Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Echo Chamber

A couple of things have come up this week:

  • Phil McRae put up a paper today on the Internet's echo chamber in k-12 education.  
  • I watched Jonathan Haidt's recent presentation on the purification of U.S. political parties and I stoked the fires of self-righteousness in one of my online groups by sharing some related ideas.
  • I've been reading "Beyond Toleration: The History of American Religious Pluralism" and have been fascinated how society made it impermissible to even talk about mere toleration of other religious groups.
  • A Marquette philosophy prof was suspended after criticizing a grad student teaching an ethics course for telling a student in a 1-on-1 discussion that censoring non-progressive bigoted examples and counter-examples is appropriate because of offence likelihood.
  • Season 2 of the Newsroom continues to act all anti-hegemony but mostly just reveals Hollywood's ideological purity problem. Media is especially non-diverse in its social-politic spectrum.  They are mono-cultures.

History of religion is an amazing tool in understanding group dynamics in moderately moralized groups.  I'm still amazed that academics let its taboo nature hinder them from investigating the wealth of analyzable case studies it affords.

Take the popular issue raised by Marquette situation and by Newsroom's S02E03 booing of a loaded pro-gay question. The problem revolves around tension between the 1st amendment (free speech) and  14th amendment (equal rights).  Despite what political polarization suggests, good people on both sides of the debate differ as to the balance point.  These people also differ in the time-scale with which their analyses are based: immediate good or long-term good.

According to Haidt's work, people are divided in their primary use a "care/harm" metric or a "loyalty-authority-sanctity" metric.  This division is exceptionally well correlated with current political leanings.  The care/harm metric can be seen to come from analyzing situations on an immediate time-scale: what's good right now.  The loyalty-authority-sanctity metic can be seen to come from analyzing things on a long time-scale: what's good for a large number of similar situations over time?  The care/harm metric can also be seen to prioritize consequences of commission over that of omission.  The loyalty-authority-sanctity metric negates distinctions between commission and omission.  Thus the former is a very individualistic paradigm.  The latter is a very group oriented paradigm.

The emergence of religious liberty during the 18th century faced a very similar quandary to today's progressive purity movement.  The first great religious awakening introduced a tidal wave of ideological diversity. The population underwent a rapid phase change from valuing social-cultural orthodoxy and orthopraxy to valuing diversity.

This change was facilitated by heterogeneity among "New Light" progressives.  "New Lights" valued the universality of shared "awakening" experiences (in modern parlance - born again experiences).  Soon, every religious congregation ended up with a split; some members valued the tradition of orthodoxy and some members valued awakening experiences. Because people of both persuasions interacted regularly polarized eventually minimized, leading to a new, higher level group arrangement.

From an evolutionary perspective the physical "awakening" experience is easy to classify as a feeling of synergy.  This type of synergy is reported by many groups that seem to be coalescing around potentially adaptive functioning.  The degree of felt synergy is probably correlated with the degree to which the new grouping is likely to be strongly or weakly adaptive.  The level of likely group adaptive function is probably correlated with strength of moral purpose.

Thus, what seems to have been happening during the Great Awakenings is that people "felt/experienced" that an alternative, broader, grouping based upon shared intent/spiritual experience was feasible and likely adaptive.  As history attests, this was certainly the case.  A higher group level emerged.  Nationalistic feelings increased and reliance on the rule of law as opposed to the rule of the parish (local community) increased.  Thus the new, higher-level, grouping wasn't so much based on common spiritual experiences as it was based on potential.  Actual embodiement (of purpose and function) was influenced (in an emergent way) on various environmental influences and secondary resonances.

During the emergence of this higher group level, dissent toward toleration was purged.  This happened by:

  1. First considering intolerance purposefully oppressive.  
  2. Then by considering intolerance impolite.  
  3. Then by considering intolerance purposefully rude and reflective of bad character (social suppression of negative position). 
  4. Then by considering any discussion about it purposively divisive (total suppression of the negative position).  
  5. Then by considering failure to support the affirmative position (religious liberty) purposefully divisive.
  6. Then by enshrining religious liberty in law and considering any negative position to not be merely impolite but illegal and punishable.
Now of course this cycle happened more than once.  The second Great Awakening of the early 1800's is the next example.  Indeed one could say that distinctions between the "purely" religious awakenings and cultural awakenings like the 60's and 2000's are pretty arbitrary and largely based on the role of an embodied Big Brother (god figure).  From a science of religion and evolutionary adaptive group position, this distinction is pretty naive (and to be honest likely reflective of fairly superficial and bigoted understandings of religion).


The historical record sheds a great deal of light on the Echo Chamber problem mentioned by Phil and Haidt.  The modern progressive purity movement of gay rights is probably split between step 3 and 5 of the religious toleration change I sketched.  The interesting question is whether the progressive change will result in a universal phase change or a polarized phase change.  

The 1700's and 1800's historical record suggests the need for heterogeneous ideological interactions and a place to dump the pent-up energy such as formation of a superceding (higher) group level.  The progressive movement of the 60's wasn't facilitated by the creation of a superseding group level.  It was facilitated by the unification of the cold war.  This held polarization (and dissolution of the higher group level) in check.

Currently we seem to be in a nasty spot.  There is no real common enemy.  Western civilization's  extremist Islam enemy is rather minor on a physical level and its existential severity is hugely polarized by political affiliation. Heterogeneous ideological interaction is limited by the internet's self-selective echo chamber.  Its also limited by extremely strong political and ideological purifying forces.  It is also weakened by the disappearance of moderate religion.  This latter effect is usually neglected.  However it plays a huge role!

The loss of moderate religion means that there is a large gap in participation in moderately moral groups.  If this participation in moderately moral adaptive groups in an evolved tendency, then there now exists a gap in the expression of a strong proximate genetic force.  Such gaps don't exist for long because they are adaptively unstable.  Thus something will take its place.  This may be an increase in moral purpose of self-selected minor groupings (i.e. my climbing group, my motorcycle group, my environmentalist group, etc.).  Unfortunately many of these groups don't seem well situated to fill a strong adaptive role.  Politics however....

What seems to be happening is that politics is becoming increasingly moralized.  Politics fits the perfect niche vacated by moderate religion.  Thus politics is becoming a huge echo chamber energized by moral energy and purpose.  Numerous environmental resonances are occurring, energizing the whole process in a series of feedback loops.


To me, the picture this paints is rather bleak.  The taboo associated with academic application of the historical religious record and associated science of religion work is, I hate to say, almost naive malpractice. You can't fight evolutionary powerful forces with rationality's weak mitts.  As David Sloan Wilson says,

If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism, such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time. … Factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors. It is the person who elevates factual truth above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective

One interesting possibility is that alternative large groups, such as education, may fill the moralizing role that politics seems to be sucking up.  I hope so.  However, education is perennially caught between its own tension as a universalizing agent (large group role) and as an academic agent (small, localized group role).

1 comment:

  1. Volokh has an interesting extra piece to the echo chamber. The legal like brief outlines how the current environment of discrimination laws chills societally spoken desires for "discourse" around controversial issues.

    What seems to be happening is that the legal front is far enough in front of consensus that the result is polarization not unity. While marginalizing the old hegemony may be warranted in some progressive theories, if the marginalized group can still function as a robust adaptive group, then chances are pretty good some serious harm is going to emerge.

    Historic cases of full society phase change rather than full polarization have seemed eager to confront challenging questions rather than oppress them via laws. Challenging questions enable new groups to demonstrate how their unit is more adaptive than old units. From an evolutionary point of view breaking up a hegemony had better create a new superseding group level or reform group functioning at the same level. If it breaks down a high level group in favour of mutliple low level groups, well then I'm not quite sure why one wouldn't expect extreme polarization?

    To me, progressive femminist liberation theories work fine on the individual and small group level, but don't scale up well to higher group selection levels. They are, perhaps, unequipped/naive/overly-eager to handle the fights which occur at high group levels.

    Or I could be wrong and polarization and tribalization may not be a bad thing : /