I like going on comment forums online. Most of the time it’s great entertainment, and sometimes, if not rarely, you find a little nugget of insight. To find anything of value though, you need to wade through torrents of mudslinging, name-calling, and hilariously ignorant diatribes. If you peruse any of the online forums attached to media sites e.g. Reuters, CNN, MSNBC, Foxnews, you will undoubtedly see a common theme about the way commenters refer to opposing groups. A typical example would be as follows:
Only a lib would think it’s a bad idea to keep illegals out
This is an actual quote found on one of these online forums. In it, the poster refers to “libs” which in this case refer to liberals or presumably anyone who is not conservative. Obviously this is a low effort post, but the point is that this categorization happens all the time, on both sides of the political spectrum. Here is another example:
Oh my Gawd…. a repuglickan with some sense….and it is Bush Jr… I cannot believe it..
Here again the implicit assumption is that Republicans don’t have any sense, and that it surprises the poster that one Republican does – in this case a former president.
Now I’m not making the case that that there needs to be strict guidelines for all forums. I think many people go to these places to vent, to lash out, to troll or otherwise be obnoxious in a place where they face no real consequences. In fact, it’s very likely that those same people wouldn’t say the things they say online if they were face to face with anyone. That is the beauty and grotesquery that is the internet. What I do think is happening is that because people are insulated from consequences, and are constantly being reinforced in their ideas that it carries over into real world behavior. If you sit down every night and post about all Republicans are ignorant hicks, and then you find out a coworker is Republican, its probably going to shape your opinion of them. The Onion does an excellent job at satirizing this point:
People like this kind of satire because it reinforces what they believe about a group of people, but in a way that they can’t get in trouble for because it’s satire. Sure it’s a little more sophisticated than a blunt online comment, but the sentiment is the same: all Trump supporters look and act like this. Trump supporters probably don’t think this is as funny. Nor would Clinton Supporters if a similar article were written about them.
Why do we do this? Why do we go online and make blanket statements about whole groups of people which number in the tens of millions? How does this sentiment turn from lazy, uninformed mudslinging online to Hillary Clinton calling a large portion of the country “a basket of deplorables”? It’s possible that it may have something to do with our social evolution and how we identify ourselves and others within group dynamics.
Think of a group or organization you belong to, let’s say your bowling team. You’ve been bowling with these people for years. You have John, the funny one; Karen, the serious one; Jennifer, the clutch player; Dennis, the drunk. You have a nuanced understanding of these people because you know them, you know their motivations as it relates to you(bowling) and you understand that Dennis can be both a drunk and a bowler at the same time.
Now, lets say that your bowling team meets a group of Masai warriors from Southern Kenya. What are the chances that you are going to have a nuanced view of this group in any reasonable amount of time? It turns out that the Masai group has a funny one, a serious one, and a clutch player. Because of the language barrier, and the fact that the Masai don’t bowl, you will likely develop generalizations about this group because of how stark the contrast is between you and them.The only way your bowling group can have any sort of interactions with them or to glean what they might want is to make generalizations about the whole group, because you don’t have enough information or experience to know what they each might want individually. Given enough time, and a media organization who earns money by selling you copies of those generalizations and you’ve got a full blown bias on your hands.
Now all the bowling teams are getting their information from the same news source, in whose interest it is to keep the myths going because it’s profitable and easier to digest than serious detailed reports. Finally, imagine that the bowling teams and the Masai each selected a number of representatives to decide on how a park should be built. The bowlers will select people who follow the narrative about the Masai that everyone agrees on, which has been conveniently generalized and made easily consumable to all the bowlers by the media. Now we have arrived at the divide between Democrats and Republicans.
Anthropologists tell us that you see more differences among your own group, and less among opposing groups. This is a process known as othering. If you’re a Democrat and someone says to you, “all Democrats are whiny babies”, you probably would take exception to that. You know for a fact that there are some whiny Democrats, but there are also some very unentitled Democrats. There are smart ones, stupid ones, lazy ones, hard working ones. There’s 80 million of them, there are bound to be many types right? Human nature encourages us to think on a spectrum about people of “our own kind” and make generalizations about “the other group” because we evolved in a way that our brains could easily make distinctions between friend and enemy. Unfortunately we still carry this primordial bias toward our own in-group, and it has destructive consequences within the political arena.
The answer to this is that the next time you have a conversation with a stranger, whether it is online or in person, and they are from a different political party, realize that they are also on their own spectrum. Acknowledge the fact that not everyone fits neatly into a preconceived framework and who knows, there may be a Masai out there bowling as I write this.