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.
Professional activists, armchair activists, and wannabe activists. People who have a Cause are trying to collectively shape the social narrative to facilitate their Cause. They all dream of posting something that goes viral enough to get noticed by the mainstream media and then eventually by the general population, including figures in position of power.
If social media is significantly saturated with these various types of activists, then that would go a long way in explaining the behavior that concerns Singal and Coyne. For activism tends to create a cult-like approach to reality. Let me explain.
Over the last few years, I have noticed a common thread among the influential, prolific, and/or very public activists – they are unemployed. And because they are unemployed, they seek money through their activism in the form of speeches, books, donations, etc. That’s how they support themselves. Consider New Atheist activist Sam Harris. After getting his PhD in Neuroscience, he did not secure a teaching or research position. Instead, he devoted his full attention to his atheist activism as “CEO” of his own “Project Reason.” Or take atheist activist Hemant Mehta. He quit his job as a teacher to devote his full attention to his internet-related atheist activism. To make a living, he needs people to click on his blog and send him donations. Then there is atheist activist Richard Carrier, who is unemployed and had to sue other atheist activists because they made accusations that cut into his activist money-making abilities. There is no reason to think this theme is specific to atheist activists, for it would seem most of society’s influential, prolific, and/or very public activists are professional activists. Their job is their activism. And I think this poses a serious problem.
Those who have regular jobs producing products or providing services, along with those who own small businesses selling products, all have something in common – they have to interact daily with people who may not think like they do and who may not share their values. When your co-workers, customers, bosses, suppliers, etc. have very different religious, political, or metaphysical views, you have to nevertheless cooperate. You have to get along. And because of that, friendships can even occur. And even if they don’t, those who are politically and/or religiously different from you have a face. They are people you know and work with.
The activist is different. They are not in a position of having to get along with people who are different. They can have complete control over the people with whom they have to associate. And if they do work, it is often within an activist organization, such that the activist is surrounded by like-minded allies.
Put simply ,activists are in a position to intellectually and emotionally insulate themselves from those who are different. They begin to exist in an environment of enhanced tribalism and intellectual inbreeding. All of this then becomes fertile ground for radicalization. The activist’s opponents become “the enemy” and are gradually dehumanized. After all, they probably don’t have any friends who think differently than they do. They don’t have to cooperate, on a daily basis, with people who think differently than they do.
This also creates an environment for conspiracy theories. When you don’t have much personal interaction with people who are different from you, it is much easier to think the worse of someone who is different, even to the point where the “outsiders” are perceived to part of some systemic conspiracy that is out to get you and your like-minded associates.
What’s more, the activists often have a sense of moral superiority. They purchase this sense with their own activism. Those who stand in the way of their Just Cause become the Forces of Darkness. To fight the battle against Evil, the activist then succumbs to the “end justifies the means” approach. Whatever it takes to Defeat The Enemy. Lies, cheating, bullying, even violence all become good because they serve the activist’s Higher Cause. The road is thus paved for authoritarianism.
I do think activists are prone to radicalization. When one’s thinking is nurtured and insulated in a bubble of like-minded people, and one’s meaning in life is to do battle against those not in the bubble, it’s hard to see how radicalization cannot appear over time.
Now, I forgot to mention there is one other job (apart from working for activist organizations) that seems to be common among activists – they are university professors.
That so many activists are or were university professors supports my thesis of radicalization. For there is a mountain of evidence that indicates the universities have become a bubble of intellectual homogeneity where the political ideology of faculty is extremely skewed to the Left. Faculty do, periodically, have to deal with outspoken students who think differently from them, but they do so from a position of power and privilege. What’s more, faculty activists can take the sense of moral superiority common among all activists and fuse it with a sense of intellectual superiority. Thus, those outside the faculty bubble are not only dangerous and evil, but also stupid.
We are currently seeing the effects of this radicalization spawned through intellectual inbreeding. First, there is a growing tendency for university faculty to promote, in all seriousness, absurd and ludicrous ideas. For example, two Columbia professors (co-chairs of their Faculty Affairs Committee) recently sent a letter to their school’s president arguing:
We know no one at Columbia who is not upset, chronically and deeply, since the election,” the letter reads. “We know this is true of the Administration, and your letter [on executive orders] certainly embodies this distress. We know it is true of our students, and the cluster of suicides this month can have no other meaning.”
First, note The Bubble. These two professors don’t know a single person who is not deeply upset by the election. Not one! The Collective is agonized. But then comes the absurdity. The professors actually try to blame the election of Trump for campus suicides! That such crackpot thinking can be shared in all seriousness by two people who are highly educated demonstrates the dangers of such intellectual inbreeding.
Second, the universities have become the breeding ground for ideologies that are openly hostile to free speech while demanding intellectual conformity from their students. Such radicalism has predictably led to such a high degree of intolerance that students, indoctrinated in their classrooms, are beginning to enforce their opposition to free speech with the use of violence (as seen recently at UC Berkeley and Middlebury College).
In summary, I am proposing that activists are predisposed to radicalization. One causal factor behind this radicalization is manner in which activists tend to retreat into a “safe space” where they surround themselves with people who think like they do. Within these “safe spaces,” radicalization is engendered through intellectual inbreeding among members of the in-group, then defended and sustained using the out-group as scapegoats and threats.
If you think about it some more, activists are quite similar to cultists. And many of these cultists are addicted to social media, needing it to give their lives Meaning.