Why overwhelming 'stupidity' and 'fragmentation' have taken over American life: psychologist

Why overwhelming 'stupidity' and 'fragmentation' have taken over American life: psychologist

During the 1980s, political journalists focused heavily on the relationship between conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan and liberal Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill — stressing that for all their disagreements, they were genuinely fond of one another and managed to find common ground. Such an alliance is hard to imagine in the deeply divided America of the 2020s. The word “tribalism” has often been used to describe the United States’ deep political and social divisions, but in an essay/think piece for The Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that the United States’ divisions are even worse than tribalism.

Haidt uses the story of Babel in the Old Testament to describe modern-day America in his article, which was published on April 11. And he certainly doesn’t mean it in a good way.

“The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit,” Haidt explains. “Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.”

Haidt continues, “It’s been clear for quite a while now that Red America and Blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.”

Technology, Haidt laments, has played a major role in the “fragmentation” of the U.S.

“Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow,” Haidt notes. “But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?”

Haidt adds, “Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital — extensive social networks with high levels of trust — strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.”

As social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter evolved in the 2010s, Haidt argues, they “trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting” — and that “encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics” as well as plenty of amplified “outrage.”

According to Haidt, “Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous…. It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust. An autocracy can deploy propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviors it desires, but a democracy depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions. Blind and irrevocable trust in any particular individual or organization is never warranted, but when citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side.”

The “ascendancy” of former President Donald Trump on the right and the “great awokening” of the left, Haidt adds, were encouraged by social media — which intensified culture-war politics and promoted “stupidity.” As Haidt sees it, “America’s key institutions” became “stupider en masse” thanks to the weaponizing of social media.

Haidt writes, “The dart guns of social media give more power and voice to the political extremes while reducing the power and voice of the moderate majority…. Political extremists don’t just shoot darts at their enemies; they spend a lot of their ammunition targeting dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team. In this way, social media makes a political system based on compromise grind to a halt…. By giving everyone a dart gun, social media deputizes everyone to administer justice with no due process.”

Haidt is critical of both the left and the right in his essay, lamenting the rise of QAnon and Trumpism on the right as well as what he views as intolerance on the left.

“The Democrats have also been hit hard by structural stupidity, though in a different way,” Haidt argues. “In the Democratic Party, the struggle between the progressive wing and the more moderate factions is open and ongoing, and often, the moderates win. The problem is that the left controls the commanding heights of the culture: universities, news organizations, Hollywood, art museums, advertising, much of Silicon Valley, and the teachers’ unions and teaching colleges that shape K–12 education. And in many of those institutions, dissent has been stifled: When everyone was issued a dart gun in the early 2010s, many left-leaning institutions began shooting themselves in the brain.”

Haidt ends his essay on an ominous note, warning that unless the U.S. finds new ways of “building trust and friendship across the political divide,” things will only get worse.

“We cannot expect Congress and the tech companies to save us,” Haiti argues. “We must change ourselves and our communities. What would it be like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? We know. It is a time of confusion and loss. But it is also a time to reflect, listen, and build.”


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