Politics & Media
May 02, 2023, 05:57AM

What Drives Political Polarization

Don’t get ensnared by the noise.

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As anyone who spent time in the metal, punk and hardcore scene knows, nothing’s more obnoxious than that person who frames every facet of their personality around fitting a particular label. You wind up with someone who, having come to the scene to escape the norms of society, becomes the most doctrinaire scold and conformist. You can see in their robotic gaze they don’t mean a word they say about “being a real punk” or “a true metalhead” or embodying “what hardcore is really about.” It’s all an act they’ve fallen into to obscure what’s really going on.

The only way to genuinely exist in these scenes is to accept that it’s about a shared appreciation for a type of music and aesthetic. It’s a market niche aligned around a set of products. They’re great products, but they’re still products, and you’re still a consumer. You can have meaningful experiences within these scenes, but that requires a sober acceptance of what they are. People who come into the scene to mount a brand-building exercise are absolute poison—the true embodiment of the word “poser.”

Ideology works a lot like this, as its primary function is to obscure what the idealogue is really up to. Looking across the years of 2020 and 2021, you come to a sobering realization. Most people don’t have principles. Or at least these principles are malleable and contingent on a person’s standing within a group and what they get out of having a certain reputation. This goes beyond the quote attributed to Keynes that “When the facts change, I change my mind,” all the way to “When the hivemind changes, the facts of myself change.”

Everyone “backs the blue” when cops are arresting their enemies. Everyone is “ACAB” when they’re arresting their friends. Very few people are honest enough to admit that they find certain behaviors acceptable and others to be morally wrong and want a society that’s framed around those intuitions. Still fewer are willing to admit that they personally benefit from a set of social and economic relations, and, if given the choice, would happily install a dictator who did everything they liked.

We all have the ability to wrestle with our own moral and cognitive dissonance. What you see in the insane behavior of the ideologically possessed is the individual’s struggle to keep that voice quiet. They need to project that they’re not just another human motivated by self-interest and survival doing the best they can with what they know.

They’re a post-Nietzschean based-trad legionnaire with the hyperborean ancestral spirit running through their veins, killing seed oils upon contact. They’re a brave, neurodivergent anarcho-communist activist vegan. And for some reason, they really want you to subscribe to their podcast, buy the supplements that sponsor them, or just give them money for existing. Don’t worry, it’s nothing like the OnlyFans girl who tells you how sexy you are to keep those monthly payments flowing.

If wokeness gets one thing right, it’s the potential harm in labeling people. It’s the imposition that we shouldn’t name people by their various conditions and afflictions, and rather see these aspects as part of their whole personhood. Progressives often contradict this with boutique sexualities and political micro-factions. But this hypocrisy is their problem, not mine. Let’s focus on what this insight says about the current environment of political and social self-identification.

Referencing Haidt and Lukianoff’s work on cognitive distortions, labeling and self-labeling can encourage patterns of thought that don’t correspond to the reality of a person’s life and lead them to contort their personality to fit their assigned identity. This has far-reaching implications. We’re so loyal to the floating signifiers of left and right, woke and anti-woke, that we lose ourselves in the struggle to be a “true leftist” or a “true conservative.” We sleepwalk into saying things we don’t mean, conceived by other people who don’t give a damn about it. And in our stupor, we lash out at people who point out the contradictions of our stated positions.

This lashing out usually remains within the play-acting of online flamewars. But at a certain point, things get serious. It’s all kayfabe until Owen Hart falls to his death. If you’re so dedicated to fitting within the confines of a political concept, de-individuate to the point where you organize a harassment campaign to get someone fired, assemble a mob outside their home, or just murder them in cold blood. Perhaps if you’d been honest with yourself about what you want and why, you could have meaningfully negotiated with this person. But now it’s too late, and you don’t want to admit you just spent a decade living a lie.

This process of reverse engineering is what drives political polarization. When you observe a self-styled radical, take note of what they’re like on social media or in crowds vs. how they act when you’re alone with them. The difference is often stark. If you encounter someone who reacts to everything with hyperbole and histrionics, make a mental note: Don’t listen to them. You can’t trust them.

While not much for “collapse-posting,” I believe the political noise on social media will soon become ignored by most of society and lose its power to shape anything beyond its own sphere. There was a cultural turn somewhere around 2013 or 2014, driven by the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and its economic consequences. Out of this swamp came wokeness and its stalwart adversarial motivator, the alt-right. You might say it’s been a long proxy war between people who spent their evenings on Something Awful and those who did so on 4Chan, along with the attendant marginal corners of academia and half-animated corpses of 20th-century radicalism that serve as the ballast for both factions.

Before 2013, no one cared about any of these people. But after Barack Obama’s first term, dominated by the “fiscal cliff” and the debt ceiling, the mechanism of ideological production started receiving fresh and potent fuel. And since then we’ve suffered for it. But, as Sam Kriss and others have pointed out, that era’s drawing to a close. As Kriss notes about 2020, the year the star of wokeness went full supernova: “On Facebook, the average engagement rate—the number of likes, comments, and shares per follower—fell by 34%, from 0.086 to 0.057. Well, everyone knows that the mushrooms are spreading over Facebook, hundreds of thousands of users liquefying out of its corpse every year. But the same pattern is everywhere. Engagement fell 28% on Instagram and 15% on Twitter. (It’s kept falling since.) Even on TikTok, the terrifying brainhole of tomorrow, the walls are closing in. Until 2020, the average daily time spent on the app kept rising in line with its growing user base; since then the number of users has kept growing, but the thing is capturing less and less of their lives.”

As the Age of Exception closes, what remains of this apparent “radicalism” gets steadily more goofy. Here’s another rule for you: if it seems cheesy, it probably sucks. I recently witnessed a Twitter interaction that illustrated this perfectly. Some right-wing anons were arguing about the strip-mining of the German countryside to dig up coal for energy and industrial production. This is in response to sanctions on Russia that’ve cut off supplies of natural gas, along with Germany’s insane decision not to maintain or replace their nuclear power plants.

It was fascinating to see how these weirdos framed it. One commenter took a romantic tone, arguing that the fields and valleys were part of the European pastoral aesthetic. Another replied that industry was “promethean” and “based” and therefore compatible with notions of European superiority. If you’re not arguing about practical things that need to get done, but rather about ideals and abstractions, you could find a way to advocate for any position from any perspective.

I can see it now. The “based” argument for late-term abortions and pediatric sex change operations. The “woke” case for racial separatism and quota-based hiring. I’m making a joke but I’ve seen some of this in the wild. If you’re laughing, good.

Marx and his most orthodox followers have a point about ideology: it’s all one thing. Although I wouldn’t say that people have zero agency in their beliefs, it’s undeniable that these beliefs are attenuated by their situation, time and place, and what they need to do to survive and reproduce themselves. This lends itself to the meme of the regular distribution, with the caveman on one side, the insufferable mid-wit at the center, and the wise sage at the other end. The caveman view of all of this is: they’re just saying a bunch of things so you’ll give them money.

Consider the major Seattle bands associated with “grunge.” Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, Tad, Mudhoney and their compatriots had some aesthetic markers in common and it made some practical sense to lump them together. But they still sounded distinct and recognizable from one another. Now consider the same for the legions of post-grunge and post-post-grunge bands that proliferated from the mid-1990s through the 2000s: quiet verses and loud choruses, washed-out guitars set behind catchy lyrics rasped out in predictable fashion, most of it indistinguishable dreck. It was no longer a genuine form of expression that could be labeled “something” ex post facto, but one that sought out the most palatable features of that something and aspired to it.

I’m not posturing as an exception to the rule. I’ve avoided some of the more acute neuroses of our age mostly because I haven’t tried to build a large online profile. Perhaps this is because I’ve landed steady-enough employment that I don’t need to be an inflammatory bastard to get attention and beg for money. Still, I’ve gone through many of the phases typical of millennial men from an upper-middle-class suburban background: radical atheist; hardcore libertarian, almost to the precipice absurdity; blue-globe unironic neoliberal poster; peripheral dabbler in what was called the “post-left”; and I spat out some lines in these articles that have become common among self-branded “dissidents.”

I get it. Most of my opinions haven’t changed much since I was 14, as I’ve kind of known what I wanted out of life since then. I want to have a decent job that pays enough to live well, have healthcare, and do as I please. I want to talk about music, movies, and books freely without worrying about people wielding them against me. I’m cool with people doing their own thing as long as they’re not actively spreading lies or harming those who can’t decide things for themselves (i.e., children). And I want to live in a country that allows the maximum number of people to do this too.

I’m still a “live-and-let-live” person. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to add “... at your own risk.” What does this make me? A moderate liberal? A left-wing libertarian? A centrist conservative? A market-oriented social democrat? A post-Marxist ex-libertarian socialist? Who cares? Just say what you really think and leave it at that. People are going to say what they want about you no matter what. Let them call you names, apply labels to you, and place your words on the insane tabletop game in their heads. It’s all noise.

In modern sales training, aspiring reps are often told not to focus on the product itself, but on the benefits that serve the core needs of their customers. This makes a lot of practical sense, especially when selling something that has a long-standing market presence. However, it often leads down the road of absurd notions like “I don’t sell toothpaste, I sell an experience.” You never want reps to lose sight of the truth that you do sell toothpaste. 


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