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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Symbolic Anthropology as Cure for Our Tribal Outrage?

The now notorious interview of Jordan Peterson by Cathy Newman has gone viral because of Peterson’s calm rebuttal of Newman’s suggestion that one’s right not to be offended trumps another’s right to free expression. (In response to Newman, Peterson notes that, throughout the interview, Newman had been quite willing to offend Peterson, and a good thing too — an observation that left Peterson, by her own concession, speechless with confusion)

As Conor Friedersdorf notes in the Atlantic, the more notable aspect of the interview, however, is Newman’s incessant distortions of what Peterson actually said by re-characterizing it in manifestly inaccurate and more offensive terms. You do not have to watch the entire interview to get the gist: Friedersdorf provides lengthy block quotes in his article. But watch at least a few minutes to get a sense of the stark contrast between Newman’s outrageous and yet transparent mischaracterizations and Peterson’s repeatedly, patiently and eventually wearily amused corrections. (My own national stereotypes about Peterson’s Canadian accent might reinforce my sense of his unflaggingly polite manner). Friedersdorf complains that Newman’s deliberate distortions represent a more general tendency in our culture to distort one’s opponents’ views, a tendency that stokes internet outrage and, more generally, needless animosity in the Culture Wars. We need to “get better at accurately characterizing the views of folks with differing opinions,” Friedersdorf concludes, “rather than … distorting their words so that existing divisions seem more intractable or impossible to tolerate than they are.”

Good advice — but I think that Friedersdorf might mistake cause and effect here. We are not outraged because we mischaracterize: We mischaracterize because we are outraged. Tribalism means that certain opinions, phrases, micro-gestures are shibboleths in the literal biblical sense — markers of whether or not one’s interlocutor is a member of one’s tribe. When those markers are missing, our sense of identity threat rises. We narrow our eyes, and think, “Oh you’re one of those, are you?” Then everything we hear is colored by our pre-existing narrative about what the other team must really think or want — the actual evil intent that must necessarily lie behind the innocent words. You say you want end-of-life counseling? Well, you must really believe in euthanasia and “death panels.” You say you want same-sex couple to have the right to marry? Then you must also endorse incest and pedophilia. In the world of competing tribes, every statement is a step on to a slippery slope sliding to perdition, because any failure to endorse all of one’s own team’s cheers and jeers is evidence that one is on the other team.

Is there any cure for tribally induced mischaracterization? Here’s a thought. When encountering someone who fails to repeat one of your beloved shibboleths (about same-sex marriage, property rights, global warming, etc.), put on your pith helmet and talk as an anthropologist might talk to members of a completely alien culture with the ultimate aim, Clifford Geertz-style, of using thick description to translate their cosmology. Do not offer any opinions at all. Do not “repeat” what they say in your own words. Be very careful about how your unconscious biases might distort your capacity to hear. Treat that tribe as a subject of study, not an opponent. Listen to their words as charitably as you would listen to, say, a ritual incantation to summon rain from a faraway group of farmers about which you had to write a dissertation. Maybe you could even become an observer-participant in this alien tribe’s rites and ceremonies. If you are a secular liberal, then hang out at an evangelical church. If you are a fraternity bro who loves Limbaugh and Hannity, then spend some time at the Park Slope Food-Co-Op bagging veggies.

Wherever you go, whatever you do, just listen and literally repeat: Don’t summarize, characterize, or paraphrase. Watch the Rain Dance and learn the steps. You might learn something.

Posted by Rick Hills on January 27, 2018 at 07:50 AM | Permalink


"If you are a secular liberal, then hang out at an evangelical church."

This is an easy thing to say when you haven't had your physical safety threatened by members of evangelical churches because of your sexual orientation. Which gets to the core dissymmetry here - what is easily framed as simple disagreements, or differential morality, or "tribalism" has actually been a matter of life and death for the people affected.

And from the comments:
"Voter turnout in the Roy Moore Alabama election proved voter ID laws do not suppress the minority vote."

What a bizarre statement. I'm not sure if the person writing this is an academic, but if they are, I worry greatly if this is the type of claims they're making in their academic work. Even if an n of 1 could possibly "prove" such a wide-sweeping claim, when that "1" is an extraordinary case of an incredibly unpopular candidate running in a particularly good-for-Democrats political environment, this certainly could not be a case that stands in for any broader principle. It seems just as likely, that the fact that voter turnout among minority groups was so high is a testament to these voters' remarkable efforts in overcoming the barriers placed before them given the stakes of the election. At any rate, the turnout in one election does not justify the entire enterprise of voter ID laws.

(Not to mention, of course, turnout among white voters was very low, which makes the percentage of black voters seem higher than it might when compared against comparable elections before the advent of voter ID laws.)

Posted by: J | Jan 31, 2018 8:18:37 PM

What you're describing is bog standard behavior by progressives. It's atypical for them to not behave that way. It's a reasonable wager Peterson was expecting it and was prepared.

Posted by: Art Deco | Jan 29, 2018 12:36:04 PM

Also, assume people are telling the truth rather than giving an excuse to mask their sexism, racism, or other bigotry.

If someone says they're for school choice, don't assume that's code word for segregation. Assume they genuinely value school choice as an end-in-itself, rather than a means for racism.

If someone says they're for meritocracy, don't assume that's code for women in the kitchen. Assume they genuine think employees should be judged on their work, rather than a means for sexism.

You can disagree with them, but wait for proof they are a bigot before assuming that there's no other explanation for holding different values than you except bigotry.

Posted by: Uncle Tom Soul | Jan 27, 2018 10:30:55 PM

"Treat that tribe as a subject of study, not an opponent."

And remember that different people have genuine different value systems. There are no value systems that we are all destined to eventually agree on if only we were more educated. Even Ginsburg and Sotomayor, or Bernie Sanders and Hillary, don't agree on everything.

In fact, you don't even agree with your past self on everything, and you agree even less with your future self on anything. If you can't agree with yourself completely, what makes you think you can agree with someone else more than a little?

Posted by: Dorian Black and White | Jan 27, 2018 10:15:52 PM

Controversy sells. What is exciting or attention grabbing about having an open mind? What I wish is that academics would stop asking everyone else to act like their best college students. If people wanted to do anthropology they would become anthropologists; they don't so they don't.

I love interacting with kids. Most of them have a native curiosity and are amazed at the simplest things because they have never seen or experienced it before. Then they get educated and learn to do research and run experiments and make logical arguments and their world goes to hell. So sad.

Posted by: James | Jan 27, 2018 9:04:10 PM

I say there's a wage gap. And you say, no, at nearly all businesses each man and woman either make the same hourly wage or make the monthly/yearly salary.

You're the one who's mischaractizing my position. You think I'm talking about comparing the individual man and woman (because you're an individualist), when I'm actually talking about comparing the population of men and the population of women, i.e., the average man and the average woman (because I'm a collectivist).

You're saying no individual is being discriminated against, when what I'm saying is there are group differences which show institutional (systemic) discrimination.

You're talking about individual discrimination, I'm talking about disparate-impact among groups (populations).

Posted by: Marks | Jan 27, 2018 5:46:05 PM

Let's say a person can definitely prove that parental-notification laws for abortions don't discourage abortions.

Does that prove they aren't a slippery slope and they are immoral?

Well if you believe people have a right to exercise their rights confidentially (privately), then not only are parental-notification laws a slippery slope to ending the right to have an abortion (since they infringe on the way to exercise that right)--but they eliminate the right to exercise rights privately altogether.

A person may mischaracterize an abortion-control law as a slippery slope to ending abortion, because they don't have the vocabulary to explain that they believe it infringes the right to exercise a right anonymously (privately, confidentially).

They are trying to express their moral outrage, and just because they can't correctly express their point-of-view doesn't mean that they aren't genuinely disgusted with the idea.

Posted by: Roeing up the Slope | Jan 27, 2018 5:16:46 PM

"any failure to endorse all of one’s own team’s cheers and jeers is evidence that one is on the other team"

That's because only absolute rights--rights without controls--ever get exercised. Even a single control--whether literacy tests, poll taxes, voter ID--drop the minority voter participation rate by over 90%.

You have to endorse the elimination of all controls or it won't have any effect. If you agree to get rid of literacy tests and poll taxes, but not voter ID, 90% of votes are still suppressed.

That's why people require complete political agreement to be on their team/tribe, i.e., no laws with chilling effects and the least-restrictive-means to uphold a law. Any compromise (Jim Crow law) leads to right suppression.

Posted by: Chilling for the shill | Jan 27, 2018 5:04:24 PM

What is a slippery slope is itself in the eye of the beholder.

If the right to have an abortion intrinsically includes the right not to go through a waiting period, then a waiting period intrinsically infringes the right to have an abortion and could lead to the complete outlawing of abortions.

If you don't think that the right to have an abortion intrinsically includes the right not to go through a waiting period, then a waiting period can be perfectly compatible with the right to have an abortion and does not in any way lead to the outlawing of abortions.

The question is, does a right include not having to submit to controls (speech-controls, gun-controls, abortion-controls, vote-controls)? Are controls "chilling" in-themselves? Or are they centric compromises that keep people away from political extremes?

Posted by: Climbing up the Slope | Jan 27, 2018 4:50:49 PM

Let's say you could prove definitely that literacy tests and poll taxes weren't slippery slopes to vote prohibition. Let's say a country had had literacy tests and poll taxes for fifty years and yet the number of people who voted remained roughly the same fifty years before and fifty years after those measures were implemented.

Would the measures be moral because they were proved to not be a slippery slope?

Voter turnout in the Roy Moore Alabama election proved voter ID laws do not suppress the minority vote. Does that mean voter ID laws aren't a slippery slope and therefore aren't immoral?

Or can something be both immoral and not a slippery slope?

Posted by: Standing on the Slope | Jan 27, 2018 4:35:46 PM

"In the world of competing tribes, every statement is a step on to a slippery slope sliding to perdition, because any failure to endorse all of one’s own team’s cheers and jeers is evidence that one is on the other team."

At the same time, we should remember that people who believe in abortion really do believe that any abortion-control is genuinely immoral in-itself and not just wrong because it could eventually lead to abortion being outlawed. It's not just that it's a slippery slope, but it's also wrong in-itself.

This is especially true when it comes to speech-controls. We don't care if there's still speech left that's free, we want all speech that's free to remain free, so any restriction of it is immoral in-itself even if it never leads to complete censorship.

The reason we believe in the least-restrictive-means test is precisely because since speech is a good in-itself, any unnecessary limit on it is an evil in-itself, even if it doesn't lead to complete censorship.

Banning only Harry Potter, or only Jane Austen, or only Fox News is not a centric "compromise", and even if it doesn't lead
to the banning of Tolkien, Charles Dickens, or CNN, it's still an evil in-itself-, because speech isn't a means, but a good in-itself.

Posted by: Black's Absolute First | Jan 27, 2018 3:33:27 PM

Probably most of the causality goes in the direction you describe, but there is a bit of a feedback loop here, especially when outraged thought leaders, to use a gross phrase, influence people who haven't even read the thing in question into thinking it's much more extreme than it is. I also suspect that a fair amount of mischaracterization is knowingly disingenuous.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Jan 27, 2018 3:25:28 PM

Thanks for the post , the point is , that there is no real concrete center in the US politics . Right from wrong is classified mainly by being Democrat , or Republican . Fortunately , everybody ( more or less ) adheres to the federal constitution and its principles . Yet , When there is a real center , selecting or evolving more carefully between right and left , and choosing a specific and suitable tailored configuration ( and finally , typically , mixed one ) then , there are more and more rational and moderate voices or positions . So , the respectable author of the post, may think of a new " tribe " , which is simply , the center !!

Finally , one should also consider the fact , that the media is a battle field . battle field , where you win or loose . When you win , you may win the whole war , and as well when you loose . As such , or , as media indeed by nature , the appearance counts , more than the essence many times . So , it may look so to actors , that more aggression , would lead to more victories . That is what the public sometimes wants , and that is what he gets .


Posted by: El roam | Jan 27, 2018 9:29:03 AM

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