The Extremes Within

In the May issue of The Atlantic, entitled “How Social Media Made America Stupid,” Jonathan Haidt offers a critical and provocative insight into how and why the United States has become so “stupid” and politically polarized. Personally, I feel that he doesn’t make the complete case for stupidity, since he seems to ignore the impacts social media has on concentration, depth of knowledge, and other factors, but his analysis of the cause of political polarization is spot on.

In the case of political polarization, there are two main factors. One is, predictably, social media. The other is the nature of group dynamics.

Social media, and features like “share,” “like,” and “retweet,” especially on Facebook and Twitter, allow users to make their views known, and given the algorithms and human nature, particularly negative feelings, which Haidt calls “social darts.” These social darts impact human behavior. When someone is vilified on social media, justly or unjustly, the economic and societal impact can be profound.

Those most active on social media are the most “progressive” liberals, followed by the activist ultra-conservatives. No other groups come close.

Why the social dart mechanism creates political polarization results from group dynamics. Those generally on the left, for example, pay far more attention to the views of those who share many of the same beliefs, usually but not always Democrats, and moderate Democrats who oppose almost any aspect of the “woke” agenda of the progressives can be and are often targeted by the “progressive” liberals.

Republicans largely ignore liberal social darts, except to mock them, but are fearful of expressing views, even views previously expressed by noted Republicans, that would get them vilified as RINOs [Republicans In Name Only].

As a result, the greatest impact of social darts falls within social groups, and because the most active “social darters” are the extremists on both sides, those social darts have the impact of silencing dissenters who in the past have exercised a moderating influence.

Add to that the fact that social media, because of its very structure, oversimplifies complex issues, and the result is that both the “left” and the “right” have become more and more dominated by the simplistic extremes.

In short, no matter how much you blame the other “side,” the real problem lies within your side.

1 thought on “The Extremes Within”

  1. Chris says:

    The article by Haidt confirms the trend I am seeing among High School students. The importance to truly think about issues and have them challenged is being minimized while the ability to accurately repeat “accepted” ideology has taken precedence.

    The importance of knowing vast amounts of information is no longer the priority it used to be 20-30+ years ago. Since there is currently so much access to information the focus needs to shift to developing discernment. Unfortunately this is the very thing being discouraged in social media. Students believe life is about effectively gathering information but don’t understand the need to actually think critically about topics.

    Haidt explains the situation very well and hopefully it serves as a platform for future reform.

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