Our minds are online.
At no time in human history have individual thoughts been so public. Every day, we stand behind the podium of our profiles like pundits on the stump, broadcasting to the masses. Some of us are contrarian, some appeal to sensibility, but all of us are virtue signaling, “This is me, this is what I believe, this is the tribe I belong to.”
So much of we believe is arrived at publicly. Gone are the days when we pondered an idea for weeks before finally testing it on a knowledgable friend. With information so quickly available, we can think an idea, listen to a podcast, watch a video, or read an article that crystalizes it, and then broadcast it immediately to the public - making our newfound stance known. And once we’ve done that, we’ve tattooed ourselves, and our ancient survival software is reprogrammed with a new identity for us to defend at all costs.
Because of the public nature of social media, our posts become the reason that people engage with our profiles. Arguments spawn in the comments, the post is served to more feeds, and energy is expelled, producing that sweet, sweet nectar of attention our lonely, desperate lives crave.
Before the internet it was considered impolite to talk about religion or politics in public or casual spaces. I don’t agree with that as a hard rule, but the reasoning behind it is that these topics create natural divisions, embolden mob-mentalities, and encourage the worst, tribal aspects of our nature. To introduce contentious topics to a diverse group is to invite discord.
Now it seems it’s all we talk about.
Perhaps virtual reality protects us from the physical harm these arguments used to threaten, giving us a boldness we never had before. Perhaps runaway algorithms have encouraged our bad behavior, feeding us a steady diet contentious posts until we’re addicted to the dopamine excretions that disgust and outrage provide our brains. Whatever the reason for it, it has become commonplace to broadcast our opinions in public.
Many refer to the tribal mindset of political leanings as “Identity Politics.” It’s defined as in-group/out-group tribalism, forcing individuals to define who they are with a label, subscribe to that label’s ideology, and virtue-signal online that they belong to said group. I’ve been called a lot labels online, and I refuse them all because I am not a group. I do not subscribe to any one ideology. I find them all parasitic in some form, and I refuse to be defined as some race/gender/political statistic. This bugs people. But it allows me to move freely between silos of thought and change my mind, which I find increasingly important.
Once a person fully subscribes to an ideology - be it political, religious, economic or social - it’s psychologically very difficult for them to change their mind. When an ideology is attached to our “identity” through a public broadcast on social media - the subconscious effect is necessarily cognitive dissonance - followed by confirmation bias to soothe it.
Once we identify with a belief, we treat anything that threatens that belief as hostile to our identity, and we soothe the subsequent dissonance with a bias for things that support our beliefs and against things that challenge them. Why? I’ll posit that it’s something akin to pride.
Nowadays, more than ever, it costs a lot to be wrong. It used to be that we could be wrong privately, perhaps in a group of friends who know and support us - but if we’re wrong in the age of social media, everyone is going to know about it. People we don’t even know might come for us. We could be exposed and potentially ruined. To add to that possibility, even if we engage with ideas that might change our minds, what good will it do? We might be set adrift with no ideology at all, and no friends to boot. So here’s the other reason to shut up and sing the song that’s been written for us: Fear.
It’s both pride and fear that keeps us plodding away, fighting dissonance with bias, either unwilling or too fearful to engage critically with our beliefs.
The social cost of being wrong has never been higher. An increasingly polarized society has built giant walls around groups, and the risk of excommunication if you question your groups precepts has never been greater. All it takes is one social media post and you could be outed, alienated, ridiculed, doxxed, humiliated, even fired from your job or vocation for questioning the evidence for a belief or practice. So why would you risk it?
We’ve been forced to define ourselves with broad strokes, and in doing so we’ve become imprisoned by a mindset, afraid to explore ideas for fear of backlash. Is this necessarily good?
My instinct is no. We have political extremes unwilling to engage with one another, and unwilling to question their ideas. Where the Right fails at supporting a culture of equity, the Left fails at supporting diversity of thought. Both failures are wrong.
We need both sides to properly engage with the equity problems our society faces, as increasingly shown by the work of Dr. Jonathan Haidt and others in the Heterodox Academy who believe the necessity of both liberal and conservative temperaments to protect the American dream of freedom, liberty and justice for all. To achieve this American dream, we need both the visionaries and the organizers, the dreamers and the doers, the risky and the careful. This is the wisdom of the Tao, the yin and yang balance that lights the way.
We need diversity of thought to move forward in the correct manner, and to do so we have to stop defending our ideologies as if they were our identity. We have to engage with ideas that directly attack our beliefs, instead of reflexively rejecting any contrary view.
We need to carefully untangle arguments to see if there is any validity to them. To do so means to engage with them critically, not reflexively. The truth is not easily attained, and it takes far more than an ancient evolutionary disgust reflex to arrive at it.
So how can we get there? Ask questions. Disobey. Speak up. Don’t go along to get along. We need people who can think and respond critically, people who understand nuance, who don’t blindly go along with the their basic survival impulses, which are only concerned with protecting identity. We need to challenge ourselves. Read forbidden literature. Employ the Rogerian argument.
We should try to poke holes in our assumptions, and by all means (taking from my experience), resist the reflex to post our opinion publicly until we understand a diversity of viewpoints on any given topic. If we find a view that has scientific and historical validity, we should not be afraid to share it in a thoughtful way - even if it means paying a high personal social cost. History is riddled with enablers of bloody ideologies who refused to speak up out of either pride or fear.
We must humbly acquire and critique our beliefs, then carefully and boldly present them. It takes both courage and humility to do this.
If you’re on this journey, or thinking about starting it, I hope this encourages you. Many have gone before you, and the effort is nothing short of heroic.