems convenient.
The next point Alexander makes is, in the U.S. where we have two political parties, we are socially isolated from members of the other party. This is not a weak tendency. He gives his own life as an example. Noting that 46% of Americans are creationists, he says:
And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2^150 = 1/10^45 = approximately the chance of picking a particular atom if you are randomly selecting among all the atoms on Earth.
He creates an amusing analogy that it’s as if conservatives are make of dark matter.
People like to talk about social bubbles, but that doesn’t even begin to cover one hundred quintillion. The only metaphor that seems really appropriate is the bizarre dark matter world.
I inhabit the same geographical area as scores and scores of conservatives. But without meaning to, I have created an outrageously strong bubble, a 10^45 bubble. Conservatives are all around me, yet I am about as likely to have a serious encounter with one as I am a Tibetan lama.
(Less likely, actually. One time a Tibetan lama came to my college and gave a really nice presentation, but if a conservative tried that, people would protest and it would be canceled.)
So, how does this extreme segregation occur? Using himself as an example again:
Well, in the same way “going to synagogue” is merely the iceberg-tip of a Jewish tribe with many distinguishing characteristics, so “voting Republican” or “identifying as conservative” or “believing in creationism” is the iceberg-tip of a conservative tribe with many distinguishing characteristics.
A disproportionate number of my friends are Jewish, because I meet them at psychiatry conferences or something – we self-segregate not based on explicit religion but on implicit tribal characteristics. So in the same way, political tribes self-segregate to an impressive extent – a 1/10^45 extent, I will never tire of hammering in – based on their implicit tribal characteristics.
He then goes on to describe what he calls “two and a half” tribes. Using the red and blue symbolism that arose accidentally during the 2000 election, Alexander describes the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe.
The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.
The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.
Alexander suggests that it is these tribal characteristics which result in the unusually strong bubbles in which people live, effectively creating parallel societies which occupy the same space but rarely interact.
Something clicked for him regarding the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Margaret Thatcher. In his social circle, people insisted that it was wrong to feel happy about the death of bin Laden, that, although he was a bad person, he was still a human being and feeling happy about the death of another human being is wrong no matter who that person was. A few years later, many of those same people were celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher, often with the song “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead.”
I started this essay by pointing out that, despite what geographical and cultural distance would suggest, the Nazis’ outgroup was not the vastly different Japanese, but the almost-identical German Jews.
And my hypothesis, stated plainly, is that if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.
An implicit association test is a test that attempts to detect a person’s automatic association between categories. For instance, it might try to see the associations a subject makes between black people and white people and good and bad. It is often used to demonstrate unconscious prejudice. In 2014, researchers at Stanford conducted a study to use the same types of tests to detect for prejudice based on political parties. They found that “partyism” was stronger than racism.
The same researchers tried other studies which have been used to test for racial bias in the past using resumes and again found that “partyism” was greater than racism.
But if we want to look at people’s psychology and motivations, partyism and the particular variant of tribalism that it represents are going to be fertile ground.
Now, we’re getting to the core of the essay, and why I found it so interesting. He describes how “liberals,” or the Blue Tribe, love to talk about how awful the United States is. Regarding the criticism he says:
All of this is true, of course. But it’s weird that it’s such a classic interest of members of the Blue Tribe, and members of the Red Tribe never seem to bring it up.
He follows that with a couple of parallel examples of criticism conservatives could make.
My hunch – both the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe, for whatever reason, identify “America” with the Red Tribe. Ask people for typically “American” things, and you end up with a very Red list of characteristics – guns, religion, barbecues, American football, NASCAR, cowboys, SUVs, unrestrained capitalism.
That means the Red Tribe feels intensely patriotic about “their” country, and the Blue Tribe feels like they’re living in fortified enclaves deep in hostile territory.
This is where it gets really interesting. He names the titles of several popular pieces on “major media sites”: America: A Big, Fat, Stupid Nation; America: A Bunch Of Spoiled, Whiny Brats; You Will Be Shocked At How Ignorant Americans Are; Blame The Childish, Ignorant American People.
Needless to say, every single one of these articles was written by an American and read almost entirely by Americans. Those Americans very likely enjoyed the articles very much and did not feel the least bit insulted.
And look at the sources. HuffPo, Salon, Slate. Might those have anything in common?
On both sides, “American” can be either a normal demonym, or a code word for a member of the Red Tribe.
Likewise, he lists the title of a number of articles critical of white people.
And on a hunch I checked the author photos, and every single one of these articles was written by a white person.
He suspects that “white” is like the word “American;” it’s a code word for the Red Tribe.
…when an angry white person talks at great length about how much he hates “white dudes”, he is not being humble and self-critical.
It’s contrary to what we know about social psychology that millions of people would conspicuously praise “every out-group they can think of” while “condemning their own in-group.” But, remember, the “out-group” is not the people who are very different, but the people who are very similar.
The outgroup of the Red Tribe is occasionally blacks and gays and Muslims, more often the Blue Tribe.
The Blue Tribe has performed some kind of very impressive act of alchemy, and transmuted all of its outgroup hatred to the Red Tribe.
Once the Blue Tribe was able to enlist the blacks and gays and Muslims in their ranks, they became allies of convenience who deserve to be rehabilitated with mildly condescending paeans to their virtue.
And so how virtuous, how noble the Blue Tribe! Perfectly tolerant of all of the different groups that just so happen to be allied with them, never intolerant unless it happen to be against intolerance itself. Never stooping to engage in petty tribal conflict like that awful Red Tribe, but always nobly criticizing their own culture and striving to make it better!
Sorry. But I hope this is at least a little convincing. The weird dynamic of outgroup-philia and ingroup-phobia isn’t anything of the sort. It’s just good old-fashioned in-group-favoritism and outgroup bashing, a little more sophisticated and a little more sneaky.
At this point, Alexander gets insightful about himself.
I had fun writing this article. People do not have fun writing articles savagely criticizing their in-group. People can criticize their in-group, it’s not humanly impossible, but it takes nerves of steel, it makes your blood boil, you should sweat blood. It shouldn’t be fun.
He admits, he’s not really a member of the Blue Tribe. He’s a member of that “half” part of the “two and a half” tribes, the Gray Tribe.
That means that, although my critique of the Blue Tribe may be right or wrong, in terms of motivation it comes from the same place as a Red Tribe member talking about how much they hate al-Qaeda or a Blue Tribe member talking about how much they hate ignorant bigots. And when I boast of being able to tolerate Christians and Southerners whom the Blue Tribe is mean to, I’m not being tolerant at all, just noticing people so far away from me they wouldn’t make a good outgroup anyway.
Earlier, when he described the Red and Blue Tribes he also wrote in parentheses:
(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)
At the point when he reveals that he had fun writing the post, it occurred to me that I had too much fun reading it. You see, I’m not really a member of the Blue Tribe. I’m a member of the Gold Lamé tribe, more libertine than libertarian. Ultimately, we oppose any group that tries to limit our “liberty”, aka fun. In the U.S., that has generally been from the right. However, when the left becomes puritanical, and it can, we opt out. We’re generally apatheists, but some of us will attend religious services that focus on how fabulous the world is, without demanding anything specific. While we don’t exactly love capitalism, we make really bad Marxists and worse Stalinists. We wring our hands that the focus on gay marriage has destroyed gay culture. We like to pretend to eat caviar and drink Champagne, but if truth be told we don’t really have the money. Our favorite competitive sport is flirting. We get conspicuously upset over New York City’s Cabaret Laws and sex toy bans. I imagine that we listen to anything danceable. Like the Gray Tribe, the Red Tribe is so far away from us they don’t make a particularly good out-group. I spend far more time fuming over people that want to make me practice yoga and eat kale, good Blue Tribe people one and all.
In a way, Blue Tribe and Red Tribe might both be larger tribes with many smaller, affiliated, tribes within them. As the puritanical SJW Tribe becomes louder, it feels like the center of gravity is shifting within Blue Tribe. I wonder how the coalition with hold up.
I usually view politics more in terms of theory and ideas, so it was interesting to see it viewed in terms of psychology. I’ve noticed that other characteristics seem to accompany political positions, but I’ve never worked them out. I’ve often been critical in the past of the way people on the left bitch and moan about how awful “Americans” are. However, I saw it differently. That they were somehow bolstering their ego by showing how they were better than their countrymen, and the worse they make their countrymen look, the better they look by comparisons. “Americans are racist, but somehow out of my own sheer brilliance I rose above my upbringing. Aren’t I special!” I still think there is some element of that going on, but the tribal associations make a lot of sense. In both cases, people are making themselves feel better by putting others down, but I didn’t see the group aspect of it.
There are a few other things, but this post has gotten so long, I’ll have to leave them for another day.