A Pew Study and the Inner Ring

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How convinced should we be of the righteousness of our views?  To what extent are they the product of sober reason or the result of social factors?  David Brooks’s recent column  , which  reviews Alan Jacobs’ book How to Think, wades into this question.   From Brooks:

It’s when we get to the social world that things really get gnarly. A lot of our thinking is for bonding, not truth-seeking, so most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group. We’re quite willing to disparage anyone when, as Marilynne Robinson once put it, “the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approve”….

[Alan Jacobs’ book] makes good use of C. S. Lewis’s concept of the Inner Ring. In every setting — a school, a company or a society — there is an official hierarchy. But there may also be a separate prestige hierarchy, where the cool kids are. They are the Inner Ring.

There are always going to be people who desperately want to get into the Inner Ring and will cut all sorts of intellectual corners to be accepted. As Lewis put it, “The passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

People will, for example, identify and attack what Jacobs calls the Repugnant Cultural Other — the group that is opposed to the Inner Ring, which must be assaulted to establish membership in it…

Now consider this recent Pew Study.  Unsurprisingly the study shows that on key issues the partisan divide between left and right has grown significantly since 1994.

What’s most interesting to me is that, on most issues, left-leaning respondents have undergone a far larger ideological shift since 1994 compared to those on the right.  One striking example of this is found on the question of whether “immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents.”  Whereas 32% of Democrats / Leaning-Democrat respondents agreed in 1994, a massive 84% agree today.  Conversely, for right-leaning voters, that figure has increased much more modestly, up from 30% to 42% over the same period.

To be clear, there is no single explanation for this.  Those on the left could argue convincingly that the data and experiences of the past several decades have demonstrated the correctness of their views on issues like immigration and climate change.  However, opinion-forming borne of socialization and personal longing to be part of some Inner Ring may also partly help explain the remarkable changes.

The theory is this:  right and left-leaning voters alike, by virtue of both being human, are prone to wanting to hold the “correct” opinions for social rather than intellectual reasons.  But what’s different is that on most of these questions the left-leaning answer has since 1994 increasingly become the elite consensus opinion.  These would be the views most commonly expressed in leading academic institutions and in the educated reader’s most influential media, like The New York Times and The Washington Post.  They are also the views most common found in Hollywood and at top-tier tech giants like Google and Facebook.  The internet age, which began around the same time the data began to be gathered, has greatly magnified the power, reach, and allure of these institutions.   Thus not only are there consistent social reinforcement, but also personal temptation and rewards in espousing the views of the right-thinking classes.

If one believes that the Inner Ring phenomenon is possible – the desire to belong to the cool group, to espouse the right opinions – it clearly also exists on the right.  There is after all the testimony of liberal small-town folks living in red states, including the fear of being ostracized for being in the out-group.  Nor is this to say that there isn’t another kind of allure for some in being truth-peddling iconoclasts against dominant orthodoxies.  It’s just that, on balance, the digital age mass-culture and economic allure of Oklahoma, Texas, and Mississippi is dwarfed by that of California, DC, and New York.

But I don’t want to over-egg the pudding.  Again, there are clearly a wide number of influences that form our views beyond social pressures.  In its extreme, it would suggest we are incapable of reasoned opinions and scientific policy, and a relativistic world where there are not sometimes genuinely better views.  It also has the danger of being a “one-size fits all” hypothesis, of being broken down endlessly and tediously to explain too vast a range of behaviours, as Freud’s theories once did.  But an honest appraisal of our own lives and views may suggest for you – as it does for me – there could be real explanatory potential in the Inner Ring hypothesis.

As such, our own opinions need honest and ongoing review.  This means not so much Maoist self-criticism exercises as facilitating an awareness of the emotional or social reasons why we think the way we do, together with an honest appraisal of the limits of our knowledge.  “The only thing I know is that I know nothing” may or may not be true, but at least there’s some damn fine company in thinking so.

Giving Columbus the Confederate Treatment

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Americans ritually observed another front in the culture wars this week on Columbus Day / Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  An increasing number of cities and states are abandoning the man once revered by most Americans for “sailing the ocean blue” in 1492,  the names of whose three ships children were patriotically required to memorize.   Like all conflicts over historical memory, this one is driven by present-day power struggles, the rhetoric and narrative of which frequently obscures reasoned analysis.  This August in Baltimore,  “the purported first-ever monument to the explorer, erected in 1792, was attacked with a sledgehammer.”     At its root, the Columbus Day controversy poses the question of how America can build a historical narrative that satisfies most Americans.

In the traditionalist view, one purpose behind Columbus Day is the celebration of the chain of events that led to the establishment of the country and to our prosperous democracy, for which we can in many ways be thankful.  It is part of the story of America.  Is it as significant in the American consciousness as Independence Day or as linked to the founding myths as Thanksgiving?  Clearly not, but it has had resonance throughout American history.

Per the Washington Post:

The first reported Columbus Day celebration was held in New York in October 1792 to mark the tricentennial of his voyage. That same year, a French diplomat in Baltimore erected a 44-foot stucco obelisk creating what some historians believe was the first Columbus memorial in the Americas, if not the world.

His grip on the public imagination grew after Washington Irving penned a biography of Columbus in 1828.  And an increasing number of Catholic immigrants latched onto his story as an apt symbol of their own arrival. Near the time of the Columbus quadricentennial in 1892, the Columbian Exhibition at the World’s Fair in Chicago was a sensation. Memorials began going up around the country, including a huge fountain sculpture in front of Washington’s Union Station.

Cynics may observe that Columbus Day has also been a vehicle for the Italian-American community to celebrate its culture and promote its Americanness.  To draw upon a scholarly source, the characters in the Sopranos certainly thought so.   His “discovery” is also based on myth – that he proved the earth was round, not flat, is one such piece of nonsense.  But the figure of Columbus obviously had important and positive historical resonance with mainstream American society as well.  Why?  Because his “discovery” set in motion the chain of events that made the USA possible, from the pilgrims until the present.

For supporters of Indigenous Day, conversely, the issue is a morally simple one.   Not only were the actions of the man himself questionable even by the standards of his own day, but his “discovery” enabled the genocide and centuries of displacement and cultural degradation that followed.  The indigenous victims of the expansion still feel the effects of centuries of displacement and genocide to this day, a fact which few observers of the average indigenous quality of life could deny.

Is this view the correct one?  It is a very strong argument.  One thing that is certain is that by attempting to extirpate Columbus Day from the calendar by substituting it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, traditionalists can understandably view it as an implicit attack on the legitimacy of the American tradition.  At the very least, it is at least a change in historical focus.

This change in emphasis is part of a broader overall shift.   Traditionalist Americans may resent a history that casts their ancestors as aggressors and other people as victims – even though that narrative often has truth to it.   It is a newer narrative that frequently casts older America myths and traditions not as things to be celebrated, but rather reviled.

Another way to adjudicate this question is in the parallel recent issue of statutes honouring the Confederacy, which are now coming down throughout the USA.   This parallel is useful because, while the two issues are part of the same broad question of historical narrative and have many of the same players on both sides, they are still different enough that the response to one does not necessitate the same feelings about the other.  The core animating issue of the Confederacy was its desire to keep other human beings as slaves – that which was positive about it was at best a certain kind of aristocratic gentility, which was in any case highly romanticized and built upon the scarred backs of chattel slaves.  Confederate statutes, erected decades after the Civil War, more obviously represent something odious with few redeeming features, and their removal is warranted.

Conversely, presenting Columbus as an icon of genocide, whose memory must likewise be cleansed and purged from the public square, is a more difficult moral judgement. If his discoveries made possible the evil that came after, they also made possible a great good:   setting the process in motion that culminated in the democracy enjoyed today by hundreds of millions.   None of that, however, detracts from the fact that Indigenous Peoples have excellent cause to protest celebration of the man.

For the time being, while I celebrate the empowerment and celebration of indigenous peoples, I am uneasy about seeing Columbus’ memory increasingly displaced from the public square or as a target of iconoclast ire.  While recognizing the grave historical injustices that occurred and whose effects are still ongoing to this day, I do not subscribe to the broader “aggressors and victims” narrative of American or western history.  It is too simplistic, too divisive, and too antithetical to a healthy national identity.

It is disconcerting that there is no obvious resolution to this question.  Of course, historical myths needn’t be logical or even wholly true, so future myths and holidays that more easily include and satisfy most Americans may still be possible.  That is made more difficult when such questions are not adjudicated by dialogue and discussion, but rather by hammers, ideologues, outrage police, and Nazi thugs with tiki-torches.

The Second Amendment is an Unhealthy Relic

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Full disclosure:  I am Canadian.  That cultural barrier may mean I will never “get” the fixation of some of my American friends and neighbours on the Second Amendment and its right to bear arms.  To me, the Second Amendment is an outdated feature of the early democratic experiment, a relic that has long outlived its usefulness, and the “right” of gun ownership a positive threat to communal safety.

In the US, however, firearms are part of the conception of fundamental democratic rights as understood by many Americans, evidenced by the Second Amendment.  Just last summer, Trump appeared to encourage political violence if Hilary Clinton were to toughen gun laws.   Evidence also shows that fewer Americans today support strict gun laws than in the 1990s. What is going on?

The first place to look is at the Second Amendment itself.  One very common defense of the Second Amendment focuses on the right to bear arms as necessary to maintain the existence of a democratic state, and without which, the government would devolve into tyranny or perhaps be overwhelmed by foreign invasion.  For the Founding Fathers worried about the longevity of the republican experiment and drawing on the experiences of the Revolutionary War, the concern may have been warranted.

In the event, this does not appear to be supported by the evidence.  One might ask if there has ever been occasion in the past two centuries to think “but for guns…”  In other words, are there concrete examples where, but for the existence of an armed citizenry, the US would have devolved into tyranny?  The existence and proper function of democratic institutions lies not in ownership of firearms, but in the prevalence and acceptance of these norms by its citizens.  This does not require an armed citizenry to flourish.  In America, the crucial foundations for this tradition were borne from the centuries of English democratic evolution and confirmed by President Washington’s personal humility and commitment to democracy.

Across the pond, continental Europe and the UK enjoy their own democratic traditions and robust freedoms without such laws.   Even Switzerland, famous among European nations for widespread possession of firearms among its citizen army, does not allow most of those militia members to carry bullets at home.

Given the overwhelming might a modern government could deploy against its own citizens with drones, fighter jets, tanks and weapons of mass destruction, the calculus of our current age is also radically different from that of the Founding Fathers.  In the early republic, Washington’s generation would have envisioned Napoleonic set-battles or Revolutionary guerilla warfare which featured far greater parity between sides.  The asymmetry between a repressive government and citizenry is now orders of magnitudes higher.  Fantasies of resistance to that dystopian government may presuppose the empirically dubious causal link between arms and democracy, but even if they did not, the small advantage to be gained in that unlikely hypothetical are outweighed obscenely against the costs paid every day in reality.

Yet these arguments hold little water with supporters of gun rights.  Take again these statistics provided by CNN illustrating that far fewer Americans today support strict gun laws than was the case in 1990.  Between 1999 and 2013, the biggest justification for gun ownership, “protection”, increased from 26% of gun owners to 48%.  Yet the evidence shows there is actually less gun violence today than in the 1990s.  

So why does the US seem like a less safe place for gun owners? Perhaps it owes something to the familial and societal breakdown suffered by many lower-income Americans.  For an American victim of decades of wage stagnation, and who is also no longer able to depend on the same degree of familial or church support as in previous generations, the world may indeed appear much less safe.  The post 9/11 and post-Columbine world, with its spectacular acts of random mass violence, may also play a role.

Another key place to look is in the statements of the NRA itself.  This recent NRA advertisement presents a world where firearms are the bulwark against the onslaught of the liberal hordes.  This advertisement suggests the need to bear arms is indeed borne from political fear.

Such conceptions appear little more than paranoid delusions and disgusting right-wing fantasies, the indulgers of which warrant Hillary Clinton’s infamous epithet “deplorables”.  They are also highly alarming indicators of societal breakdown, fueled in no small measure by lurid imaginations and NRA propaganda.  They are part and parcel with Trump’s veiled threat against Clinton.

Yet, like all effective propaganda, they contain a kernel of truth.  In this instance, albeit in hideously disfigured form,  there is legitimate concern over progressive ideological domination in certain cultural arenas.  This is hardly only the concern of the violent extremists that this ad is designed to appeal to.  But for the NRA and its supporters, this concern manifests in fetid, overblown fantasies of a hostile regime where armed protection is the answer.

Another reason why there may be less support for stricter gun laws is the notion that, even were the most draconian prohibitions on gun ownership in place, criminals would still obtain firearms, putting law-abiding citizens at a disadvantage.  There are good reasons for questioning whether this would actually be true – but conjecture aside, this view is undeniably pessimistic.  It presupposes the inefficacy of laws and police on a significant enough scale that citizens must arm themselves to be safe.

Regardless, Americans are for better or worse stuck with the Second Amendment, though long gone are the days of Washington and front-loading muskets.  Though there remains much to admire about the United States, I cannot help but be relieved a constitutional right to bear arms does not exist in my country.  And while US gun violence is down, the perceived need to bear arms is increasing, an increase which may be explained by fears of a hostile, collapsing world where laws can no longer protect citizens.  The existence of the Second Amendment makes possible this unhealthy reaction.  Far from promoting the stability of the democratic experiment as Washington’s generation intended, the outdated Second Amendment may be driving it in the opposite direction.