I read your piece on Kevin Williamson and marginalization yesterday. What the commenter Zapollo said re: his feeling of marginalization as a non-privileged white guy in America is eerily similar to thoughts that have gone through my own mind.
One of the things that’s really pushed me in the conservative direction is the sense of constant surveillance of speech and action – not by authorities or the government, but by other ordinary people. People reference 1984 all the time in this context, but what I think a lot of people forget one of Orwell’s key themes in the novel. The most immediate threat to people’s ability to speak freely in the story isn’t the Thought Police themselves. It’s the ubiquitous presence of informers among one’s friends, family, and acquaintances; there are several references to how adults can’t even speak their minds around their own children for fear that the kids will run off and report them to the police. The constant lack of trust in that fictional society in other people is one of the most powerful forces in stopping any sort of concerted effort at resistance.
I’m a mid-20’s white male myself, and I see that kind of dynamic all the time. The really egregious cases where the Twitter mob goes national like with Damore, Williamson, the Fresno state professor, etc. are uncommon relative to the actual number of “offenses” in the eyes of the mob, but the ever-lurking possibility that you could end up on the receiving end of that kind of treatment is enough to make you watch your step. As a case in point, the university where I work has a Facebook page where people can post stupid / funny things they’ve overheard at the school, with huge numbers of followers. Some of it’s just dumb stuff, like frat brothers talking about how to get high, but a quick scan of it last night showed more than one cases where people were getting quoted as allegedly mansplaining, being sexist, etc. What’s more, multiple posts are accompanied by photographs of the people being overheard, including pictures taken from behind people showing private stuff they were reading or doing on their laptops.
More than one of these pictures are distinct enough that the offender could easily be identified by people who knew him / her. And this isn’t restricted just to my university; you can search on Google and find similar pages for other schools.
The same pattern gets repeated elsewhere on social media. I’ve seen businesses accused of being racist on dubious grounds (like taking a long time to serve a black couple on a one-time basis with an all-new staff, as if restaurants never had bad service due to incompetence) on Facebook and having to do public penance to avoid losing business, offering the aggrieved free food, promises of amendment, etc. This kind of stuff I’m describing doesn’t go viral, but it’s obvious that being photographed reading Breitbart News while talking about trans people, or being accused of racism in a blue town, can have real (if not devastating) negative impacts on people. And the scary thing is that there’s virtually no consequences for engaging in this kind of mob behavior. A men’s rights activist might send despicable abuse to a feminist writer, but he knows that if he actually did carry out a rape threat, he’d face a prison sentence. An aggrieved left-winger can start a campaign to get someone fired and know that she’ll face absolutely no consequences for doing so, whether the campaign works or not.
Over time, the accumulation of little stuff like this starts adding up in your mind. For white males who aren’t inclined to engage in metaphorical self-castration every time they engage in a fraught discussion with a woman, person of color, etc., there’s a strong temptation to push back against this kind of thing by reacting in an equally extreme way by joining something like the alt-right. Leftists who respond to this kind of statement by observing that white males still hold enormous amounts of power in our society are missing the point. Of course they do. Marginalization doesn’t have to take the form of stripping people of all power (like access to capital or political influence). If members of one group can face severe personal consequences for criticizing the ideology or behavior of another group, and the same isn’t true vice-versa, then the first group is marginalized relative to the second, regardless of what other power the first group might have.
The coup de grace of all of it is the intellectual dishonesty the Left displays in denying that this sort of thing is going on at all, even when they know it is. I personally know someone involved in the selection committee for a TEDx conference who once remarked to me that regardless of the merits of the individual speakers, the committee would reject people on account of their (white) race if that was needed to achieve a diverse panel. The very same person scoffs at the idea that there’s any sort of institutional discrimination against white males. Were I not a solidly observant Christian, such that the vacuum of needing an identity was already filled, I would be strongly tempted towards something like the hard right myself. And based on Zapollo’s comments, I doubt very much that I’m alone in that.
Pinker’s argument is more sophisticated than some caricatures of it would have you believe. In particular, he recognizes the big kink in his famously optimistic take on the future:
Though reason can help us solve the problems facing humankind, our species isn’t great at reasoning. We have “cognitive biases”—like, for example, confirmation bias, which inclines us to notice and welcome evidence that supports our views and to not notice, or reject, evidence at odds with them. Remember how unseasonably warm it was a few months ago? The answer may depend on your position on the climate change question—and that fact makes it hard to change people’s minds about climate change and thus build the consensus needed to address the problem.
Pinker also understands that cognitive biases can be activated by tribalism. “We all identify with particular tribes or subcultures,” he notes—and we’re all drawn to opinions that are favored by the tribe.
So far so good: These insights would seem to prepare the ground for a trenchant analysis of what ails the world—certainly including what ails an America now famously beset by political polarization, by ideological warfare that seems less and less metaphorical.
But Pinker’s treatment of the psychology of tribalism falls short, and it does so in a surprising way. He pays almost no attention to one of the first things that springs to mind when you hear the word “tribalism.” Namely: People in opposing tribes don’t like each other. More than Pinker seems to realize, the fact of tribal antagonism challenges his sunny view of the future and calls into question his prescriptions for dispelling some of the clouds he does see on the horizon.
I’m not talking about the obvious downside of tribal antagonism—the way it leads nations to go to war or dissolve in civil strife, the way it fosters conflict along ethnic or religious lines. I do think this form of antagonism is a bigger problem for Pinker’s thesis than he realizes, but that’s a story for another day. For now the point is that tribal antagonism also poses a subtler challenge to his thesis. Namely, it shapes and drives some of the cognitive distortions that muddy our thinking about critical issues; it warps reason.