Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Left-brainers in politics, II

Bill Bishop's The Big Sort, reviewed in this past Sunday's New York Times, describes a political landscape here in America that cries out for some left-brained moderation.

Political gerrymandering, media balkanization, online echo chambers, and, most influentially, the growing numbers of people who choose to live among like-minded neighbors, have lead to:

...pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.

Worse, studies suggest that when like-minded individuals congregate, social pressures not only cause them to homogenize their beliefs, but to gravitate towards extremes.  As reviewer Scott Stossel notes:

...when relatively like-minded people are grouped together, they don’t settle around the average point of view of the individuals in the group but rather become more extreme in the direction toward which they’re already inclined. 

In Bishop's words:

It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re a frat boy, a French high school student, a petty criminal or a federal appeals court judge. Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.

The solution?  Quoting Stossel:

Bishop cites research suggesting that, contrary to the standard goo-goo exhortations, the surer route to political comity may be less civic engagement, less passionate conviction. So let’s hear it for the indifferent and unsure, whose passivity may provide the national glue we need.

I'm all for less passionate conviction.  But less civic engagement?

Here's another, perhaps more palatable idea: 

Let's raise the status of those who are least susceptible to conformist pressures, and most susceptible to empirical evidence, rationality, and skepticism (about politics in general and extremism in particular). 

I mean, of course, the lowly left-brainer.  

Those of us who care least about social consequences--i.e., alienating our neighbors--should summon up the courage to speak out more.  

And everyone else should try to take what smart, analytical people say seriously, however much it clashes with the local orthodoxy.

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