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Wednesday
Dec142016

When Extreme Views Become the Norm

Extreme opinions have gotten more acceptable since the presidential election. By extreme opinions I mean those that stretch truth to arrive at unjustifiable conclusions. I also mean those opinions that are built almost entirely upon evidence and arguments supporting one point of view and that dismiss or suspect any evidence or arguments that question their position.

I’ll give you two examples, knowing full well that those who hold the opinions I am using as examples will consider my arguments wrong, or worse than wrong—perhaps disloyal, for sure naive.

First we have the truth that Donald Trump has appointed Breitbart News’ Steve Bannon as a senior advisor,  that alt-right figures such as Richard Spencer have celebrated Trump’s victory as a victory for themselves, and that that anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and other racial, ethnic, and religious hate attacks have appeared to have increased in the U.S. since the election. For many Americans these truths are disturbing. They seem to signal an increase in intolerance within the country and a fear both that government will not protect vulnerable minorities and that further statements from the new president and/or his supporters will create an even more dangerous climate of persecution within our society. These are possibilities that, of course, need to be guarded against. They are not realities. Neither is it a reality that the president or any of his advisors are “neo-Nazis,” or that his election means we are headed for a new holocaust. Parallels between the election of Trump and rise of Hitler can be interesting and even provocative, but they are not evidence that Trump is a new Hitler nor that our country is descending into Naziism.  These latter opinions are not just being raised as questions, or as warnings, but are being lauded as “facts” and anyone who does not recognize them is being branded as a collaborator or dupe. Those who favor waiting to see what Trump the president actually does, are told that they are both naïve and are promoting his neo-Nazi policies by espousing such an attitude.

The phrases “conspiracy theories” and “fake news” have gotten a lot of ink lately. The  two are linked in most people’s minds because, it is claimed, that those who believe conspiracy  theories are the ones who have been fooled by fake news. I know some people whom I regard as believing conspiracy theories. They get their information from internet sites I never visit. They have counter-arguments to every argument against their theory. They regard claims of fake news as themselves fake claims, designed to discredit real news. They regard the real sources of fake news as being the mainstream media. They believe that the whole furor over fake news is designed to promote greater censorship of news and information on the internet.  They believe that the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Chevy Chase really does house a pedophilia ring and John Podesta is one of its customers and they think that the accusation against Russia for hacking into the DNC in hopes of helping Trump defeat Clinton  is a “false flag” operation by the government to question the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election. Of course they could be right on both counts. The on-the-surface absurdity of the pedophilia claim does not rule it out, although the number of law enforcement agencies that would need to be involved in covering up such an operation in a prominent restaurant frequented by many political figures is substantial. Questioning the claim that Russia’s aim was to affect the outcome of the recent presidential election by it’s hacking of the DNC’s or John Podesta’s emails is not beyond the pale. In fact, most Republicans, as well as Trump himself, question it. Only John Bolton, among reputable and influential political figures  has claimed that our own government might have been the hackers engaging in a false flag operation. But the number of Americans who believe that the pizza parlor pedophilia ring and the false flag operation to give the appearance of Russian hacking are facts, is substantial.

 So what is contributing to this onslaught of extreme opinions, often held by people who previously were more moderate? Part of it is the politicization of our media, our mainstream media. It’s difficult nowadays to find a newspaper or television outlet that presents the news dispassionately and without injecting political opinions. The New York Times, CNN, Fox News,  even NPR have allowed partisanship and opinion to dominate their headline stories. Every major media outlet can pretty accurately be designated either on the right or left of the political spectrum and, instead of this fact merely affecting editorial messages, it affects many of  the news stories that they present.

Even more than the mainstream media, the alternative media presents highly partisan and biased news coverage, including sometimes blatantly false stories or headlines. Most people only go to alternative media sites they expect to agree with, so the stories to be found on them echo the biases of their customers. Social media, particularly Facebook, is probably the strongest media site affecting public opinions. It does so partly by its news feeds, but mostly by providing a platform in which like-minded people converse with each other and share and mutually reinforce their particular biases and prejudices. This leads to  situation in which the well-known mechanisms of groupthink come into play.

Irving Janis’ principle of groupthink was defined by a group of symptoms. These included, among other things:

Closed-mindedness

1   Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group's assumptions.

2   Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.

Pressures toward uniformity

1   Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.

2   Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.

3   Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of "disloyalty"

One of the things that happens within groupthink it that, as opinions conform to those that everyone in the group agrees on, the consensus begins to drift toward the more extreme opinions expressed in the group, since there is no mechanism for skepticism or self-censorship.

Although the original concept of groupthink applied to closed, face-to-face groups that  regarded themselves as both moral and invulnerable, e.g. Nazi Germany, The Bush cabinet planning the Iraq invasion, etc., it has more recently been applied to what is called hive mind, the idea that a large number of people who share their knowledge or opinions with one another, are liable to produce uncritical conformity to a common set of opinions. This is certainly one way to conceptualize the kind of conformity to extreme opinions that appears to happen on Facebook or in chat rooms associated with certain partisan websites. The self-censorship and direct pressure to conform that is part of groupthink happens when those who question or disagree with the consensus are either “trolled” by other members or “unfriended.”

So what is a society like in which extreme opinions are the norm (perhaps that’s an oxymoron, as once extreme opinions become the norm, they are no longer extreme)? First of all, the platforms for expressing moderate opinions without getting attacked become fewer. Second, people actively work toward isolating themselves from others who don’t share their views, so they become even more vulnerable to being exposed mostly to biased, sometimes fake, and often extreme views. Third, consensus among the majority of members of the society becomes nearly impossible to reach because so many people belong to subgroups who not only don’t share each other’s views, but view each other as either malignant or stupid and uninformed.

We are nearing a point in our society where consensus is becoming impossible to reach. Our major test of our ability to come together and agree on a process for choosing our leaders and following that process so that everyone agrees that it is fair and equitable, even if one’s own choices were not favored by the majority, has been called into question by a significant portion of the population, and skepticism if not outright rejection of the process is recommended by many in the media. Cabinet members appointed by the president-elect are regarded by many as illegitimate.

One can counter the argument about any opinions being extreme, by pointing to the likelihood that one or another of these opinions is true (e.g. the Russians did hack just one party and it probably affected the election,; pedophilia rings among government officials or prominent celebrities have been found to exist in recent years, etc. etc. ). Every argument could be true and most contain some truth.  It is the conclusions about our country and about how to interact with our fellow citizens that are harmful when they result from points of view that are consistently biased and extreme. They are harmful because, as people become more convinced of their view and their own moral position, and more convinced of the illegitimacy and immorality of those who don’t agree with them, they are more likely to abandon the principles of democracy that have allowed differences to exist among our people without those differences threatening our society as a whole.

Many of those who are convinced that the election of Donald Trump means the resurgence of racism, anti-Semitism, or persecution because of religion or sexual orientation favor not allowing people who might favor such views to speak. They believe that the threat is so grave that the principle of freedom of speech upon which our country was founded needs to be suspended. Some of those  who believe that corrupt government officials are participating in illegal or immoral activities and using their government status to cover them up, feel that it is necessary and even morally required to expose such activities, even if the means used to do so are illegal. These views are a recipe for chaos and threaten to undermine democracy.

People need to be vigilant about government illegalities and coverups, about threats to vulnerable groups because of persecution that is sanctioned by officials who look the other way or even encourage such behavior, but there is a trend within our country for people to develop extreme views about these subjects based upon evidence promulgated by the subgroups they belong to and which they receive without skepticism. These extreme views are being used as justification for abandoning democratic principles and adherence to the constitution and the rules of law. 

There seems to be little recognition that our country cannot remain democratic if we violate its principles—even if we justify our actions by invoking extraordinary circumstances. There is also little recognition that the extraordinary circumstances we are invoking may reflect our extreme opinions, rather than reality.

 

 

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