Tolerance & tribes

This older piece, I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup, recently did another round of internet popularity (the comments on HN are interesting). Some excerpts:

The Emperor summons before him Bodhidharma and asks: Master, I have been tolerant of innumerable gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, transgender people, and Jews. How many Virtue Points have I earned for my meritorious deeds?”

Bodhidharma answers: None at all”.

The Emperor, somewhat put out, demands to know why.

Bodhidharma asks: Well, what do you think of gay people?”

The Emperor answers: What do you think I am, some kind of homophobic bigot? Of course I have nothing against gay people!”

And Bodhidharma answers: Thus do you gain no merit by tolerating them!”

In other words, unless you’re tolerating someone whom you genuinely find repugnant, you aren’t actually practicing tolerance.

And as the next point makes clear, most of those praising their own tolerance are unlikely to even know a single person who actually thinks differently than they do:

There are certain theories of dark matter where it barely interacts with the regular world at all, such that we could have a dark matter planet exactly co-incident with Earth and never know. Maybe dark matter people are walking all around us and through us, maybe my house is in the Times Square of a great dark matter city, maybe a few meters away from me a dark matter blogger is writing on his dark matter computer about how weird it would be if there was a light matter person he couldn’t see right next to him.

This is sort of how I feel about conservatives.

I don’t mean the sort of light-matter conservatives who go around complaining about Big Government and occasionally voting for Romney. I see those guys all the time. What I mean is — well, take creationists. According to Gallup polls, about 46% of Americans are creationists. Not just in the sense of believing God helped guide evolution. I mean they think evolution is a vile atheist lie and God created humans exactly as they exist right now. That’s half the country.

And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2^150 = 1/10^45 = approximately the chance of picking a particular atom if you are randomly selecting among all the atoms on Earth.

And thus tolerance became tribal:

The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to everything except country”.

(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk — but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)

I think these tribes” will turn out to be even stronger categories than politics. Harvard might skew 80-20 in terms of Democrats vs. Republicans, 90-10 in terms of liberals vs. conservatives, but maybe 99-1 in terms of Blues vs. Reds.

It’s the many, many differences between these tribes that explain the strength of the filter bubble — which have I mentioned segregates people at a strength of 1/10^45? Even in something as seemingly politically uncharged as going to California Pizza Kitchen or Sushi House for dinner, I’m restricting myself to the set of people who like cute artisanal pizzas or sophsticated foreign foods, which are classically Blue Tribe characteristics.

Are these tribes based on geography? Are they based on race, ethnic origin, religion, IQ, what TV channels you watched as a kid? I don’t know.

People don’t care about ideological consistency. They care about signaling and belonging to their respective tribes:

The worst reaction I’ve ever gotten to a blog post was when I wrote about the death of Osama bin Laden. I’ve written all sorts of stuff about race and gender and politics and whatever, but that was the worst.

I didn’t come out and say I was happy he was dead. But some people interpreted it that way, and there followed a bunch of comments and emails and Facebook messages about how could I possibly be happy about the death of another human being, even if he was a bad person? Everyone, even Osama, is a human being, and we should never rejoice in the death of a fellow man. One commenter came out and said:

I’m surprised at your reaction. As far as people I casually stalk on the internet (ie, LJ and Facebook), you are the first out of the intelligent, reasoned and thoughtful” group to be uncomplicatedly happy about this development and not to be, say, disgusted at the reactions of the other 90% or so.

This commenter was right. Of the intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people I knew, the overwhelming emotion was conspicuous disgust that other people could be happy about his death. I hastily backtracked and said I wasn’t happy per se, just surprised and relieved that all of this was finally behind us.

And I genuinely believed that day that I had found some unexpected good in people — that everyone I knew was so humane and compassionate that they were unable to rejoice even in the death of someone who hated them and everything they stood for.

Then a few years later, Margaret Thatcher died. And on my Facebook wall — made of these same intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people — the most common response was to quote some portion of the song Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead”. Another popular response was to link the videos of British people spontaneously throwing parties in the street, with comments like I wish I was there so I could join in”. From this exact same group of people, not a single expression of disgust or a c’mon, guys, we’re all human beings here.”

I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous”.

This has profound implications for how we should approach dialogue:

  1. There’s very little point in arguing about truth or facts as they won’t change many peoples’ minds.
  2. The media and, really, all of us have a responsibility to not tribalize things. Us vs. them thinking makes it incredibly hard for anyone to change his or her mind. So if you find yourself thinking that people who disagree with are idiots, take pause.
  3. Loosening various tribal identities, widening their scope, and moving them to things that basically don’t matter such as sports teams, iOS vs. Android (ok, just kidding, I really don’t get Android people) are a net benefit.
  4. There’s value in seeking out true ideological diversity, and it’s often hiding in plain sight.
  5. American media and tech companies have made a fortune off of building tribal identities and then pitting them against one another. Due to the dominance of American culture around the world, this is having a negative effect everywhere.