[Trigger warning: Some discussion of rape in Part III. This will make much more sense if you've previously read I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup]
One day I woke up and they had politicized Ebola.
I don’t just mean the usual crop of articles like Republicans Are Responsible For The Ebola Crisis and Democrats Try To Deflect Blame For Ebola Outbreak and Incredibly Awful Democrats Try To Blame Ebola On GOP and NPR Reporter Exposes Right Wing Ebola Hype and Republicans Flip-Flop On Ebola Czars. That level of politicization was pretty much what I expected.
(I can’t say I totally expected to see an article called Fat Lesbians Got All The Ebola Dollars, But Blame The GOP, but in retrospect nothing I know about modern society suggested I wouldn’t)
I’m talking about something weirder. Over the past few days, my friends on Facebook have been making impassioned posts about how it’s obvious there should/shouldn’t be a quarantine, but deluded people on the other side are muddying the issue. The issue has risen to an alarmingly high level of 0.05 #Gamergates, which is my current unit of how much people on social media are concerned about a topic. What’s more, everyone supporting the quarantine has been on the right, and everyone opposing on the left. Weird that so many people suddenly develop strong feelings about a complicated epidemiological issue, which can be exactly predicted by their feelings about everything else.
On the Right, there is condemnation of the CDC’s opposition to quarantines as globalist gibberish, fourteen questions that will never be asked about Ebola centering on why there aren’t more quarantine measures in place, and arguments on right-leaning biology blogs for why the people opposing quarantines are dishonest or incompetent. Top Republicans call for travel bans and a presenter on Fox, proportionate as always, demands quarantine centers in every US city.
On the Left (and token libertarian) sides, the New Yorker has been publishing articles on how involuntary quarantines violate civil liberties and “embody class and racial biases”, Reason makes fun of “dumb Republican calls for a travel ban”, Vox has a clickbaity article on how “This One Paragraph Perfectly Sums Up America’s Overreaction To Ebola”, and MSNBC notes that to talk about travel bans is “borderline racism”.
How did this happen? How did both major political tribes decide, within a month of the virus becoming widely known in the States, not only exactly what their position should be but what insults they should call the other tribe for not agreeing with their position? There are a lot of complicated and well-funded programs in West Africa to disseminate information about the symptoms of Ebola in West Africa, and all I can think of right now is that if the Africans could disseminate useful medical information half as quickly as Americans seem to have disseminated tribal-affiliation-related information, the epidemic would be over tomorrow.
Is it just random? A couple of Republicans were coincidentally the first people to support a quarantine, so other Republicans felt they had to stand by them, and then Democrats felt they had to oppose it, and then that spread to wider and wider circles? And if by chance a Democrats had proposed quarantine before a Republican, the situation would have reversed itself? Could be.
Much more interesting is the theory that the fear of disease is the root of all conservativism. I am not making this up. There has been a lot of really good evolutionary psychology done on the extent to which pathogen stress influences political opinions. Some of this is done on the societal level, and finds that societies with higher germ loads are more authoritarian and conservative. This research can be followed arbitrarily far – like, isn’t it interesting that the most liberal societies in the world are the Scandinavian countries in the very far north where disease burden is low, and the most traditionalist-authoritarian ones usually in Africa or somewhere where disease burden is high? One even sees a similar effect within countries, with northern US states being very liberal and southern states being very conservative. Other studies have instead focused on differences between individuals within society – we know that religious conservatives are people with stronger disgust reactions and priming disgust reactions can increase self-reported conservative political beliefs – with most people agreeing disgust reactions are a measure of the “behavioral immune system” triggered by fear of germ contamination.
(free tip for liberal political activists – offering to tidy up voting booths before the election is probably a thousand times more effective than anything you’re doing right now. I will leave the free tip for conservative political activists to your imagination)
If being a conservative means you’re pre-selected for worry about disease, obviously the conservatives are going to be the ones most worried about Ebola. And in fact, along with the quarantine debate, there’s a little sub-debate about whether Ebola is worth panicking about. Vox declares Americans to be “overreacting” and keeps telling them to calm down, whereas its similarly-named evil twin Vox Day has been spending the last week or so spreading panic and suggesting readers “wash your hands, stock up a bit, and avoid any unnecessary travel”.
So that’s the second theory.
The third theory is that everything in politics is mutually reinforcing.
Suppose the Red Tribe has a Grand Narrative. The Narrative is something like “We Americans are right-thinking folks with a perfectly nice culture. But there are also scary foreigners who hate our freedom and wish us ill. Unfortunately, there are also traitors in our ranks – in the form of the Blue Tribe – who in order to signal sophistication support foreigners over Americans and want to undermine our culture. They do this by supporting immigration, accusing anyone who is too pro-American and insufficiently pro-foreigner of “racism”, and demanding everyone conform to “multiculturalism” and “diversity”, as well as lionizing any group within America that tries to subvert the values of the dominant culture. Our goal is to minimize the subversive power of the Blue Tribe at home, then maintain isolation from foreigners abroad, enforced by a strong military if they refuse to stay isolated.”
And the Blue Tribe also has a Grand Narrative. The Narrative is something like “The world is made up of a bunch of different groups and cultures. The wealthier and more privileged groups, played by the Red Tribe, have a history of trying to oppress and harass all the other groups. This oppression is based on ignorance, bigotry, xenophobia, denial of science, and a false facade of patriotism. Our goal is to call out the Red Tribe on its many flaws, and support other groups like foreigners and minorities in their quest for justice and equality, probably in a way that involves lots of NGOs and activists.”
The proposition “a quarantine is the best way to deal with Ebola” seems to fit much better into the Red narrative than the Blue Narrative. It’s about foreigners being scary and dangerous, and a strong coordinated response being necessary to protect right-thinking Americans from them. When people like NBC and the New Yorker accuse quarantine opponents of being “racist”, that just makes the pieces fit in all the better.
The proposition “a quarantine is a bad way to deal with Ebola” seems to fit much better into the Blue narrative than the Red. It’s about extremely poor black foreigners dying, and white Americans rushing to throw them overboard to protect themselves out of ignorance of the science (which says Ebola can’t spread much in the First World), bigotry, xenophobia, and fear. The real solution is a coordinated response by lots of government agencies working in tandem with NGOs and local activists.
It would be really hard to switch these two positions around. If the Republicans were to oppose a quarantine, it might raise the general question of whether closing the borders and being scared of foreign threats is always a good idea, and whether maybe sometimes accusations of racism are making a good point. Far “better” to maintain a consistent position where all your beliefs reinforce all of your other beliefs.
There’s a question of causal structure here. Do Republicans believe certain other things for their own sake, and then adapt their beliefs about Ebola to help buttress their other beliefs? Or do the same factors that made them adopt their narrative in the first place lead them to adopt a similar narrative around Ebola?
My guess it it’s a little of both. And then once there’s a critical mass of anti-quarantiners within a party, in-group cohesion and identification effects cascade towards it being a badge of party membership and everybody having to believe it. And if the Democrats are on the other side, saying things you disagree with about every other issue, and also saying that you have to oppose quarantine or else you’re a bad person, then that also incentivizes you to support a quarantine, just to piss them off.
Sometimes politicization isn’t about what side you take, it’s about what issues you emphasize.
In the last post, I wrote:
Imagine hearing that a liberal talk show host and comedian was so enraged by the actions of ISIS that he’d recorded and posted a video in which he shouts at them for ten minutes, cursing the “fanatical terrorists” and calling them “utter savages” with “savage values”.
If I heard that, I’d be kind of surprised. It doesn’t fit my model of what liberal talk show hosts do.
But the story I’m actually referring to is liberal talk show host / comedian Russell Brand making that same rant against Fox News for supporting war against the Islamic State, adding at the end that “Fox is worse than ISIS”.
That fits my model perfectly. You wouldn’t celebrate Osama’s death, only Thatcher’s. And you wouldn’t call ISIS savages, only Fox News. Fox is the outgroup, ISIS is just some random people off in a desert. You hate the outgroup, you don’t hate random desert people.
I would go further. Not only does Brand not feel much like hating ISIS, he has a strong incentive not to. That incentive is: the Red Tribe is known to hate ISIS loudly and conspicuously. Hating ISIS would signal Red Tribe membership, would be the equivalent of going into Crips territory with a big Bloods gang sign tattooed on your shoulder.
Now I think I missed an important part of the picture. The existence of ISIS plays right into Red Tribe narratives. They are totally scary foreigners who hate our freedom and want to hurt us and probably require a strong military response, so their existence sounds like a point in favor of the Red Tribe. Thus, the Red Tribe wants to talk about them as much as possible and condemn them in the strongest terms they can.
There’s not really any way to spin this issue in favor of the Blue Tribe narrative. The Blue Tribe just has to grudgingly admit that maybe this is one of the few cases where their narrative breaks down. So their incentive is to try to minimize ISIS, to admit it exists and is bad and try to distract the conversation to other issues that support their chosen narrative more. That’s why you’ll never see the Blue Tribe gleefully cheering someone on as they call ISIS “savages”. It wouldn’t fit the script.
But did you hear about that time when a Muslim-American lambasting Islamophobia totally pwned all of those ignorant FOX anchors? Le-GEN-dary!
At worst this choice to emphasize different issues descends into an unhappy combination of tragedy and farce.
The Rotherham scandal was an incident in an English town where criminal gangs had been grooming and blackmailing thousands of young girls, then using them as sex slaves. This had been going on for at least ten years with minimal intervention by the police. An investigation was duly launched, which discovered that the police had been keeping quiet about the problem because the gangs were mostly Pakistani and the victims mostly white, and the police didn’t want to seem racist by cracking down too heavily. Researchers and officials who demanded that the abuse should be publicized or fought more vigorously were ordered to attend “diversity training” to learn why their demands were offensive. The police department couldn’t keep it under wraps forever, and eventually it broke and was a huge scandal.
The Left then proceeded to totally ignore it, and the Right proceeded to never shut up about it for like an entire month, and every article about it had to include the “diversity training” aspect, so that if you type “rotherham d…” into Google, your two first options are “Rotherham Daily Mail” and “Rotherham diversity training”.
I don’t find this surprising at all. The Rotherham incident ties in perfectly to the Red Tribe narrative – scary foreigners trying to hurt us, politically correct traitors trying to prevent us from noticing. It doesn’t do anything for the Blue Tribe narrative, and indeed actively contradicts it at some points. So the Red Tribe wants to trumpet it to the world, and the Blue Tribe wants to stay quiet and distract.
HBD Chick usually writes very well-thought-out articles on race and genetics listing all the excellent reasons you should not marry your cousins. Hers is not a political blog, and I have never seen her get upset about any political issue before, but since most of her posts are about race and genetics she gets a lot of love from the Right and a lot of flak from the Left. She recently broke her silence on politics to write three long and very angry blog posts on the Rotherham issue, of which I will excerpt one:
if you’ve EVER called somebody a racist just because they said something politically incorrect, then you’d better bloody well read this report, because THIS IS ON YOU! this is YOUR doing! this is where your scare tactics have gotten us: over 1400 vulnerable kids systematically abused because YOU feel uncomfortable when anybody brings up some “hate facts.”
this is YOUR fault, politically correct people — and i don’t care if you’re on the left or the right. YOU enabled this abuse thanks to the climate of fear you’ve created. thousands of abused girls — some of them maybe dead — on YOUR head.
I have no doubt that her outrage is genuine. But I do have to wonder why she is outraged about this and not all of the other outrageous things in the world. And I do have to wonder whether the perfect fit between her own problems – trying to blog about race and genetics but getting flak from politically correct people – and the problems that made Rotherham so disastrous – which include police getting flak from politically correct people – are part of her sudden conversion to political activism.
[edit: she objects to this characterization]
But I will also give her this – accidentally stumbling into being upset by the rape of thousands of children is, as far as accidental stumbles go, not a bad one. What’s everyone else’s excuse?
John Durant did an interesting analysis of media coverage of the Rotherham scandal versus the “someone posted nude pictures of Jennifer Lawrence” scandal.
He found left-leaning news website Slate had one story on the Rotherham child exploitation scandal, but four stories on nude Jennifer Lawrence.
He also found that feminist website Jezebel had only one story on the Rotherham child exploitation scandal, but six stories on nude Jennifer Lawrence.
Feministing gave Rotherham a one-sentence mention in a links roundup (just underneath “five hundred years of female portrait painting in three minutes”), but Jennifer Lawrence got two full stories.
The article didn’t talk about social media, and I couldn’t search it directly for Jennifer Lawrence stories because it was too hard to sort out discussion of the scandal from discussion of her as an actress. But using my current unit of social media saturation, Rotherham clocks in at 0.24 #Gamergates
You thought I was joking. I never joke.
This doesn’t surprise me much. Yes, you would think that the systematic rape of thousands of women with police taking no action might be a feminist issue. Or that it might outrage some people on Tumblr, a site which has many flaws but which has never been accused of being slow to outrage. But the goal here isn’t to push some kind of Platonic ideal of what’s important, it’s to support a certain narrative that ties into the Blue Tribe narrative. Rotherham does the opposite of that. The Jennifer Lawrence nudes, which center around how hackers (read: creepy internet nerds) shared nude pictures of a beloved celebrity on Reddit (read: creepy internet nerds) and 4Chan (read: creepy internet nerds) – and #Gamergate which does the same – are exactly the narrative they want to push, so they become the Stories Of The Century.
Here’s something I did find on Tumblr which I think is really interesting.
You can see that after the Ferguson shooting, the average American became a little less likely to believe that blacks were treated equally in the criminal justice system. This makes sense, since the Ferguson shooting was a much-publicized example of the criminal justice system treating a black person unfairly.
But when you break the results down by race, a different picture emerges. White people were actually a little more likely to believe the justice system was fair after the shooting. Why? I mean, if there was no change, you could chalk it up to white people believing the police’s story that the officer involved felt threatened and made a split-second bad decision that had nothing to do with race. That could explain no change just fine. But being more convinced that justice is color-blind? What could explain that?
My guess – before Ferguson, at least a few people interpreted this as an honest question about race and justice. After Ferguson, everyone mutually agreed it was about politics.
Ferguson and Rotherham were both similar in that they were cases of police misconduct involving race. You would think that there might be some police misconduct community who are interested in stories of police misconduct, or some race community interested in stories about race, and these people would discuss both of these two big international news items.
The Venn diagram of sources I saw covering these two stories forms two circles with no overlap. All those conservative news sites that couldn’t shut up about Rotherham? Nothing on Ferguson – unless it was to snipe at the Left for “exploiting” it to make a political point. Otherwise, they did their best to stay quiet about it. Hey! Look over there! ISIS is probably beheading someone really interesting!
The same way Rotherham obviously supports the Red Tribe’s narrative, Ferguson obviously supports the Blue Tribe’s narrative. A white person, in the police force, shooting an innocent (ish) black person, and then a racist system refusing to listen to righteous protests by brave activists.
The “see, the Left is right about everything” angle of most of the coverage made HBD Chick’s attack on political correctness look subtle. The parts about race, systemic inequality, and the police were of debatable proportionality, but what I really liked was the Ferguson coverage started branching off into every issue any member of the Blue Tribe has ever cared about:
Gun control? Check.
The war on terror? Check.
American exceptionalism? Check.
Gay rights? Check.
Palestinian independence? Check.
Global warming? Check. Wait, really? Yes, really.
Anyone who thought that the question in that poll was just a simple honest question about criminal justice was very quickly disabused of that notion. It was a giant Referendum On Everything, a “do you think the Blue Tribe is right on every issue and the Red Tribe is terrible and stupid, or vice versa?” And it turns out many people who when asked about criminal justice will just give the obvious answer, have much stronger and less predictable feelings about Giant Referenda On Everything.
In my last post, I wrote about how people feel when their in-group is threatened, even when it’s threatened with an apparently innocuous point they totally agree with:
I imagine [it] might feel like some liberal US Muslim leader, when he goes on the O’Reilly Show, and O’Reilly ambushes him and demands to know why he and other American Muslims haven’t condemned beheadings by ISIS more, demands that he criticize them right there on live TV. And you can see the wheels in the Muslim leader’s head turning, thinking something like “Okay, obviously beheadings are terrible and I hate them as much as anyone. But you don’t care even the slightest bit about the victims of beheadings. You’re just looking for a way to score points against me so you can embarass all Muslims. And I would rather personally behead every single person in the world than give a smug bigot like you a single microgram more stupid self-satisfaction than you’ve already got.”
I think most people, when they think about it, probably believe that the US criminal justice system is biased. But when you feel under attack by people whom you suspect have dishonest intentions of twisting your words so they can use them to dehumanize your in-group, eventually you think “I would rather personally launch unjust prosecutions against every single minority in the world than give a smug out-group member like you a single microgram more stupid self-satisfaction than you’ve already got.”
Wait, so you mean turning all the most important topics in our society into wedge issues that we use to insult and abuse people we don’t like, to the point where even mentioning it triggers them and makes them super defensive, might have been a bad idea??!
There’s been some really neat research into people who don’t believe in global warming. The original suspicion, at least from certain quarters, were that they were just dumb. Then someone checked and found that warming disbelievers actually had (very slightly) higher levels of scientific literacy than warming believers.
So people had to do actual studies, and to what should have been no one’s surprise, the most important factor was partisan affiliation. For example, according to Pew 64% of Democrats believe the Earth is getting warmer due to human activity, compared to 9% of Tea Party Republicans.
So assuming you want to convince Republicans to start believing in global warming before we’re all frying eggs on the sidewalk, how should you go about it? This is the excellent question asked by a study recently profiled in an NYMag article.
The study found that you could be a little more convincing to conservatives by acting on the purity/disgust axis of moral foundations theory – the one that probably gets people so worried about Ebola. A warmer climate is unnatural, in the same way that, oh, let’s say, homosexuality is unnatural. Carbon dioxide contaminating our previously pure atmosphere, in the same way premarital sex or drug use contaminates your previously pure body. It sort of worked.
Another thing that sort of worked was tying things into the Red Tribe narrative, which they did through the two sentences “Being pro-environmental allows us to protect and preserve the American way of life. It is patriotic to conserve the country’s natural resources.” I can’t imagine anyone falling for this, but I guess some people did.
This is cute, but it’s too little too late. Global warming has already gotten inextricably tied up in the Blue Tribe narrative: Global warming proves that unrestrained capitalism is destroying the planet. Global warming disproportionately affects poor countries and minorities. Global warming could have been prevented with multilateral action, but we were too dumb to participate because of stupid American cowboy diplomacy. Global warming is an important cause that activists and NGOs should be lauded for highlighting. Global warming shows that Republicans are science denialists and probably all creationists. Two lousy sentences on “patriotism” aren’t going to break through that.
If I were in charge of convincing the Red Tribe to line up behind fighting global warming, here’s what I’d say:
In the 1950s, brave American scientists shunned by the climate establishment of the day discovered that the Earth was warming as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to potentially devastating natural disasters that could destroy American agriculture and flood American cities. As a result, the country mobilized against the threat. Strong government action by the Bush administration outlawed the worst of these gases, and brilliant entrepreneurs were able to discover and manufacture new cleaner energy sources. As a result of these brave decisions, our emissions stabilized and are currently declining.
Unfortunately, even as we do our part, the authoritarian governments of Russia and China continue to industralize and militarize rapidly as part of their bid to challenge American supremacy. As a result, Communist China is now by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer, with the Russians close behind. Many analysts believe Putin secretly welcomes global warming as a way to gain access to frozen Siberian resources and weaken the more temperate United States at the same time. These countries blow off huge disgusting globs of toxic gas, which effortlessly cross American borders and disrupt the climate of the United States. Although we have asked them to stop several times, they refuse, perhaps egged on by major oil producers like Iran and Venezuela who have the most to gain by keeping the world dependent on the fossil fuels they produce and sell to prop up their dictatorships.
A giant poster of Mao looks approvingly at all the CO2 being produced…for Communism.
We need to take immediate action. While we cannot rule out the threat of military force, we should start by using our diplomatic muscle to push for firm action at top-level summits like the Kyoto Protocol. Second, we should fight back against the liberals who are trying to hold up this important work, from big government bureaucrats trying to regulate clean energy to celebrities accusing people who believe in global warming of being ‘racist’. Third, we need to continue working with American industries to set an example for the world by decreasing our own emissions in order to protect ourselves and our allies. Finally, we need to punish people and institutions who, instead of cleaning up their own carbon, try to parasitize off the rest of us and expect the federal government to do it for them.
Please join our brave men and women in uniform in pushing for an end to climate change now.
If this were the narrative conservatives were seeing on TV and in the papers, I think we’d have action on the climate pretty quickly. I mean, that action might be nuking China. But it would be action.
And yes, there’s a sense in which that narrative is dishonest, or at least has really weird emphases. But our current narrative also has really some weird emphases. And for much the same reasons.
The Red Tribe and Blue Tribe have different narratives, which they use to tie together everything that happens into reasons why their tribe is good and the other tribe is bad.
Sometimes this results in them seizing upon different sides of an apparently nonpolitical issue when these support their narrative; for example, Republicans generally supporting a quarantine against Ebola, Democrats generally opposing it. Other times it results in a side trying to gain publicity for stories that support their narrative while sinking their opponents’ preferred stories – Rotherham for some Reds; Ferguson for some Blues.
When an issue gets tied into a political narrative, it stops being about itself and starts being about the wider conflict between tribes until eventually it becomes viewed as a Referendum On Everything. At this point, people who are clued in start suspecting nobody cares about the issue itself – like victims of beheadings, or victims of sexual abuse – and everybody cares about the issue’s potential as a political weapon – like proving Muslims are “uncivilized”, or proving political correctness is dangerous. After that, even people who agree that the issue is a problem and who would otherwise want to take action have to stay quiet, because they know that their help would be used less to solve a problem than to push forward the war effort against them. If they feel especially threatened, they may even take an unexpected side on the issue, switching from what they would usually believe to whichever position seems less like a transparent cover for attempts to attack them and their friends.
And then you end up doing silly things like saying ISIS is not as bad as Fox News, or donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the officer who shot Michael Brown.
This can sort of be prevented by not turning everything into a referendum on how great your tribe is and how stupid the opposing tribe is, or by trying to frame an issue in a way that respects or appeals to an out-group’s narrative.
Let me give an example. I find a lot of online feminism very triggering, because it seems to me to have nothing to do with women and be transparently about marginalizing nerdy men as creeps who are not really human (see: nude pictures vs. Rotherham, above). This means that even when I support and agree with feminists and want to help them, I am constantly trying to drag my brain out of panic mode that their seemingly valuable projects are just deep cover for attempts to hurt me (see: hypothetical Bill O’Reilly demanding Muslims condemn the “Islamic” practice of beheading people).
I have recently met some other feminists who instead use a narrative which views “nerds” as an “alternative gender performance”, ie in the case of men they reject the usual masculine pursuits of sports and fraternities and they have characteristics that violate normative beauty standards (like “no neckbeards”). Thus, people trying to attack nerds is a subcategory of “people trying to enforce gender performance”, and nerds should join with queer people, women, and other people who have an interest in promoting tolerance of alternative gender performances in order to fight for their mutual right to be left alone and accepted.
I’m not sure I entirely buy this argument, but it doesn’t trigger me, and it’s the sort of thing I could buy, and if all my friends started saying it I’d probably be roped into agreeing by social pressure alone.
But this is as rare as, well, anti-global warming arguments aimed at making Republicans feel comfortable and nonthreatened.
I blame the media, I really do. Remember, from within a system no one necessarily has an incentive to do what the system as a whole is supposed to do. Daily Kos or someone has a little label saying “supports liberal ideas”, but actually their incentive is to make liberals want to click on their pages and ads. If the quickest way to do that is by writing story after satisfying story of how dumb Republicans are, and what wonderful taste they have for being members of the Blue Tribe instead of evil mutants, then they’ll do that even if the effect on the entire system is to make Republicans hate them and by extension everything they stand for.
I don’t know how to fix this.