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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: tribalism

Why I've stopped writing about politics

Stephen H. Provost

My parents told me, back in the’70s, that it wasn’t smart to talk about two things in polite company: politics and religion. So, what did I do? Like any child determined to reach his own conclusions, I did the opposite: I talked about them – at least when I got old enough to know what I was talking about.

And I proved my parents wrong ... for a time.

About 20 years ago, I started a group on the now-defunct MSN Groups platform called Faiths & Reasons. The idea was to create a place for where people of different (or no) faith could exchange ideas and talk about the role reason played in their spiritual lives. It did exactly that. There were very few self-righteous rants; most people played by the rules. They enjoyed examining why they believed what they believed and hearing why others had chosen different paths.

Eight years later, MSN closed that platform, but the social climate was already starting to shift away from what had made that group a success. The openness that had been the hallmark of Faiths & Reasons was quickly being frozen out by a growing avalanche of tribalism. This trend was driven by a number of factors, not the least of which was a focus on identity at the expense of ideas.

(Forgive me now if I talk about politics for a bit; it’s kind of unavoidable in explaining why I won’t be doing it in the future!)

On the political stage, the trend toward kneejerk tribalism was reinforced by the success of Gerrymandered districts, which created seats of power safely insulated from viable challenge. When you know you’ll be elected regardless of your viewpoints, those viewpoints tend to become more extreme and self-serving. “The base” is no longer something to be courted in the primaries, it’s an altar upon which to sacrifice any principles you might have left.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham illustrates this perfectly. Once considered a man of principle, he has been exposed of late as a charlatan who hid behind principle because it was politically expedient at the time. Now, it no longer is. Trumpian lies and insults are all the vogue, so he’s adopted that approach as well. When the climate changed, so did he, admitting that his first goal had never been to uphold some high ideal, but rather to be re-elected. By whatever means necessary.

Changes such as Citizens United and the explosion of “preach to the choir” media only amplified the move toward unthinking tribalism. The end result has been to avoid talking about principle and exalt identity. This is, incidentally, why Nixon’s specter of the imperial presidency is rearing its ugly head again in a the Trumpian age. Empires aren’t about principle. They’re about the identity of the emperor. Bow down or fuck off (have your property seized and be locked away in a tower – if you’re lucky).

A new, more bitter age

Faiths & Reasons was based on the idea that people could honestly share and disagree on principles without having their identity questioned. It worked well in its time, but that time has clearly passed. For the past decade, I’ve been trying to do what I’ve always done: challenge bias – my own and others’ – through civil dialogue.

I’ve been pretty damned stubborn about it. I’ve persisted even though I’ve been called names, dismissed and accused of being sexist, bigoted, closed-minded, privileged, naïve ... the list goes on. There’s a saying that “what you tolerate will continue.” Well, folks, I’m done tolerating this. I won’t be blogging or posting much on social media about politics in the near future.

These days, anyone who claims to be speaking his or her own mind is shot down as either crazy or a liar. Case in point: GOP Rep. Justin Amash posts a detailed (for Twitter, anyway) rationale for why he believes Trump should be impeached. Trump’s response was typical of what I described above – not to mention his own crass puffery: He dismissed Amash as a “lightweight” and a “loser” only interested in “getting his name out there through controversy.”

It would be easy to say, “Well, that’s just Trump.” But it isn’t. Trump is as much a reflection of our culture as he is a builder of it, and the signs go far beyond his toxic Twitter feed.

It’s gotten so twisted that people dismiss reasoned arguments as “talking points” – while relying on their own talking points to do so! Responding to Amash’s critique, Republican Party leader Ronna McDaniel basically refused to acknowledge that he even had a brain, accusing him of merely “parroting the Democrats’ talking points on Russia.”

It’s truly Orwellian when a knee-jerk toady accuses an independent thinker of being, well, a knee-jerk toady. But this is the world we’re living in, folks. And I won’t be suckered into participating that kind of doublethink anymore.

It would be bad enough if it were just Trump and lockstep Republicans, but there are true believers on the other side who demand that people be marginalized for deviating a single syllable from the party line, assuming that such deviations, intended or not, are signs of some latent and cleverly concealed “ism.”

They may be right. But they just might be wrong, too. And in the current climate, they never pause to consider the latter possibility, because they’ve committed themselves so strongly to their position that they can’t even begin to entertain other options. Maybe they’re wrong. Or maybe the situation they see as in such absolute terms is more complicated than they want to admit.

Process, not conclusion

I’m not creating some false equivalency here. I’m not saying, as Trump did, that there are “good people on both sides” in a confrontation between civil rights advocates and white supremacists. That would be patently absurd. I’m not talking about conclusions, but the process we use to get there: Do we arrive at our conclusions through rational thought or because someone else tells us that’s how we should think? In my mind, the second method is like cheating on a test: You deserve a big fat F even if you get the right answer!

If you react based on fear and outrage rather than based on reasoned analysis, you’re part of the problem, yet that’s how more and more people are reaching their conclusions these days. That’s especially true of politics. Politicians like to talk about “working across the aisle” and “having a dialogue” on race or immigration or whatever. When positions are already firm and unyielding, a dialogue isn’t possible. What we get, instead, is a shouting match.

Both sides become determined to bargain from a position of strength and avoid sliding down a slippery slope, so they dig in their heels and nothing gets done. The current trade war is a prime example. “Compromise” has long been dismissed as a dirty word, but if that’s true, what’s the point in negotiating? Successful negotiations will always be conducted in good faith, and today, neither side has any faith in the other ... beyond the assurance that, if they give an inch, they’ll get screwed.

If this were just the way politics operated, it would be bad enough, but the tribal mentality is permeating society on nearly every level in 2019. The cycle of outrage and distrust has become locked in, as politicians and the public reinforce it – locking out any hope of rational discourse.  It’s pointless to argue about the chicken and the egg: Politicians and the public reinforce this toxic thought with each other, thereby locking out any hope of rational discourse.

Switching teams

Sports serves as an interesting parallel: People continue to root for their chosen teams, even if they adopt a whole new playing style or trade for players they previously disliked. I’ve been accused of being a fair-weather fan for switching my allegiance from the Lakers, whom I supported for years, to the Warriors because I like their players’ attitude and enjoy their style of play. Does Magic play for the Lakers anymore? Does Kareem? Jerry West? James Worthy? If they did, I’d still be a fan. But the Kobe show paled in comparison to Showtime, and I’ve never been a fan of the drama that LeBron and Lonzo bring to the table.

So, I became a Warriors fan.

Similarly, I’ve been a Republican, a Democrat and an independent, and I won’t apologize for switching affiliations when I did. In each case, it was a reflection of either my own political evolution or a party changing what it stood for – or some combination of the two. (The Republican Party of today looks nothing like what it did under Lincoln, Eisenhower or even Reagan.) I place principle and substance over assumption and identity.

But our society doesn’t view changes in position as a sign of personal growth or independence. It sees such evolution as a sign of inconsistency, hypocrisy or weakness. Or, worse, betrayal. I don’t buy that. To my way of thinking, revisiting previous decisions is one of the most courageous things a person can do, especially in an environment such as this one. I’m going to continue to do that, no matter what others may think.

Out of step

I’m a person of nuance living in a world of absolutists who have won the day through an endless barrage of fear and propaganda, with an emphasis on reinforcing their identity as part of this or that “in group.” The tribe. People who, increasingly, believe it’s better to drink the Kool-Aid than question what might be in it.

I’ll operate on their black-and-white level in one instance only: I’ll vote. Because, ultimately, I believe that’s the best way to make a difference. I’m glad it’s a secret ballot, because that means I won’t feel like I have to walk on eggshells or justify my position to those who don’t care about the reasoning behind it in the first place. That’s exhausting, and that’s why I’m out. I’m not interested in preaching to the choir, nor do I want to get blasted for refusing to echo someone else’s ideas, down to the last dotted “i” and crossed “t.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that I can make a bigger difference in other ways that have nothing to do with the tribalism that dominates the current political scene.

My parents were right, after all. I still hope we can return to a world in which sharing ideas doesn’t have to be akin to walking through a minefield, but I’m not holding my breath it will happen soon. So, for the time being, I’m removing myself from the fray.

I’ve realized that my tribe isn’t a political party or a spiritual group. It’s not the people who share my profession or my hobbies. It’s not a “movement” or an “issue.” It’s those who think the way I do, who believe in assessing ideas openly and independently, rather than simply accepting the conclusions of the powers that be.

Just as in Faiths & Reasons, I know I’ll find them in the oddest and most unexpected of places, even if they may be, in today’s climate, exceptionally rare.

Note: If you want to know what I think about politics, I’ve written about it on this site extensively in the past. Also, you’re free to pick up my book, Media Meltdown: In the Age of Trump.

We've sacrificed our principles on the altar of tribal loyalty

Stephen H. Provost

Note: I consider this is the most important essay I’ve ever written. Read it. Be pissed off. I don’t care. Someone had to say it.

Call it the “H” word: Hypocrisy.

Some days, it seems like every other post on social media condemns the opposition for this cardinal sin. It’s little wonder in an age principle has taken a back seat to tribal identity and the quest to win at any cost.

Republicans, those free-trading, anti-Russian patrons of the Moral Majority, are foursquare behind a protectionist president who adores tariffs, loves the Russians even more and breaks the commandments like they’re going out of style. Oh, and about the so-called 11th commandment, voiced by none other than GOP patron saint Ronald Wilson Reagan – “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican”? They’ve brushed that under the rug, as well, to placate a president who routinely does just that.

But it isn’t just Republicans. Democrats do it, too. Only white people can be racists, and only men can be sexists – or so they say – as though bad (and good) behavior somehow morphs into something else depending on who’s doing it.

This hypocrisy transcends party or ideology. It goes to something more fundamental: We’ve exchanged broad principles for narrow judgments that benefit us ... and to hell with everyone else. These days, we view identity, not the nature of an action, as crucial in determining whether that action is right or wrong.

Violence is wrong, but it’s OK to “punch a Nazi” – without due process (another principle we enforce selectively). A hate-crime murder is worse than another murder? Maybe it is worse to hate someone than to simply have no regard for that person’s life, but tell that to the guy who just lost his daughter to the robber who shot her in the head because he wanted her purse.

Oh, and by the way, it’s just fine to condemn things like assaulting women and defaming your enemies, as long as their guy is doing it. When it’s your guy, you try to ignore it, make excuses and, if none of that works, flip the script by blaming the victim.

Whither the Golden Rule?

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”* Remember that one? It’s part of Jesus’ Greatest Hits, probably the lead track on Side 1. Confucius, Seneca the Younger of Rome and Hillel the Elder in the Talmud (among others) all said something similar, so you can’t beg off by dismissing it as Christian dogma. A whole lot of non-Christian folks have said the same thing.

Under this principle, if someone treats a white person unfairly, it’s just as bad as if someone treats a black person cruelly – because it isn’t the victim’s identity that matters. The behavior is cruel no matter who the victim is. Bringing the victim’s identity into it takes the focus off of the behavior, which is where it should be.

This is what apologists for sexual assault try to do, too. These sleazeballs say the victim was “asking for it” by dressing “too provocatively.” They flip the script, attempting to make victims responsible for an act of violence committed against them, because of the victim’s identity. As a woman. As someone who has the audacity to express some degree of individuality and expect not to be assaulted for it. Imagine that.

When we condemn people based on identity rather than action, we strike at the heart of principles – like the pursuit of happiness and freedom of expression – that this country was founded on. When we abandon principle for the sake of identity, those principles get discarded, too. What’s left is a dictatorship, or the building blocks of one.

But people are scared to death of invoking principles because they know it can come back to bite them. What if they have skeletons in their own closet? It’s much safer to demonize (or canonize) someone else based on his or her identity than it is to invoke a broad principle that can – perish the thought – be applied to little old you.

Political precedent

Politicians get away with this all the time. Case in point: Republicans who refused to vote on a Supreme Court candidate nominated by a Democratic president for nearly a year, saw nothing wrong with trying to force a hasty vote on an unpopular Republican nominee facing serious questions about his character.

But when principles are thrown out the window, character goes right along with them. Identity is what’s important. This guy is a Republican nominee. He’s golden, regardless of what he might have done. That Democratic guy? We had to block him because he was a Democrat. Republicans are doing the same thing in defending the current president against ethical charges after impeaching a Democratic president facing ethical charges of his own – a president whom, naturally, Democrats defended because he was a Democrat.

Loyalty is valued over conscience, and winning is esteemed more highly than playing by the rules. So much for what we used to teach our children: “It’s how you play the game.”

When you have no principles, its easy to argue that principles should be invoked selectively, because they’re no longer important in their own right. They’re weapons to be employed in fallacious arguments to destroy the opposition. But the more they’re used in this way, the less credibility they have. People aren’t stupid. They see what these politicians are trying to do, and they don’t like it.

The unfortunate byproduct of this, however, is that the principles themselves become tarnished because of how they’re (mis)used. When principle no longer carries any weight in an argument, people turn to something that does: identity politics. The term is most often associated with the left and conversations about race, but it’s far bigger than that. The right does it just as much and, sometimes, even more blatantly, dismissing anything negative as a product of the opposition’s “fake news” machine.

The right demonizes the mainstream media, regardless of whether the reporting is principled and the content is accurate. The left, meanwhile, demonizes white males, regardless of whether they’re advocates for equal rights or anti-immigrant, chauvinist pigs. What we don’t want to look at here is the fact that both sides are engaged in the same behavior: They’re putting identity ahead of principle.

The Fallout

This is how we get things we say we hate: things like negative campaigning and officeholders who refuse to apologize for anything they’ve ever done, no matter how questionable or even heinous. This is why we have to have a #MeToo movement instead of a society that respects women from the get-go. It’s why neo-Nazis feel emboldened and some people feel like it’s OK to pop them one: because we’ve abandoned our principles.

We’d rather demonize than apologize, because “the other’s” identity as our enemy is more important than our own principles. This is how armies behave during wartime: They churn out biased propaganda and dehumanize the enemy, so a soldier’s conscience – the seat of those principles – doesn’t get in the way of killing. The fact that we’re doing this during peacetime, against our own fellow citizens, illustrates just what’s happening to us.

We’re not just hypocrites, we’re heartless ones.

This is what happens when we mortgage our principles on the altar of our bitterness for the sake of mere convenience. If this is the kind of identity we want as individuals, or as a nation, history will judge us a colossal failure.

* Note: I like to add “if you were in their shoes” to this principle.

Read more political essays by Stephen H. Provost in Media Meltdown, available on Amazon.