Notes for a Workshop on Polarization
Trying to solve the problem of polarizing discourse
People differ in their beliefs. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
No one person has a monopoly on knowledge. If we have a good process for generating, testing and validating beliefs, then we can start from differences in beliefs and end up with a higher state of knowledge. Jonathan Rauch calls such a process “the Constitution of Knowledge.” Differences in beliefs are a good thing if we sort them out using a process that embodies empiricism and liberal values.
But differences in beliefs are associated with friction, antipathy, and tribalism. People come to see the solution as defeating those on the other side rather than engaging with them. If our discourse is dominated by tribal antagonism, then the benefits of differences get swamped by the costs.
Polarized discourse turns differences into a bad thing. Constructive discourse turns differences into a good thing.
For example, take the topic of critical race theory. CRT can be talked about in polarized terms, with one side accused of being Marxists and the other side accused of being racists.
Alternatively, CRT can be talked about constructively. Along the lines of the Fantasy Intellectual Teams project, the first task would be to articulate CRT as a proposition, or a set of propositions. Before arguing about whether CRT has merit, we should try to arrive at a common understanding of what CRT actually says.
So the first step in discussing beliefs constructively is to articulate those beliefs as propositions. Then we can proceed to undertake the exercises that score points in Fantasy Intellectual Teams:
When interacting with someone on our own side, instead of offering only support and encouragement, sometimes play devil’s Advocate, testing your friend’s ability to deal with an opposing argument.
Think in Bets. When making estimates or forecasts, assign probabilities to possible outcomes.
Articulate Caveats. The classic example is supporting free speech but not for yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
Engage in Debate. Have a polite back-and-forth argument with someone from the other side.
Demonstrate an Open mind. Articulate conditions under which you would change your view on a topic.
Evaluate Research in a neutral way, meaning that you are at least as skeptical of studies that support your point of view as you are of studies that undermine it.
Steel-man the other side. Try to overcome the strongest arguments for the opposing position. Do not just set up a simplistic caricature of the other side to knock down.
Why do we have so much polarized discourse and so little constructive discourse? Many causes:
more pronounced social stratification
decline of other social bonds, such as religious affiliation
psychological effects of social media
erosion of norms in legacy media and academia
exaggeration of threat posed by the other side
militants crowd out moderates (parallels with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict)
other. . .
Try to restore mainstream journalism and academia to their 20th-century status, or try to replace them with new institutions?
Are elites too powerful or not powerful enough? Are they too numerous or too narrow?
Has our polity become too centralized or too fragmented?
Should we be rooting for big tech to evade government, submit to more government control, or partner with government?
I wonder if, in addition to the factors listed, we've moved up a Maslovian hierarchy of social issues, now grappling with tougher coordination problems.
It's simple to ban disposal of toxic sludge in a river; decarbonizing requires much broader buy-in. Same with desegregation vs. a stronger version of racial justice. COVID mask wearing and restrictions are similarly externality-laden.
Collective action problems seem to be polarizing, conducive to a sense of "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."
While I agree with Arnold's enlightened view of argumentation based on the merits, it seems that polarized people dispute the merits of the process itself. Thus, reasoned debate itself becomes difficult. For example, on the left, those who believe in CRT also believe that free speech - an element of reasoned debate - is itself racist, and so refuse to engage in debate. An example on the right is the notion of "alternative facts," that is, the merits of patent falsehoods. How does one have a rational discussion with someone who doesn't believe in rational discussion or who won't acknowledge demonstrable facts?