Activists and campaigners on the left are forever focusing on finding ways to exercise their frustration. However, I always fear they don’t pay enough attention to shifting public opinion.
There’s an excellent blog post by Ethan Zuckerman here that gives me some pause for thought.
In 1986, Hallin introduced the idea that we can understand journalistic ideas in terms of three “spheres”, widely recognized, though rarely articulated. The “sphere of consensus” includes ideas that are so widely agreed upon that they are generally uncontroversial. As Brooke puts it, “Democracy is good, slavery is bad, all men are created equal. Here truths are self-evident and journalists don’t feel the need to be objective.” Then there’s the “sphere of legitimate controversy”, issues we are used to arguing over, like taxation policy, abortion, gun control and capitol punishment, where reasonable people can disagree, and where journalists generally focus their attention. Finally, there’s the “sphere of deviance”, where ideas are deemed unworthy of a hearing. Brooke offers the “pro-pedophilia” position as an example of the deviant sphere
That’s a good way of thinking how thoughts are organised. But then how to forced ideas to go from being ‘controversial’ to a ‘consensus’? That’s the big question.
With increasing polarisation, which is the environment we are in now, this job becomes harder because people have different spheres. Hardcore libertarians think taxation is like violence, while ultra-socialists may consider it as key to a civilised society. I think political discussion on the internet can exacerbates polarisation.
This means the clash of spheres is intense. This leads to even more conflict for two reasons. Firstly, because people end up congregating in areas where others agree with them. That confirmation bias is fed daily and it creates a sense of solidarity and community. People like that. But they start thinking most people in the country share those spheres of thinking.
So when they encounter someone of a different ideological bent, that frustrates and angers them.
Phenomena like confirmation bias (a tendency to overweight information that agrees with our preconceptions) and disconfirmation bias (the tendency to discount information we disagree with) contribute to a pattern of “motivated reasoning”, where our emotions distort and shape our “rational” thinking. Mooney suggests that there’s deep neurological reasons for this behavior – we literally have a hair-trigger “fight or flight” reaction to types of information that challenge our belief systems.
As a result, confronting a highly polarized argument with facts frequently backfires.
So not only is there a problem with polarisation, but people of different ideological bent are highly unlikely to be persuaded easily. Especially when approached with ‘facts’ or ‘logical argument’, which lefties are prone to try.
So there’s a point here about polarisation, another one about how that leads to even more conflict, and why it makes persuading people difficult. I’m just thinking out aloud here. But it does also offer a glimpse into the mindset of people who become intensely polarised.
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