Exploiting the Rift

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This morning I came across this article in my Google News feed, “The Psychology of Progressive Hostility.” I expected an interesting, in-depth look at the left-right/progressive-conservative rift, but instead (and unsurprisingly) it plays out predictably; scapegoating progressives/liberals/leftists as intolerant bullies, while playing conservatives/right-wingers as innocent, compassionate victims. So here’s my take on this “article” with some pertinent information, including psych research on politics, and background info on the author and website.

Easy stuff first. The website Quillette is categorized as “center-right libertarian.” The author is an undergrad in economics and anthropology at the University of Queensland, and according to his Twitter profile he “Loves…making fun of sociologists,” so not only is this person not a psychology major, a researcher, a sociologist, or a political science major, but they also (presumably) have little experience with politics.

Also, while Australia is more progressive than the US in some ways (gun control, healthcare, social services for those in poverty, many political parties that are represented and clearly defined, and higher pay for “unskilled” labor), there are also some areas in which Australia could improve (treatment of indigenous populations, overt racism, homophobia, and sexism (though these issues are issues the US faces as well, so this is more of an apples to apples comparison)).

Now, I am not one to rely on assumptions, or apples-to-apples comparisons, regardless of how accurate or telling they may be. So, although I identify as a radical progressive, I will be addressing the substance of the article rather than attacking the experience or intelligence of the author, and I will rely on empirical evidence (when available) to support my claims. I will identify my opinions as *opinions* and I will not try to claim them as fact, I will also offer reliable sources when available.

The message I hope to impart and convey here is that articles such as this Quillette piece are steeped in confirmation bias, and are indicative of the subtle gas-lighting, that is used by both parties, to manipulate the masses into disinformation, conflict, and subjugation.

Firstly, the title of the article frames the content as fact by asserting an established truth rather than framing the subject with a question. The claim is established that progressives are hostile and that psychology can back up this claim. Thus, if the reader is conservative their belief that progressives are hostile becomes more salient, they may not even need to read the article, the title confirms their beliefs.

Meanwhile, the progressive reader may: dismiss this as propaganda and choose not to engage (which is problematic because in order to understand those who think differently than you, one must engage is dissenting material), they may read it and examine it in an informed way in order to strengthen their own beliefs, they may read it and be convinced that their own actions are problematic (which they may be) and change their approach, or they may be convinced that they are being “hostile” (when they aren’t) and either choose to believe that they shouldn’t challenge those who hold beliefs that are different than their own OR they become apathetic to social, cultural, and political change (psychic numbing).

These tactics, while used by both sides, are what *I see* as the source of belief in and dissemination of misinformation, and a significant contributor to the current socio-political rift that exists in the US (and worldwide).

The author begins their argument with this statement:

“When I disagree with a conservative friend or colleague on some political issue, I have no fear of speaking my mind. I talk, they listen, they respond, I talk some more, and at the end of it we get along just as we always have. But I’ve discovered that when a progressive friend says something with which I disagree or that I know to be incorrect, I’m hesitant to point it out. This hesitancy is a consequence of the different treatment one tends to receive from those on the Right and Left when expressing a difference of opinion. I am not, as it turns out, the only one who has noticed this.”

Yeah, it is easier to converse with people who mostly agree with you than it is to talk to people who hold dissimilar beliefs, this is common sense. I am hesitant to disagree with both my liberal and conservative friends on some issues, because people don’t like it when you disagree with them, regardless of how right you are, and regardless of the supporting evidence (or lack there of), especially if their beliefs on the subject are salient. This is well known in psychology and sociology, and has been the subject of research since their respective inception (look up: confirmation bias, belief perseverance, heuristics, affinity theories, tribalism/neotribalism, ethnocentrism, social identity theory, and many more; the key is to find empirical research and not to rely on confirmation bias when looking into political psychology and heuristics).

The author then offers this evidence to support their claim:

“That’s a stupid fucking question,” answered a Socialist Alliance activist when I asked sincerely where they were getting what sounded like inflated poverty statistics. “If you don’t believe in gay marriage or gun control, unfriend me,” demand multiple Facebook statuses from those I know. “That’s gross and racist!” spluttered a red-faced Ben Affleck when the atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris criticized Islamic doctrines on Bill Maher’s Real Time. Nobody blinks an eye when Harris criticizes Christianity, least of all Affleck, who starred in Kevin Smith’s irreverent religious satire Dogma. But Christians are not held to be a sacrosanct and protected minority on the political Left.”

While these anecdotes are believable they hardly constitute evidence that progressives are more hostile. *In my experience* I’ve had plenty of conservatives become hostile with me when I ask for their sources. I’ve also had Facebook friends unfriend/unfollow me due to my socio-political leanings. And we’ve all seen the declarations of unfriending, most of us have probably even considered posting such a status. This is not seen more on one side of politics than any other side of politics, and to make that claim is disingenuous.

Now onto the Sam Harris situation. Yes that did happen, however, it takes context to understand what could’ve made Affleck fire off like that. Both Sam Harris and Bill Maher are militant atheists, and are arguably both more center-right/libertarian leaning than leftist-progressive.

The assertions that both Maher and Harris make about “the Muslim world” reinforce Islamaphobic sentiment by painting an entire religion as bigoted. In the segment linked in the article, you can see gas-lighting in action. Maher and Harris make broad claims regarding liberals, Christians, and Muslims, and when these claims are challenged they say, “that’s not what I said, that’s not what I meant.” That is gas-lighting. Furthermore, the claims that Harris makes about the Muslim religion and what “the majority” of Muslims believe is not different from the dogma of most organized Religions, which *probably* includes New Atheism as it converges more with Nationalistic, alt-right views. This example is made more ridiculous by the author’s claim that Christianity is scrutinized with impunity by the Left. I know many Christians on both sides, but only one side exploits their religion for political gain.

The authors next claim, that Social Justice Warriors (which they don’t point out as a pejorative) are responsible for the slang use of the word “triggered,” is unsubstantiated. I found mixed information when looking for the origin, however, it looks like the pejorative use of the word was made popular by 4chan. The author goes on to use the word “triggered” as a pejorative several times in the subsequent paragraphs, which *to me* is very telling.

As for the Evergreen State College controversy, a cursory Google search finds an article by faculty/staff that shows another side to the issue shown in the Vice video. And while I could go on at length about the hypocrisy regarding free speech as exercised by both sides, freedom of speech does have limitations. I can also understand the frustration that comes from trying to discuss constitutional rights with white men (who always had rights, while women, POC, and immigrants have had to fight for their rights, sometimes unsuccessfully). Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of social consequences for your speech. It seems *to me* that it has become a problem when white people are held accountable for what they say.

I can’t speak about Australian socio-political issues as I am not Australian and I have never been to Australia. I won’t comment on the claims the author makes, though I am suspect of the appearance of only 2 references to support the claims made, and a lack of references to support statements made about Price. Use of the term “regressive left” also shows conformity to the authors libertarian/conservative bias.

This libertarian/conservative bias is supported by relying on ad hominem attacks on “progressives” using Mill as evidence somehow, and extolling the virtues of Ayn Rand, von Hayek, Sowell, and Pinker, who are all known Libertarians. It is in the subsequent paragraphs that this authors hypocrisy becomes more apparent.

I see that this post has gotten extremely long, and honestly I’m tiring of the hypocrisy in the article. So instead of getting into the ins and outs of Haidt and his research and positions I will provide links to the study referenced in the article, and links to a fewresponses to Haidt’s study. Also, here’s a neuroimaging study that looks at conservative vs liberal brain structures.

In conclusion, we would all learn more and grow more if we listened to each other and engaged in meaningful conversation using reputable and reliable sources, rather than listening to those who are obviously biased and seeking notoriety through exploiting the rift.

update: Slate has noticed this trend of scapegoating as well.

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