A Pew Study and the Inner Ring


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.