Jerry Coyne was perplexed by something that is not all that difficult to understand. He responded to an article by Jesse Singal who tries to make the case that social media is making us all dumber. He quotes Singal:
That’s because the pernicious social dynamics of these online spaces [JAC: Why have the dynamics of these spaces become so pernicious?] hammer home the idea that anyone who disagrees with you on any controversial subject, even a little bit, is incorrigibly dumb or evil or suspect. On a wide and expanding range of issues, there’s no such thing as good-faith disagreement.
The online anger aimed at Mr. Pinker provides a perfect case study.
. . . It’s getting harder and harder to talk about anything controversial online without every single utterance of an opinion immediately being caricatured by opportunistic outrage-mongers, at which point everyone, afraid to be caught exposed in the skirmish that’s about to break out, rushes for the safety of their ideological battlements, where they can safely scream out their righteousness in unison. In this case: “Steven Pinker said the alt-right is good! But the alt-right is bad! We must defend this principle!”
This is making us dumber.
and then comments
As I said, I don’t agree that this is making us dumber. People like Myers are not dumb, and are no dumber than they were before they began engaging in such outrage-mongering. What social media is doing is making them more recalcitrant in their views, more tribalistic, less willing to listen to opposing views, and less willing to admit they were wrong. I’m not exactly sure why this is so, and perhaps readers can weigh in here. I suppose if you take a very strong and public stand, it’s a lot harder to back off or apologize if you are a public figure than if you’re simply someone talking personally to someone else. With social media, everyone is to some extent a public figure, which wasn’t true in the days when controversial figures like Mencken held the stage. But I’m still not satisfied with that explanation.
Coyne is right in that social media is not making us dumber. And he kind of gets it when he notes “social media is …. making them more recalcitrant in their views, more tribalistic, less willing to listen to opposing views, and less willing to admit they were wrong. ” But social media is simply amplifying what is already there.
Take Myers (or any New Atheist activist). Years ago, when the New Atheist activists routinely attacked religious people, many of us drew attention to recalcitrance, tribalism, closed-mindedness, and the arrogance of those activists. These are all traits that defined New Atheists when they were unified in their attack on religious people. And when religious people (or “accomodationists”) pointed them out, the New Atheists scoffed and dismissed the existence of such traits. Thus, the only reason people like Coyne and Singal can now see what they were previously blind to is because the atheist and secular community has splintered without their common enemy. It’s not that social media makes people more tribalistic and recalcitrant, it just makes those traits are more obvious when you no longer are part of the in-group engaging in the viral attacks.
But there is another dimension. I think social media is both the breeding ground and playground of activists.