Scott Alexander is a U.S. psychiatrist and proprietor of Slate Star Codex, which he describes as “a blog about science, medicine, philosophy, politics, and futurism.” He considers himself a moderate liberal. In a recent post entitled Neutral vs. Conservative: The Eternal Struggle, he discussed Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology, an article published by David Roberts on Vox, the burden of which was that truth, justice, and moral rectitude are all under assault thanks to the rise of ideological tribalism on the right. In Roberts’ words,
Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one…Now tribal epistemology has found its way to the White House…
Conservative media… profits from… a constant state of mobilized outrage.
This is the culmination of the right’s long campaign against media: a base that only trusts tribal news from tribal sources.
I suspect that if Roberts seriously expects us to believe that the traditional media don’t (or at least didn’t used to) support leftist tribal values and goals, that it is uncommon for leftist ideologues to be in a constant state of mobilized outrage, and that leftists commonly seek sources of news outside of their usual echo chambers, then clearly he has a pair of tribalist blinkers ensconced firmly at the end of his own nose. Of course we all do. We are a profoundly tribalist species, perceiving the world in terms of just and good ingroups and evil and deplorable outgroups. But that’s beside the point. The point is that Roberts suffers from the delusion that he’s somehow immune to tribalism. In fact, however, he wears the insignia of his tribe on his sleeve.
The article is full of ideologically slanted claims about conservative delusions spawned by conservative media misinformation. Roberts clearly lacks even an elementary capacity to detect the slant in his own sources. To give just one example among the many, he cites “studies” according to which Fox viewers are more misinformed than those who rely on the traditional media. Even a cursory glance at the things they are misinformed about reveals that they are carefully chosen to insure that conservatives are more prone to “delusions.” For example, they were more likely to believe that “’weapons of mass destruction’ had been found in (Iraq) after the U.S. invasion, when they hadn’t,” they “were less likely to say the Earth’s temperature has been rising and less likely to attribute this temperature increase to human activities,” and were liable of a host of false beliefs about Obamacare. I could easily stand these studies on their heads by simply loading the questions with bits cherry-picked from the narratives of the Left instead of the Right. For example, the questions might include, “Are there significant differences in intelligence between different human ethnic groups?” “Is human biodiversity real and significant?” “According to Muslim teaching will most Christians burn in hell forever or not, and are women inferior to men or not?” “Did Michael Brown have his hands up and shout ‘don’t shoot’ when he was killed?” “Was Hillary Clinton’s use of private computer resources to handle official government business a significant violation of federal regulations and the law?” And so on.
Roberts goes on to promote doubling down on his tribe’s warfare against its conservative outgroup under the rubric of a return to the “traditional” techniques of supplying the public with information, concluding with the grim comment that,
There’s no other choice. In the end, if tribal epistemology wins, journalism loses.
I have news for Roberts. Tribal epistemology won a long time ago. All the evils he wrings his hands about are the inevitable result of marginalizing and vilifying the tribe that lost.
Which brings us back to our “moderate” leftist, Scott Alexander. Alexander doesn’t disagree with Roberts about tribalism on the right. He just prefers a different approach to dealing with it. He is St. Francis to Roberts’ Torquemada, if you will. He would rather bring erring conservatives back to the True Faith with a kid glove rather than an iron fist. For example, he suggests that some of the “studies” Roberts relies on to portray conservatives as deplorable might conceivably be affected by a liberal bias. He even admits that mainstream media outlets like CNN “lean liberal,” but claims they are not as liberal as Fox is conservative. That’s debatable. You can demonstrate that to yourself by simply turning on CNN every half hour or so over any six hour period. I can pretty much guarantee that the majority of time, and probably the vast majority of the time, you will be watching something that reflects negatively on Trump. Fox certainly opposed Obama, but was never as afflicted with single-minded hatred as CNN. Alexander thinks that CNN’s bogus pretense of neutrality is a feature, not a bug. I beg to differ. I prefer a news outlet that is open about its agenda to one that blatantly lies about it.
As we read further into the post, we find Alexander painting a rosy picture of the past. He tells us that there was once some kind of a Golden Age when, “the two parties had much more in common, and (were) able to appeal to shared gatekeeper institutions that both trusted.” Maybe, but it must have been long before my time. Now, however, all that has changed. In his words, “Right now, the neutral gatekeeper institutions have tried being biased against conservatives.” I rather think that “the neutral gatekeeper institutions have tried being biased against conservatives” for a lot longer than he imagines. Conservatives just weren’t as effective in pushing back then as they are now. Among other things, they lacked the means to do so. Now they have the means. Both Roberts and Alexander agree that this is a deplorable situation. They concur that the outgroup, the “other” tribe is evil, and must be defanged. This ingroup/outgroup aspect of human nature, what Robert Ardrey called the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” should already be familiar to readers of this blog. The process by which Alexander manages to convince himself that the “other” is, indeed, evil is interesting in itself. He begins by continuing with his “kid glove” approach, debunking Roberts’ claim that, “the right has not sought greater fairness in mainstream institutions; it has defected to create its own,” rightly noting that,
This is a bizarre claim, given the existence of groups like Accuracy in Media, Media Research Center, Newsbusters, Heterodox Academy, et cetera, which are all about the right seeking greater fairness in mainstream institutions, some of which are almost fifty years old… The way I remember it, conservatives spent about thirty years alternatively pleading, demanding, suing, legislating, and literally praying for greater fairness in mainstream institutions, and it was basically all just hitting their heads against a brick wall. They then defected to create their own.
However, “creating their own” turned out to be the original sin.Here’s how Alexander describes the process:
A couple of years ago, Reddit decided to ban various undesirables and restrict discussion of offensive topics. A lot of users were really angry about this, and some of them set up a Reddit clone called Voat which promised that everyone was welcome regardless of their opinion.
What happened was – a small percent of average Reddit users went over, lured by curiosity or a principled commitment to free speech. And also, approximately 100% of Reddit’s offensive undesirables went there, lured by the promise of being able to be terrible and get away with it.
Even though Voat’s rules were similar to Reddit’s rules before the latter tightened its moderation policies, Voat itself was nothing like pre-tightening Reddit. I checked to see whether it had gotten any better in the last year, and I found the top three stories were:
SJW Awareness is a Steam curator that warns you about SJW games.
Africans describe their extortion schemes. They put babies in ovens and hot showers. They’re now migrating to EU.
“The Phantom,” and black serial killer who targeted blond haired white children, has been freed from prison and roaming streets of same city he terrorized.
The moral of the story is: if you’re against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.
In the first place, this is anecdotal evidence.In the second, at least two of the above blurbs are true. If Alexander doesn’t think that there are video games that come drenched in crude leftist propaganda, he must not have played many video games. If he did, he probably wouldn’t be too annoyed at discovering that his game was actually a leftist morality play in disguise, but some people are. As can be confirmed on Google, a black serial killer who targeted blonde haired white children actually was freed from prison in the same city where he committed his crimes. I would certainly deem this information useful if I had young children and the killer was released in my neighborhood. It would seem, then, that Alexander doesn’t think Voat is a “terrible place to live” because it is full of lies. Rather, its “seven zillion witches” are publishing truths that clash with Alexander’s preferred narrative, and he equates truth that clash with his narrative as evil.
After supplying us with this somewhat shaky evidence that Voat is inhabited by witches, Alexander reaches the dubious conclusion that all other right-leaning media outlets must therefore also be inhabited almost exclusively by witches as well. For example, it turns out that Fox was the unholy spawn of a similar process:
FOX’s slogans are “Fair and Balanced”, “Real Journalism”, and “We Report, You Decide”. They were pushing the “actually unbiased media” angle hard. I don’t know if this was ever true, or if people really believed it. It doesn’t matter. By attracting only the refugees from a left-slanted system, they ensured they would end up not just with conservatives, but with the worst and most extreme conservatives.
No doubt Alexander would find anyone who kicked at the ideological planks that form the box his tribe lives in “bad” and “extreme.”He challenges some of the more crudely biased “studies” cited by Roberts, but doesn’t neglect to virtue signal to his readers that “Fox is horrible.” Noting that Breitbart, Drudge, and the rest are just as horrible, he adds,
I think it’s right that this situation is horrible and toxic and destroying the country, and it’s really good that someone has pointed this out and framed it this clearly.
I don’t see it that way. I could care less whether Alexander’s tribe considers Fox and the rest “horrible.” They’re either making a moral judgment that lacks any legitimate basis and is nothing more significant than an expression of their emotional whims, or they’re suggesting that these alternative media do not supply useful information, which is false. The mainstream media will occasionally lie or manipulate facts to alter their meaning. Usually, however, they simply suppress any news that doesn’t fit their narrative. Conservative media supply these often significant facts, which are only “horrible” because they contradict that narrative. As a result, the United States has a more genuinely free press than many other countries where similarly powerful and influential alternatives are lacking.
For example, I happen to follow the German media fairly closely. They have no equivalent of Fox, and to an outside observer the media there are as similar to each other as so many peas in a pod, all flogging almost exactly the same political line when it comes to any issue of overriding significance. Among other things, this vanilla approach to journalism convinces citizens that they are much better informed than they actually are. When it comes to the United States, for example, they are fed a dumbed down version of the U.S. mainstream media narrative, typically much cruder and more extreme than anything you’ll find in this country. That’s exactly what we would have here lacking credible alternatives like Fox, Breitbart, Drudge, Instapundit, etc., whether Alexander imagines they’re full of scary witches or not. Alexander concludes his article with the following three paragraphs:
Look. I read Twitter. I know the sorts of complaints people have about this blog. I’m some kind of crypto-conservative, I’m a traitor to liberalism, I’m too quick to sell out under the guise of “compromise”. And I understand the sentiment. I write a lot about how we shouldn’t get our enemies fired lest they try to fire us, how we shouldn’t get our enemies’ campus speakers disinvited lest they try to disinvite ours, how we shouldn’t use deceit and hyperbole to push our policies lest our enemies try to push theirs the same way. And people very reasonably ask – hey, I notice my side kind of controls all of this stuff, the situation is actually asymmetrical, they have no way of retaliating, maybe we should just grind our enemies beneath our boots this one time.
And then when it turns out that the enemies can just leave and start their own institutions, with horrendous results for everybody, the cry goes up “Wait, that’s unfair! Nobody ever said you could do that! Come back so we can grind you beneath our boots some more!”
Conservatives aren’t stuck in here with us. We’re stuck in here with them. And so far it’s not going so well. I’m not sure if any of this can be reversed. But I think maybe we should consider to what degree we are in a hole, and if so, to what degree we want to stop digging.
I agree that leftists like Roberts and Alexander are in a hole, but they can’t stop digging. Their ideology constrains them to keep those shovels flying. The only real way to stop would involve them challenging their own ideological preconceptions. However, their tribe is defined by ideology, so to challenge the ideology would mean ostracism – banishment from the tribe. Alexander admits he has already been denounced as a traitor and a sellout merely for advocating a milder approach. The lightening is poised to strike even though he hasn’t dared to lay so much as a finger on the fundamental shibboleths of his ingroup. There is no significant ideological difference at all between Roberts and Alexander. They only differ on how to guide the erring sheep back into the fold of the True Faith. That’s the problem. To actually stop digging, the leftists would have to admit that they may not be 100% right all the time, and that the conservatives may actually be right about some things. They can’t do that because of the way they define membership in their ingroup. It would be something like St. Francis (or Torquemada) admitting that Christianity is mostly true, but the pagans might have a point about the existence of some of their gods. If the leftists, who are anything but “neutral,” want to lay down their shovels, the only solution is to leave their ingroup. However, it is usually very painful and traumatic for members of our species to do that. They’re likely to be down there a good, long time.