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Yesterday, I asked whether anyone was reading something interesting by a writer we often neglect here on Ricochet. Cyrano suggested an article by Scott Alexander that had given him a new perspective on American political dynamics: I Can Tolerate Anyone Except the Outgroup. I agree it’s a good read.
Alexander begins by suggesting that the definition of “tolerance” is something like, “respect and kindness toward members of an outgroup.”
But today we have an almost unprecedented situation.
We have a lot of people – like the Emperor – boasting of being able to tolerate everyone from every outgroup they can imagine, loving the outgroup, writing long paeans to how great the outgroup is, staying up at night fretting that somebody else might not like the outgroup enough.
And we have those same people absolutely ripping into their in-groups – straight, white, male, hetero, cis, American, whatever – talking day in and day out to anyone who will listen about how terrible their in-group is, how it is responsible for all evils, how something needs to be done about it, how they’re ashamed to be associated with it at all.
This is really surprising. It’s a total reversal of everything we know about human psychology up to this point. …
What is going on here?
To explain this, Alexander appeals to one of Sigmund Freud’s more useful observations:
Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other.” Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.
So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences.
Americans, he argues, now “self-segregate not based on explicit religion but on implicit tribal characteristics. So in the same way, political tribes self-segregate to an impressive extent – a 1/10^45 extent …. based on their implicit tribal characteristics.”
What are these tribes, exactly?
The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!,” and listening to country music.
The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.
(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball,” getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)
Read the whole article. Many perceptive points. For example:
My hunch – both the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe, for whatever reason, identify “America” with the Red Tribe. Ask people for typically “American” things, and you end up with a very Red list of characteristics – guns, religion, barbecues, American football, NASCAR, cowboys, SUVs, unrestrained capitalism.
That means the Red Tribe feels intensely patriotic about “their” country, and the Blue Tribe feels like they’re living in fortified enclaves deep in hostile territory. …
I think the situation with “white” is much the same as the situation with “American” – it can either mean what it says, or be a code word for the Red Tribe.
And thus, he observes,
Bill Clinton was the ‘first black President,’ but if Herman Cain had won in 2012 he’d have been the 43rd white president. And when an angry white person talks at great length about how much he hates “white dudes,” he is not being humble and self-critical.
He’s merely expressing blue-tribe solidarity and intolerance of the red tribe. Consider the fate of Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla, who was hounded out of his job by a baying Blue Tribe mob after it came to light that he had donated $1,000 to California’s Proposition 8:
Think of Brendan Eich as a member of a tiny religious minority surrounded by people who hate that minority. Suddenly firing him doesn’t seem very noble. …
When a friend of mine heard Eich got fired, she didn’t see anything wrong with it. “I can tolerate anything except intolerance,” she said.
“Intolerance” is starting to look like another one of those words like “white” and “American”.
“I can tolerate anything except the outgroup.” Doesn’t sound quite so noble now, does it?
The “unprecedented situation,” then, is not so very unprecedented. Millions of Americans are not, in fact, conspicuously praising every outgroup they can think of while conspicuously condemning their own in-group.
We noted that outgroups are rarely literally “the group most different from you”, and in fact far more likely to be groups very similar to you sharing almost all your characteristics and living in the same area.
We then noted that although liberals and conservatives live in the same area, they might as well be two totally different countries or universe as far as level of interaction were concerned.
Contra the usual idea of them being marked only by voting behavior, we described them as very different tribes with totally different cultures. You can speak of “American culture” only in the same way you can speak of “Asian culture” – that is, with a lot of interior boundaries being pushed under the rug.
The outgroup of the Red Tribe is occasionally blacks and gays and Muslims, more often the Blue Tribe.
The Blue Tribe has performed some kind of very impressive act of alchemy, and transmuted all of its outgroup hatred to the Red Tribe. …
Research suggests Blue Tribe / Red Tribe prejudice to be much stronger than better-known types of prejudice like racism. Once the Blue Tribe was able to enlist the blacks and gays and Muslims in their ranks, they became allies of convenience who deserve to be rehabilitated with mildly condescending paeans to their virtue.
This perhaps is a useful description of what we’re seeing in and around Trump rallies: tribal violence. Two hopped-up tribes, both itching for any excuse to raid each other.
And frankly, I’m worried that if this keeps up, it’s only a matter of time before we have our own version of the al-Askari mosque bombing. And turn into Yugoslavia. Because this is, in fact, exactly how these things happen. (And halfway around the world, people cluck and say, “Those people have been killing each other for centuries. Why should we start caring now?)