What do printing presses and the Internet have in common?
Both technologies helped create enormous ideological chasms and violent conflict in Western societies.
In his October 15 New York Times column, David Brooks alludes to how both these inventions transformed human life — for good and ill.
In present-day America, Brooks wrote, citizens have retreated into tribal silos on the Internet, where they can customize all information they receive to simply reconfirm — and accentuate — views and beliefs they already hold.
The political and cultural divide today is stark and often extreme, Brooks notes, because the most active and influential voices come from those partisans on the fringes of public discourse — the zealots, the intractables, the crazies. Wrote Brooks:
“Devoted Conservatives subscribe to a Hobbesian narrative. It’s a dangerous world. Life is nasty, brutish and short. We need strict values and strong authority to keep us safe. … Progressive Activists, on the other hand, subscribe to a darkened Rousseauian worldview. People may be inherently good, but the hierarchical structures of society are awful. The structures of inequality and oppression have to be dismantled.”
The enemy of truth and any potential rational resolution of national conflict in this scenario, according to a survey Brooks quoted from — “The Hidden Tribes of America” — is that Americans’ attitudes appear much farther apart than they actually are. Some two-thirds of citizens comprise what the study’s authors describe as “the exhausted majority,” people who exhibit “a lot more independent thinking and flexibility,” Brooks points out.
In an opening summary paragraph, the “Hidden Tribes” report contends:
“America has never felt so divided. Bitter debates that were once confined to Congressional hearings and cable TV have now found their way into every part of our lives, from our Facebook feeds to the family dinner table. But most Americans are tired of this ‘us-versus-them’ mindset and are eager to find common ground. This is the message we’ve heard from more than 8,000 Americans in one of our country’s largest-ever studies of polarization: We hold dissimilar views on many issues. However, more than three in four Americans also believe that our differences aren’t so great that we can’t work together.”
Unfortunately, right now the enraged, inflexible fringe is running the show, and leading the country. Wrote Brooks:
“The current situation really does begin to look like the religious wars that ripped through Europe after the invention of the printing press, except that our religions now wear pagan political garb.”
A bit of historical context: the invention of moveable-type printing by German Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized not only religion but societies as well. It accommodated the printing of millions of bibles in vernacular languages (not just Latin), which then rapidly spread like a brush fire over Europe. This allowed any literate person for the first time to read the Bible — and more importantly, interpret it — themselves, and not have it “revealed” to them by clergy. (I posted about this topic in January. See “The Dark Soul Of Technology” here.)
Previously, bibles were extremely expensive and rare, owned only by prelates of the Catholic Church or members of the very rich secular elite.
Suddenly in the Middle Ages, wildly divergent opinions about what exactly the bible said began to proliferate, and the church found itself immediately under siege from naysayers, Protestants, led by Martin Luther. The Reformation that the Protestant onslaught created turned on its head the ancient European system dominated by a monolithic Catholic institution and hierarchy. Suddenly, anything went regarding religion — as long as it was still Christian.And into their Catholic and Protestant silos the different tribes went, clinging to bibles that spoke to them in their own language.
Enclaves of conflict
Today it’s “conservatives” and “liberals,” cloistered in their partisan internet enclaves.
The former believe in rigid preservation of American “hierarchal structures to keep us safe,” while the latter believe “we need to be emancipated from oppressive structures so we can be free.”
So far, never the twain shall meet.
The “Hidden Tribes” study shows, Brooks laments, that while “97 to 99 percent” of the most progressive activists hold one view about a variety of social and political issues, “93 to 95 percent” of the most committed conservatives hold a completely opposite view. He added:
“There’s little evidence of individual thought, just cult conformity.”
One of the most surprising reveals in Brooks’ piece and the study is that the most extreme wings of both partisan “tribes” are comprised of their whitest, richest, best educated and most personally secure members.
“My first big takeaway from ‘Hidden Tribes’ is that our political conflict is primarily a rich, white civil war. It’s between privileged progressives and privileged conservatives.”
It’s not revenge of the nerds but of the elites.
The good news, Brooks believes, is that more than 60 percent of the “exhausted majority” in the middle of the American political spectrum believe that citizens in every tribe “need to listen and compromise more.” Eighty percent of the middle-roaders see all hate speech, which is now becoming endemic in society, as a major problem.
But a major obstacle to centrists effectively bridging their political divides is that they have “no narrative … no coherent philosophic worldview to organize their thinking and compel action.”
Brooks suspects any narrative likely to coalesce among centrists along the political divide will be much different than the one of grievance and reclaiming what is believed lost.
A bipartisan narrative would likely focus on the “gifts, not deficits” that Americans share and how we might use them to improve life for everyone, not just a privileged few.
Let’s print and post that encouraging idea.
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