Politics and Social Status
People’s politics are driven by a desire for status in society.
People tend to express political views that will win the the approbation of their peers.
They will get involved in causes that will win the admiration of their peers.
And they will remain silent if they hold opinions that would result in the censure of their peers.
These belief systems become self-reinforcing in each subgroup of society. Churchgoers will adopt the beliefs of their congregation. Hollywood actors will adopt the beliefs of Hollywood. Professors the beliefs of other professors. Policemen the beliefs of other policemen in their precinct.
Each person is connected to members of many different peer groups, but people will tend to adopt the views of the groups with which they are most connected.
The self-reinforcing nature of political beliefs is driven largely by fear. People dread being ostracized for holding wrong beliefs.
But why are people so afraid of being wrong? Don’t educated societies respect differences of opinions? Don’t we all know that someone can be wrong without being bad?
Perhaps in the beginning they do. But as the beliefs of a social group begin to crystalize, a certain force begins to flow within that society: righteous outrage.
Eventually, the group becomes so convinced of the righteousness of their beliefs, that certain members feel safe in expressing outrage against those who hold the wrong belief.
And people begin to fear this outrage. To become the target of this outrage is a kind of social death. So if they disagree, they learn to be silent. Or better yet, join in the chorus of outrage to better blend in.
People also learn that they can gain status and power in society by expressing this righteous outrage louder than the next person.
Victims, Villains, Heroes
There are three main rungs on the societal ladder:
Everybody prefers to be a hero.
The hero expresses righteous outrage against villain on behalf of victims.
The hero is outraged on behalf of the babies, against the baby killers. The hero is outraged on behalf of women, against the men who would control women’s bodies.
The hero is outraged against the rich that rig the system against the poor. The hero is outraged on behalf of hardworking middle-class Americans, against those who live on government handouts.
The hero is outraged against terrorists on behalf of their innocent victims. The hero is outraged against law enforcement agencies for treating all Muslims as terrorists.
The hero cements his or her political power by stressing the victim-villain duality. So a great deal of political energy goes into villainization and victimization.
Not everyone can be a hero. If you can’t, settle for being a victim, because you can at least benefit from the political spoils of your hero.
Whatever you do, don’t be a villain. If you do not share in the outrage of your social group, better keep your beliefs to yourself. Or if you are desperate, join the other side. Sometimes the villains of one social group are the heroes of another.
Outbreaks in Outrage
The righteous outrage of each side often balances out. But when the force of the outrage on one side outweighs the force of the outrage on the other, we see political change in society — for better or for worse.
Many of us have forgotten the time after 2001, when the force of righteous outrage against terror was it its peak. Then, politicians from both major political parties cowered against the force of this outrage. They all wore the American flag lapel pin, terrified of being accused of appearing unpatriotic if they didn’t. Except for a few brave souls (Obama, Sanders), they voted against their conscious and their reason for the invasion of Iraq. It’s hard to remember now how it was, hard to believe today, but these politicians truly feared being looked down as un-patriotic villains.
That’s not to say that terrorism wasn’t a real threat — it’s just that outrage against terrorism, and fear of that outrage, became the salient political dynamic of the time. Indeed only after several years can we look back at that time and speak about the risk of terrorism with perspective, without fear of being cast as villains.
Many of those who lived through it have forgotten the middle decades of this century, when the righteous outrage against racism was not as strong as it is today. It will be hard for many people to believe, but there was a time when there was a great deal of righteous outrage against those that considered black people to be equal to white people, that would force integration and destroy the society they had built. This outrage that expressed itself not only in oppressive politics, but violence and hate.
But amazingly, outrage against racism began to grow and balance out, and after a few generations outrage against racism transformed society.
Today, racism continues to exist, but not as a strong political force. On the other hand, outrage against racism, and all forms of demographic oppression, remains possibly the most potent political force today, the power base of the left.
Those climbing the status ladder, wanting to be heroes, or at least victims, are creative in finding instances worthy of outrage, creating new classes of victims, and new villains to express outraged against. One is outraged on behalf of native Americans that missiles are called Tomahawks. One is outraged on behalf of men who wear tutus because a politician treated them with disdain. The innovative concept of intersectionality creates a new class of super-victim, whole new categories of outrage.
This is not to say that racism, sexism, and bigotry aren’t real problems — it’s just that outrage against them is the salient political dynamic of our time. Indeed only after several years will be able to look back at this time and speak about racism, sexism, etc. with perspective, without fear of being cast as villains.
How it Develops
On the right, there is a brewing, simmering outrage against…what? It is hard to define. It is a kind of amorphous meta-outrage against the outrage of identity politics. It’s a meta-victimization of those that have been villainized by the left. These victims and their would-be heroes do not know how to articulate their outrage, or are still afraid to. But this outrage is becoming a political force. It’s confused and amorphous form, it elected Donald Trump, and voted for Brexit.
Who knows how it will evolve. It will not be a simple return to the racist and misogynist society of the 50s — things are not so simple. But eventually, somebody may figure out how to articulate this outrage, put a name to it, identify the victims and villains, and be their hero. Or has that happened already?
Posted in Thoughts
In public political discourse, there is very little capacity for subtlety. The public seems to understand every issue as a binary choice: “pro” vs “anti”. Pro/anti immigration. Pro/anti muslim. Pro/anti drugs.
The liberal public mind has no more capacity to understand the “subtle” difference between legal and illegal immigration, than the conservative public mind has the capacity to understand the “subtle” difference between the dangers of weed and meth. In our public discourse, it seems you can’t support legalization of marijuana without also being in support of a free supply of meth for all of our children. You can’t support tougher enforcement of our immigration laws without also hating all immigrants.
People frame the pro/anti questions in a way that eliminates subtlety, and creates a false impression of the views of the other side. Nobody is anti-life! Nobody is enemy to choice! People who want to legalize weed don’t want your children to try meth. People who want tougher enforcement of immigration laws don’t want to end all immigration.
There probably are many people that are so ignorant, that they place the dangers of marijuana use at the same level as those of meth. They are many so simple-minded that they think enforcing immigration laws means not inviting many people that want and deserve it to immigrate to this country legally. But, most people are not so ignorant, and placing a evil-sounding label on them is unfair.
There is right and wrong involved in a lot of these questions. But what is wrong is to ignore the subtleties in the arguments on the other side. The truth is subtle.
Posted in Thoughts