“I would also add that it is best to avoid the tendency toward what I would call know-betterism, where we take the role of a parental figure trying to guide our political opponents to the light.”
There is a strong tendency to view the culture war in explicitly binary terms, with two clear sides of partisan enmity waging rhetoric warfare, while the rest of us oscillate between the gravitational pull of each political tribe. It can certainly feel this way in the midst of an argument or when scrolling through social media (as though every minor disagreement were symbolic of the broader political struggle between “us and them”). But reality is more complex.
In a long article entitled “The Memetic Tribes Of Culture War 2.0,” Peter Limberg and Conor Barnes assert that the new culture war is not binary but multipolar, made up of a multitude of digital tribes with their own set of political views and cultural memes, beyond just Left and Right. As mainstream media breaks down into digital and social media, cultural markers are less defined by which TV station we watch than which podcast we are listening to, what YouTube channel we like, or whom we follow on Twitter, and, thus, our cultural identity becomes increasingly specialized.
To be clear, there is certainly a major chasm in our politics, which the writer Uri Harris characterized as being increasingly split between whether we support or reject social justice ideas around privilege, identity, and structural oppression. However, in terms of the culture war, there are many gradations along this overarching political spectrum. Focusing on what divides the Left and Right can muddle the disagreements that exist within them. Both have fractured into smaller subgroups: There is the “Dirtbag Left,” the “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW), the Christian Right, the Social Justice Left, Progressives, Optimists, Neoreactionaries, The Alt-Right, White Nationalists, Black Lives Matter etc. This helps explain why it is often the case that we most vociferously argue with people whom we already agree on most things, a phenomenon that Freud called the narcissism of small difference, which is then amplified ten fold by social media. The perception that the culture war has only two major factions makes disputes between the spanning gradient of digital tribes seem like irresolvable conflicts of interest when often, in fact, they are not.
But there is a silver lining to this: If our cultural moment is multipolar, then sparking dialogue among its various components is easier than trying to convince people who radically disagree with you in virtually every capacity. It is not necessary for a social justice activists to convince a far-right Trump supporter of the error in his ways (or vice versa, depending on where you stand). That is extremely unlikely to go well. But it is possible to have better conversations with people in different digital tribes who already agree on some essential things—but disagree in other important ways. An example of this occurred recently in a conversation between hard-leftist Sam Seder and centrist journalist Tim Pool, as well as between progressive commentator David Pakman and IDW standout Sam Harris. If more of these conversations can take place on all sides of the spectrum, that could act as the glue that binds us.
I suggest three very simple principles that can make this process a bit easier
For those of us who are concerned with the effects of polarization, improving the discourse will mean getting our hands dirty. Limberg and Barnes—towards the end of their article—put forward a set of speculative proposals for developing a healthier political culture and navigating our divided landscape. This would include acknowledging our own bias, reinventing debate for both sport and sense-making between memetic tribes, and finding mediators for these inter-tribal conversations to build coalitions and foster consensus on important issues.
Of course, political conversations tend to go better in theory than they do in practice. It’s difficult to have our sacred values challenged because our brain literally takes it as a threat to the self. Likewise, it’s difficult to constructively critique someone’s morals and values in a way that isn’t taken to be a personal insult. Considering how few of us have successfully eclipsed our ego, there’s no easy way around the difficulty of morally charged political conversations. I suggest three very simple principles that can make this process a bit easier:
1) Since none of us are mind-readers, it’s better to assume the other person’s convictions are just as sincere as our own unless they give us sufficient reason to think otherwise.
2) Actually listen to what the person is saying and, perhaps more crucially, what they’re trying to say, because intentions matter here.
3) Notice your capacity to react to ideas that conflict with your belief system and—rather than interrupt the other person or suppress our own feelings—wait for them to finish their argument and then attempt to explain why that reaction occurred rather than why you believe they’re helplessly incorrect.
I would also add that it is best to avoid the tendency toward what I would call know-betterism, where we take the role of a parental figure trying to guide our political opponents to the light. There’s just too much information distributed through a culture to imagine that we’ve considered every last implication of a given point of view. We ought to further cultivate a spirit of openness in which we are confident enough in our ability to discern truth that we can afford to let a conversation go in disagreeable direction. As someone who has views that often put me at odds with friends and family, my own approach is to treat the capacity to have my most deeply held beliefs challenged as a muscle to be worked on so that I can hear opposing positions without being reactive to them. This takes time and practice. By seeking out contrasting opinions, I’ve gotten to a point where I can actually enjoy hearing ideas that conflict with my own vision—because I know that it will ultimately broaden my perception of life and deepen my convictions. And lastly, contrary to the professed certainty expressed through online interactions and political debate, it’s okay to be wrong and to admit as much. It’ll actually make us better.
Sam Kronen is an autodidact interested in the intersection of politics and culture. He can be reached on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.