In 21st century America, we’re addicted to our political outrage. We’ve got to have it first thing in the morning to stir it into our coffee. Makes it so sweetly bitter, you know?
This season our outrage-laden coffee topping of choice is “wokeness.” In fact, every morning our electronic media seems to be humming with updates from the latest skirmishes in the “wokeness wars.”
Now keep in mind we live in the age of rising seas, dying oceans, and impending nuclear doom. There’s deadly drought, apocalyptic wildfire and sudden spates of superstorms. Our democracies are disappearing, global inflation is still rampaging, and…well, you get the idea.
And there’s amazing stuff, too, that we need focus on, such as the fast emerging age of fantastically powerful AIs.
So, why do we focus on wokeness of all things?
The Tar of the Demagogues
Look, I get it as a political tool. Wokeness is damned convenient if you’re a demagogue without much of a moral compass. You can harp on it all day long without saying anything of substance.
You grab the headlines and juice up your supporters with shots of outrage each morning. What’s more, it’s not just addictive to your supporters, you can boil it down to a tarry substance used to paint your “lib” enemies as hopelessly out of touch and dangerously radical.
That Sense of Threat
Some folks on the right eat it up, thriving on the thrill of outrage. Others recognize it as partisan rhetoric that nonetheless has an element of truth. They really are annoyed if not downright threatened by talk of “defunding the police” even as crime grows or of kids considering gender change before they’re old enough to drive. It all looks weird and radical and sometimes menacing.
Come On, Grow a Conscience
Meanwhile, the left thinks being woke mostly means having some semblance of a social conscience. It means staying aware of appalling injustices and acknowledging our systems are often used to maintain age-old inequities. It means sticking up for the little people. There’s nothing especially radical or controversial there.
Of course, some on the left actually do hold more radical views but they are nothing like the majority. When coming from the right, however, the term woke is intended to paint all non-rightwing views as radical.
A Word to Divide and Unite
So, the word woke is meant to divide Americans. But it’s also used to unite partisans. If I use the word woke as you do, then I’m in your group. You and I are buddies, friends, comrades in arms. We speak the same language, even if that language is so amorphous as to be meaningless when you try to pin down its meaning.
Ironically, though, it’s a also sign of fearful insecurity on both sides of the political aisle. On the right, those who fear change in values see wokeness as a threat to their more traditional mores and power structures. On the left, those who fear being marginalized and oppressed see wokeness as a way gain greater representation and recognition. In both cases, the fear of the other side is what drives the conflict. There’s typically little genuine desire to listen and understand.
A Bridge Too Far
So the wokeness wars represent an absurd and largely manufactured conflict that distract us from the important issues we should be focusing on. Instead of engaging in unproductive culture wars, we should be working to address the systemic problems in our society and find common ground where we can. This means moving beyond fear and insecurity and engaging in genuine dialogue with those who hold different views.
But that’s bloody hard and humane work. It’s so much easier to get our morning jolt of outrage and move on, our sense of insecure superiority intact. Don’t make us actually think and listen! Bridges to the other side are just bridges too far!
Networks have a lot of virtues. Your personal neural net allows you to think. The Internet allows you to enjoy an astonishing array services and communications. Networks of fabric clothe you. Networks of roads and airports enable fast, cheap travel.
I could go on but you get the idea.
On the other hand, networks can also cause problems: sometimes fatal ones. In fact, they are largely responsible for the “culture wars” (which I think are more accurately defined as “reality wars”) causing widespread social conflict to the point of weakening or even destroying democracies.
The Problem with Intelligence
When the network of your brain meets the Internet, we get some terrific things… and some downright dangerous ones.
Jeff Hawkins, the author of A Thousand Brains, explains why this happens. It boils down to language, especially written language.
Our brains can believe stuff that isn’t true. This is especially the case when we’re talking about things that we haven’t directly experienced. After all, mammals’ brains were originally evolved to make sense of their own experiences. Only via language are we humans able to communicate the details of our experience to others.
This is a powerful tool for survival. Imagine our ancestors being able to tell one another in detail about where the tree with the ripest fruit is, about which times of day they could avoid the lions stalking prey at the river bank, or about the best ways to craft a bow and arrows.
No doubt humans have always used language to lie, as well. But lying to others when in a small nomadic tribe will typically be a limited affair, affecting small groups of people who know one another well and have shared most of the same experiences.
These days it’s a different story. Lies can be quickly shared with millions of people who have little ability to verify the facts as presented. This can lead to widespread belief in fabrications, flawed understandings, and convoluted conspiracy theories.
The Truth of Pocket Pink Pachyderms
Let’s say you’ve read on some blog that there is a species of salmon-colored elephants you can hold in the palm of your hand. “Really?” you think. “Too weird!”
The blog goes into detail about how some elephant experts spliced the DNA from Borneo pygmy elephants with the modified RNA of pot-bellied pigs, and how there are rich women in Indonesia who keep them in jewel-adorned bird cages as status symbols.
“Huh,” you think. “That seems way too detailed to be bogus.”
So you Google it and sure enough there’s a YouTube personality telling you they have a good friend who owns one of the tiny elephants and just adores it.
Yes, there’s a fact-checking website that says the tiny elephants are a hoax, but you don’t believe such websites because they’re all controlled by the mainstream media. You never believe anything from the MSM. You believe in real people on the Internet.
Speaking of which, you found another YouTuber who shares your views on many issues and says he personally saw one of the tiny pink elephants. He even shows a video of one of them (though another YouTube watcher claims the creature is just a newly born aardvark, a claim that sounds like sheer sour grapes to you).
Pretty soon you’re part of a private social media channel where people discuss the nefarious black market trade in these adorable creatures. Yet governments are doing nothing to stop this trade. Why not? There must be an international cover up!
You have not personally seen the exquisite but vulnerable salmon-colored elephants in the flesh, but some people you know strongly believe in “pocket pachyderm” rights and are lobbying to make them legal service animals they can bring on airplanes.
This Is Your Brain on Memes
The pocket pink elephant is just an example of how memes get started and spread. Memes are ideas that spread from from brain to brain much as viruses spread from body to body. That is, they spread quickly, sometimes even exponentially, in groups that are susceptible to them.
Memes carry cultural ideas, but sometimes these ideas are based on false premises. That’s where the trouble lies. Hawkins writes, “On its own, a brain will inexorably move toward more and more accurate models of the world. But this process is thwarted, on a global scale, by viral false beliefs.”
Dangerously Different Realities
We’ve already witnessed some of the dangers this brings. The events of January 6th were largely the result of passionate people believing that there was massive fraud during the 2020 presidential election despite an absence of evidence of the sort that could convince judges that those claims were legitimate enough to be worth investigating.
Although most Americans didn’t believe in the so-called Big Lie, millions did. This conflict of beliefs among people–who have no personal experiences of events and yet form strong opinions on whether or not those events occurred–is a danger to civil society. And, it allows politicians to play on those beliefs in order to maintain and strengthen political power, even if they themselves don’t truly hold those beliefs.
After all, pols can use the strategy of false beliefs to garner more votes, more campaign funding, and greater support for their agendas. This becomes a negative feedback loop in which false beliefs provide support for politicians and other stakeholders (for example, media outlets that sell advertising), who in turn reinforce those beliefs.
Then these beliefs become so widely shared that certain voters demand their leaders express those beliefs. And on it goes, a vicious cycle of belief in things that never happened and yet must be voiced if one wishes to continue to be viewed as a loyal member of a given group.
Networks and New Technologies
This problem is built into the nature of human language and cognition. But it is magnified by the Internet and other networks (e.g., television and radio).
Unless we address this dynamic, things are only going to get worse thanks to generative AI. Those technologies will make it ever easier to for people to mislead others as AI-fabricated photos, videos and audio to become pervasive.
We are, after all, designed to believe our eyes and ears. When we get ever more high quality video and audio fabrications spread over the global network, our reality wars may further intensify.
So, What Are You Gonna Do?
How do we avoid these reality wars? That’s among the most important questions of our age. Although I don’t hold the answers, here are some ideas to think about:
Ensure that all fact-checking organizations cite their sources, that assessments are reviewed by balanced editorial committees, and that the public can easily review methodologies and, where possible, sources. These systems can’t and won’t appease every fact-denier that comes along, but they help demonstrate the legitimacy of their analyses.
Use technologies such as blockchain to corroborate the authenticity of media sources. This remains difficult to do well, and associations between blockchain technologies and the vagaries of cryptocurrencies do not endear blockchains to the public at large. But over time, blockchains may serve useful role here.
Require that all products of generative AI technologies contain impossible or very difficult to remove identifiers that they are fabrications. And develop fake-spotting technologies that are easily used by anyone.
Require social media companies to ensure everyone gets at least a chance at a balanced perspective by modifying their link recommendation engines.
Require that this topic of how the mind works amid networks to be covered in schools as one major component of digital literacy.
Continue to use popular media to educate people about the dangers involved. Movies and documentaries can ultimately make people more aware of how false narratives and fake news works.
Seeing Things Differently
I’m not suggesting that everyone can or should hold the same positions on political or social issues. To a large degree, people can share most of the same realities and yet hold contrary opinions about them.
In fact, competing points of view are essential to the health of a working democracy.
But we need to at least agree on the fundamental facts themselves when it comes to major issues. From there, we can debate the significance of those facts and how they should addressed.
We also need to forge updated cultural attitudes toward politicians. Yes, it’s a trope that politicians lie. But in our current age, lies are more dangerous than ever before. We need to hold them to a higher standard of honesty than in the past. In fact, the 2022 mid-term elections in the United States suggests that this may be happening.
Networks are a fundamental reality, and the Internet is going nowhere barring some global catastrophe. We’ve got to figure out how to use it more wisely. Otherwise, it’ll tear us apart rather than knit us together.
Featured image from Grandjean, Martin (2014). "La connaissance est un réseau". Les Cahiers du Numérique 10 (3): 37-54. DOI:10.3166/LCN.10.3.37-54. Graph representing the metadata of thousands of archive documents. Wikipedia.
In a previous post, I discussed the book The Case Against Reality, by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman. This time, I want to loosely tie those ideas to the U.S. reality wars.
Echo Chambers and Halls of Mirrors
In today’s U.S., there are multiple political camps that, due to the structure of our system, invariably wind up channeled into just two political parties. This is maddening for those of us who want more choices, but for reasons known as Duverger’s Law, we’re stuck with just the two–at least for now.
Our two-party system leads to polarization, especially in an age when Americans find it easier than ever to lock themselves in media that do nothing but reinforce beliefs they tend to already hold. This especially applies to our cable news networks, with one recent study indicating that TV is a stronger driver of partisan news consumption than even our fractured social media.
That’s not to say social media doesn’t also play a role. Indeed, as one recent Atlantic article reported:
[R]esearchers who measure echo chambers by looking at social relationships and networks usually find evidence of “homophily”—that is, people tend to engage with others who are similar to themselves. One study of politically engaged Twitter users, for example, found that they “are disproportionately exposed to like-minded information and that information reaches like-minded users more quickly.”
Everywhere people look, they see versions of themselves reflected back and hear echoes of their own voices. It’s toxic narcissism writ large. As for other points of view, they are often distorted in grotesque ways that make people hate or distrust those who hold those points of view.
What makes this phenomenon even more destructive is that social media algorithms are designed to keep people engaged on their platforms so they’ll spend more time there. There are plenty of reports about how Facebook, YouTube and even TikTok are taking people down conspiracy-laden rabbit holes out of which they emerge as extremists.
The Reality Wars
Of course none of this is breaking news. In fact, it is commonly viewed as part of the so-called culture wars. What I believe, however, is that these trends extend beyond mere culture and influence our fundamental construction of reality.
If you believe Hoffman’s thesis that our perceptions are not based on some close-to-the-surface reality but, rather, on some sociobiological interface that bears little resemblance to whatever underlying reality is out there, then we literally generate our own realities to some degree.
(Yeah, I know that in a lot of ways this isn’t a new idea, even if now we have more evidence to support it. In fact, it’s straight out of Freshman Ponderings 101, bong tokes and dog-eared copies of Herman Hesse novels.)
Let’s assume for a minute that Hoffman is right. If so, then some human beings literally see reality in different ways, and this is bound to influence our politics.
Different Brains, Different Worlds
Certain factors shape our realities, not just our cultural views. This shows up in cognitive and psychological studies. For example, one study indicates that the brains of conservatives and liberals often function in slightly different ways. Scientific Americanreports:
The volume of gray matter, or neural cell bodies, making up the anterior cingulate cortex, an area that helps detect errors and resolve conflicts, tends to be larger in liberals. And the amygdala, which is important for regulating emotions and evaluating threats, is larger in conservatives.
No only do liberals and conservatives view the world in different ways, they even remember reality differently: “Among other things, partisan identity clouds memory. In a 2013 study, liberals were more likely to misremember George W. Bush remaining on vacation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and conservatives were more likely to falsely recall seeing Barack Obama shaking hands with the president of Iran.”
You Are Not Objective
There are, in fact, various studies indicating that conservatives and liberals see the world differently. And, it’s not just the world they see differently. It’s their own minds and motivations. For example, whereas liberals and conservatives think they are applying judgment equally to all groups of people, they each tend to judge members of their own ideology more favorably than others.
“It seems that most people think that they are applying their moral principles in an even-handed way,” authors Dr. Jan Voelkel and Dr. Mark Brandt told PsyPost. “However, our findings suggest that we humans struggle to apply our moral principles equally to our outgroups and ingroups.”
Naively Unrealistic about Reality
There’s a name for the human tendency to believe that we see the world around us objectively (and to see the people who disagree with us as irrational, biased or immoral). It’s called “naïve realism.”
We’ve seen naive realism play out in spades in the U.S. over the last several years. Take the pandemic. The U.S. has suffered more Covid-19 deaths per capita than any other nations in the world except for Peru and Brazil, yet a 2020 poll from Pew Research Center found that 76% of Republicans believed the pandemic was handled successfully in the U.S. while the same was true for only 29% of Democrats.
Paying Attention to Different Realities
Sometimes differences come down to which aspects of our reality we choose to pay attention to. For example, about 4 in 10 American’s have closely followed news about the Jan. 6th select committee’s hearings, but the the percentage who are following at least somewhat closely vary widely from 55% of Democrats to 40% of independents and just 28% of Republicans.
Marriages across political lines appear to be falling. In 2016, when Eitan Hersh and Yair Ghitza counted married couples among registered voters, they found that 30% of couples were politically mixed, meaning they did not share the same party identification. Most of these marriages were between partisans and Independents, and 9% of all marriages were between Democrats and Republicans. Today, only 21% of marriages are politically mixed, and nearly 4% (3.6%) are between Democrats and Republicans, according to my analysis of the new American Family Survey.
On Reality-Bending Demagogues
We live in an era of demagogues. Lexico.com defines a demagogue as “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.”
Politicians are probably demagogues if they:
try to make you fear or hate some specific group of people who have traditionally been ostracized from society
attempt to fan flames of outrage by making emotional appeals based on unsupported or widely exaggerated evidence
bully and attack others who dare to challenge their arguments, power or ego
make arguments that they themselves contradict because the arguments are based on emotions rather than logic
promise to solve complex problems with overly simple and often unworkable solutions
try to make “people like you” feel as if you are a victim of unfair treatment by some demonized group around which unproven (and usually unprovable) conspiracies are woven
repeat large lies again and again, following the dictate of Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Demagogues are typically reality warpers because their claims and emotional appeals can’t be well supported by the honestly presented facts. But this doesn’t mean the warping isn’t real. They can literally change the way people view their realities.
Some Results of Warped Realities
How does such warping work on a practical level?
Let’s use the issue of immigration as an example. On recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that fewer than half of participants correctly answered a range of true or false statements regarding immigration.
For example, 54% of Americans think it’s at least somewhat true that we’re experiencing an “invasion” at the southern border, with 76% of Republicans and 40% of Democrats believing it. Part of the problem here is that word “invasion,” which typically refers to armed forces but in this case refers to regular and generally unarmed people crossing the U.S. southern border. The emotion-laden word literally changes the way people interpret their realities and is largely a media-influenced concept. Republicans who cite Fox News or other conservative news sources as their main news source are more likely to buy into the invasion narrative.
The Stories We Tell
But the reality warping extends beyond emotions attached to immigration. For example, half of polled Americans “believe it is at least somewhat true that migrants bringing fentanyl and other illegal drugs over the southern border are responsible for the increase in drug overdoses and deaths in the U.S.” This claim is not supported by the evidence. Almost all fentanyl is smuggled into the U.S. hidden in vehicles coming through official ports of entry.
So, why do so many people believe otherwise? It’s largely because demagogues and media figures mislead people. For example, Florida’s governor states, “You have people coming across illegally from countries all over the world. And so what has that gotten us? We now, in this country, have the leading cause of death for people 18 to 45 as fentanyl overdose.”
He infers that the illegal smuggling of fentanyl is directly linked to illegal immigration even those these two things are almost entirely unrelated. This is how realities are twisted and forged by politicians and media sources.
In another example, over half of Republicans believe that, compared to native-born U.S. residents, immigrants are more likely to use public benefits and to commit crimes, even though the evidence indicates that neither of these is true.
Working with the Threads of Shared Reality
So, how can we reweave some of these threads into a more cohesive U.S. reality? I wish I knew. It may be the single most important question facing U.S. democracy today.
One way to weave threads of common realties may be by starting with areas of political consensus and having people work together on those areas. For example, there are large bipartisan U.S. majorities that favor increasing the number of work visas to legal immigrants. Americans could work across party lines on the issue in an attempt to have lawmakers pass meaningful legislation in this area.
There are, in fact, various areas of political reform that both voting constituencies tend to favor by large margins. According to the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, these include:
a Constitutional amendment to allow governments greater freedom to regulate campaign financing
requirements for increasing disclosure of campaign financing
an extension of the period of time that former government officials must wait before working as a lobbyist
a movement to make it easier for independent and third-party candidates to compete in U.S. elections
Not only could such public policy work help form more examples of shared realities, they would bring these different groups into closer contact with one another, allowing people to form closer emotional connections with those who think in other ways.
Although culture plays a role, the “culture wars” are, in a deep sense, reality wars in that people literally disagree about what’s real. If we can internalize this as the problem, then we can finally grok just how deep our national issues go.
Ultimately, though, what we call these conflicts is less important that whether we can come up solutions to address them. Democracies will always be characterized by differences of opinions. Such differences are good. In the war of ideas, you want the best ones to flourish. That’s why democracies tend to produce happier and healthier societies.
But we also need ways of keeping those differences from mutating into outrage, hatred and violence. Because a democracy that results in open conflict is a deeply unhealthy democracy, one likely to metastasize into something truly dreaded and deadly.
Featured image from Ústí nad Labem, the Czech Republic. Větruše hill, a mirror labyrinth.